Clemson and South Carolina are approaching a showdown of historic proportions, which makes the timing of a book detailing the history of the 115-year-old Palmetto State football feud just about perfect.
Larry Williams and Travis Haney, two former college beat writers for The Augusta Chronicle, collaborated to write A State of Disunion: Classic Clashes of the Carolina-Clemson Football Rivalry. It is the perfect resource for arming both sides with a fresh perspective on long-standing animosity.
“I have a pretty good background in the rivalry going back to the early ’80s,” said Williams, a South Carolina alumnus who has been covering Clemson since he left the Chronicle in 2003. “And 80 percent of what’s in this book I didn’t know before I started writing about it.”
By researching school archives and newspaper microfilm and interviewing many of the central figures on both sides of the rivalry, Williams and Haney have brought to life a culture clash that Clemson’s director of athletics Terry Don Phillips calls “nasty” in the introduction. The roots of the impacted hatred and natural antagonism existed before the two schools played football for the first time on Nov. 12, 1896.
In fact, a prominent Edgefield, S.C., man was the first to fan the flames of the feud before Clemson even existed. Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman oversaw the founding of Clemson on behalf of the state’s farmers who were frustrated by the “elites” in Columbia over the misuse of land-grant funds. The creation of Clemson in 1889 harshly impacted South Carolina, which was downgraded from university to college status after losing its agricultural program and the federal funds that went with it.
Tillman, who went on to become South Carolina’s governor and a U.S. Senator, even tried to shutter the school in Columbia permanently.
So by the time football came along, the violent game just added fuel to the bitterness that has sustained more than 100 years with intermittent brawls, a brief suspension of hostilities and the constant hurling of epithets like “Taters” and “Chickens” among otherwise friendly neighbors.
As much as you think you might know about the history of the hatred dating back to those “Big Thursday” clashes during State Fair week, this book fills in all the rich details. It chronicles milestone moments going back to that first meeting in 1896 at the fairgrounds on Elmwood Avenue when South Carolina’s Jaguars beat Clemson’s not-yet-Tigers 12-6 in front of 2,000 fans who paid 25 cents for tickets.
The book details the near riot between Clemson’s cadets and South Carolina students after the 1902 game that prompted a seven-year ban of the series and led the Gamecocks to actually disband its program for the 1906 season. It tells about the legislative intervention that saved the 1952 game. It presents context for the ugly on-field brawl in 2004 that caused both schools to withdraw from bowl consideration.
Williams and Haney even included dueling introductions by South Carolina’s Tommy Suggs and Clemson’s Charlie Whitehurst who share the rare distinction of never losing to the other school during their tenures as players. Whitehurst, a Georgia native, illustrates how the rivalry even sucks in transplants, calling his career sweep against the Gamecocks “the four best days of my life.”
State of Disunion is filled with great quotes from participants like this one from former Clemson tight end Keith Jennings: “I hate to bash (the Gamecocks), but I don’t associate them with winning.”
It has essential facts like the origin of the term “Chicken Curse” and Clemson’s famous all- orange uniforms that debuted in 1980.
The most surprising aspect of the research to Williams was finding out just how big Big Thursday really was before 1960 when Clemson’s legendary coach Frank Howard initiated the end-of-season, home-and-home series it is today alternating between Williams-Brice and Death Valley.
“I’d always heard about it but dismissed it as not a big deal,” said Williams. “But when you look back it was major.”
The highlight of State Fair week was part fashion show and part political posturing, with the governor usually attending and ceremonially switching sides at halftime.
One of the most entertaining chapters is about the 1946 postwar “Sardine Bowl” when a counterfeit ticket scandal caused thousands of fans to storm the gate. So many fans packed the sidelines with nowhere to sit that Howard wrote in his memoir that vendors were selling Cokes between him and the sideline. That set the stage for halftime when three Clemson students ran onto the field and killed a rooster, triggering a melee that was only stopped by one of the bands playing the national anthem.
Colorful tales of fights and pranks add depth to the bitterness. There was the fake newspaper distributed by Gamecocks fans claiming Clemson coaching idol Danny Ford was leaving for Alabama; the tiger paws painted onto Gamecocks head coach Brad Scott’s driveway; the derisive IPTAY bumper stickers in 1982 that read “It’s Probation Time Again, Y’all;” the repeated 1981 interruptions in Williams-Brice to clear the field of oranges hurled by celebrating Tiger fans.
The best gag of all dominates the chapter on the 1961 game when South Carolina’s Sigma Nu fraternity borrowed Orangeburg High’s uniforms and impersonated Clemson running onto the field to cheers and the strains of Tiger Rag. Only when they started doing The Twist was the ruse revealed, inspiring yet another brawl that delayed the start of the game.
The details are abundant, and the authors are finding out just how important they are. When Williams posted a picture of the book’s cover on a Clemson message board, the response wasn’t entirely anticipated.
“Some people said, ‘You got the title wrong; Clemson needs to be first because we’ve dominated them,’” Williams said, pointing out the publisher added the names alphabetically. “It underscored a fact instantly that this is what a rivalry is and little things become big things to people.”
The book’s release (available to order at www.stateofdisunionbook.com) comes before one of the most anticipated of 109 meetings. Only four times before have both Clemson and South Carolina been ranked when they met (2000, 1987-88 and 1979) and this marks the second time both the Tigers (No. 7) and Gamecocks (14) are among the top 15. Clemson holds a 65-39-4 overall lead in the series, but the Gamecocks have won two in a row and have a chance to win three in a row for the first time since 1968-70.
“It’s in people’s consciousness earlier than normal,” said Williams, whose book preserves the record for the next generation of rivals to understand where it all started.