Originally created 11/21/02

It all began on Big Thursday



Looking for the recipe for a successful college football game?

Take two bitter rivals, mix together with a state fair, and play it on a weekday afternoon.

Big Thursday, the game that pitted Clemson against South Carolina from 1896 to 1959, was all that and more.

"A combination of a country picnic, Old Home Week, a state fair and a Roman holiday" was how Wilton Garrison, former sports editor of The Charlotte Observer, once described Big Thursday.

The game was unique because it was played on a weekday long before the lure of television money created matchups held outside of the traditional Saturday. Big Thursday also brought the state to a standstill, with people from all over South Carolina descending on Columbia for the annual event.

And even though the Gamecocks and Tigers square off for the 100th time this Saturday, it is hard to imagine a game these days that invokes more passion than those Big Thursday meetings that spanned more than six decades.

In the beginning

The game began almost as an afterthought. Football was a relatively new sport in 1896, and promoters of the state fair billed the game as one of the top attractions.

The first game was held at the old fair grounds on Elmwood Avenue in Columbia. Kickoff was scheduled for early in the day so the game would not interfere with horse races to be held later that day. South Carolina won the initial contest, 12-6.

The Tigers rebounded to win the next four meetings, and the game was not held in 1901. The meeting in 1902, however, proved to be memorable for events on the field and off.

Under the direction of coach John Heisman, the Tigers were heavy favorites to defeat the Gamecocks. In three years, Clemson had lost only one game and was expected to steamroll South Carolina.

But, as often is the case with rivalry games, the records were of little consequence. Guy Gunter scored a pair of touchdowns to give South Carolina a 12-0 lead, then the Gamecocks withstood a furious Clemson rally to get the improbable victory.

South Carolina's fans, exuberant with the win, used the occasion to show off a transparency of a Gamecock crowing over a Tiger, which did not sit well with the visitors from the Upstate.

At a parade scheduled for the Friday night after the game, the image was once again put on display as South Carolina students refused requests to not exhibit it.

That's when tempers got out of hand, as Don Barton wrote in his book Big Thursdays & Super Saturdays:

"Following the parade the Clemson cadets were dismissed near the Capitol building, which left them only a short walk from the Carolina campus.

"They quickly marched to the Sumter Street entrance to the campus, bayonets and swords in readiness, while a small band of Carolina students crouched behind hastily arranged defenses at the old walls."

At that point assistant coach Christie Benet, according to published reports, spoke up for the South Carolina contingency. He even offered to fight any Clemson student to settle the matter.

Instead of violence, though, calmer heads prevailed, an agreement was reached, and the transparency was destroyed.

The ill feelings between the two schools remained, and no game was held for the next six years.

Strange events

When the two schools resumed playing each other in 1909, the annual game would not be interrupted again. Not even World War I or World War II could come between them.

Of the 57 games in the series, the loser was shut out a total of 28 times. Twice, in 1915 and 1945, the schools played to scoreless ties. But that didn't discourage the enthusiasm of the fans.

"By 1915 the Fair game had long since become a combination picnic, fashion parade, political rally and drinking bout," Daniel W. Hollis wrote in his account of the game in the 1959 program.

Perhaps the strangest event surrounding the game occurred in 1946.

With both teams beginning to get back to full strength after the war, interest was high among the fans of the rivals - maybe a little too high.

Although Carolina Stadium had room for about 26,000 spectators, more than 30,000 fans showed up for the game. Hundreds of counterfeit tickets were printed and sold to unsuspecting fans, thus creating more demand than available seating.

"As kickoff time neared, the crowd became more enthusiastic in their determination to see the game, and finally the immovable object yielded to the irresistible force," Barton wrote in his book. "This became the largest gate-crashing in the state's history, and by kickoff time the only occupied space in Carolina Stadium was inside the outline of the playing field."

Legendary Clemson coach Frank Howard was almost one of those left out of the game.

"I remember our team got there about the time the big crash took place," Howard wrote in the 1959 game program. "My boys got through all right, but a man stopped me and said I couldn't get in. I told him if I didn't get in there certainly wouldn't be a game that day."

Howard might have preferred to stay on the outside, as South Carolina rallied for a 26-14 victory over Clemson.

One person who did have a legitimate ticket was James F. Byrnes, who was at that time the U.S. Secretary of State. The former South Carolina governor had a tough time seeing from his box seats on the field, so he resorted to joining the fans surrounding the field. He was seen on his hands and knees, according to Barton, watching the action through players' legs.

Memorable moments

Any discussion of Big Thursday's best performances should begin with Steve Wadiak. The South Carolina running back dominated the series from 1948-51, carrying the Gamecocks to two wins, one tie and a single loss.

Wadiak ran wild in the 1950 contest, gaining 256 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns in the 14-14 tie. The feat was all the more impressive because the Tigers entered Big Thursday undefeated and had not allowed a point.

Late in the game, Wadiak ran 44 yards to put South Carolina in position for a winning field goal, but the kick missed, and the two rivals settled for a tie.

Banks McFadden, one of Clemson's all-time greats, helped the Tigers to the longest winning streak in the series. Clemson won seven straight from 1934-40, and McFadden played a part in three of those.

In the 1939 game, McFadden rushed for a touchdown and directed Clemson to three other scores in the 27-0 shutout. The Tigers went on to beat Boston College in the Cotton Bowl, and McFadden became the state's first All-America selection.

Clemson saved its unbeaten season in 1948 thanks to the heroics of Phil Prince, who blocked Bo Hagan's punt late in the game. Oscar Thompson scooped up the loose ball and scored a touchdown, giving the Tigers a thrilling 13-7 win. Clemson went on to defeat Missouri in the Gator Bowl and won 24-23 to cap an unbeaten year.

South Carolina posted one of its most impressive wins in the series in 1958. Howard's Clemson team was again powerful, destined to meet top-ranked LSU in the Sugar Bowl, but the Gamecocks had their way that year.

Thank Alex Hawkins, the colorful running back for the Gamecocks who would later play in the NFL, for inspiring his team. With the score tied at 6 at halftime, Hawkins reportedly fired up his teammates with an obscenity-laced tirade. The Gamecocks scored 20 unanswered points to take a 26-6 win.

Howard, whose Clemson teams had shut out South Carolina the previous two years, tipped his hat to the rivals when the Gamecocks scored that day.

"I tell you, before that afternoon was over, I got a pretty bad sunburn," Howard wrote.

Changing times

The game was moved to Saturdays, with each school alternating as host, in 1960, for a number of reasons.

Clemson and its fans claimed South Carolina had an unfair advantage, even though the Tigers got the best of the Gamecocks in the 57 games held in Columbia by a 33-21-3 margin.

Howard, the Clemson coach, also complained that as the visitors his team had to squint into the midday sun. Financially, Howard also was not happy that South Carolina received the bulk of the proceeds from the gate and concessions.

"I frankly can't see a thing fair about the game as far as Clemson is concerned," Howard wrote in 1959.

Another change was to move the game to the end of the regular season. With the Big Thursday contests being held in October, it effectively put a damper on the remainder of the season.

Proponents of Big Thursday pointed out that the game was unique and gave both schools exposure that they normally would not have received. As the only college game played that day, newspapers all over the country would run lengthy wire service reports on the game.

The final Big Thursday contest proved to be anticlimactic, with Clemson shutting out South Carolina for a 27-0 victory. Howard, in a moment captured in a famous photograph, blew a kiss goodbye to the game after it was over.

Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.

Big Thursday, 1896-1959

Last game played Oct. 22, 1959 at Carolina Stadium in Columbia.

2 p.m. kickoff

Admission: $5.75

Clemson won 27-0

Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or jboyette@augustachronicle.com.



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