By Dantzler Smith
Heading to a Wofford football game on Fall Saturdays, you drive from the leafy neighborhoods towards downtown on Main Street. At the Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce, with its flag poles hoisting the standards of countries the small city boasts as business partners, you turn down Pine Street.
Following those Norman Rockwell directions, the road rolls downhill under an old railroad bridge, and just past that overarching amalgam of aged concrete and steel appears the spot where Spartan Mills used to stand.
After solemnly sitting empty since it got cheaper to produce textiles elsewhere, most of the old building was knocked down, leaving only a well-landscaped open field. Beyond the manicured grass, like a roadside museum, you can see the once upon a time residential mill houses wearily standing between the former site of the city’s old heartbeat and overgrown arterial railroads.
Being a Southerner is a complicated thing and nowhere is the haze of past and present more evident than in modern college football. While there is no great insight in observing that college football is woven into the fabric of Southern life, there is something intriguing and important in how college football and Southern identity are being pulled by the forces of modernity to the point that the substantive value of each are being erased, replaced, or modified until all that remains is something like the empty shells of Southern textile factories left to crumble or be turned into luxury condos.
Continuing down Pine Street you pass under another relic of a railroad bridge and then turn left between a lingerie/adult gift shop and a Starbucks. Finally you’ve reached Gibbs Stadium, home to the Wofford Terriers, and a sanctuary for the option offense.
It’s easy to hate the option. From the stands, the new fans, the ones who don’t remember the old stadium or Wofford’s Division II days, bemoan it as boringly repetitious. South Carolina has Spurrier’s fun and gun. Clemson has the spread. Even the area high schools air it out. It’s not what they see on TV. It comes off as unimaginative and anything but innovative. The option was the way the football world once was, but now almost everyone has moved on. It’s an offense pulled out of history, a product of a bygone era. Its rudimentary scheme is seen as something only employed by the desperate, an antiquated offense adhered to as a defense mechanism for small fish in a big pond.
Beyond that, the option is an all or nothing identity. It hinges on the enlistment of a certain type of player. It’s a system that doesn’t produce pro athletes. Scouts write off a player’s success in the option as an anomaly, a statistical distortion produced by an archaic offensive system uncooperative with modern data collection. Without the pros, without the chance for grand accolades, making a commitment to the option means leaving yourself no other options.
The type of player that agrees to that arrangement is one who needs a systematic edge, a gimmick. As an academically-inclined small private school, Wofford is not a magnet for the highest caliber high school talent. But the option makes use of those on the margin. The option aids undersized linemen, fulcrum strength fullbacks, scrawny speedster tailbacks, and quarterbacks who are rich in athletic talent but poor pocket passers. It fuels lost causes and FBS castoffs. It runs on players with something to prove, overachievers, the overlooked, and dead ends that have maxed out their talent but will do anything to delay their finale.
When it comes to the laboring three yard pickups, most people don’t see the sweet science of it; the jabs of fullback dives, the feigns of fake pitches, and the haymakers of tosses to the outside in acres of space. They don’t remember games in the old stadium. They don’t remember the Division II days. They want to be entertained. They want something modern. It should match the marketing. It should be in line with the branding. It should be in keeping with the new stadium. It should be state of the art like the new athletic facilities and practice fields that came in when Jerry Richardson, Wofford class of ’59, was awarded the rights to an NFL franchise in Charlotte and decreed Spartanburg and Wofford College to be the site of training camp for his expansion team.
The way forward, it’s insisted, is cookie cutter competition. You simply follow suit with the successful, merely mimic what’s worked. Nothing parochial, nothing regional, nothing unique. History holds you back.
Wofford’s move from Division II to the FBC (then called Division IAA) in ’95 was followed by an influx of money. In ’96 the new stadium went up along with new campus additions to accommodate the Carolina Panthers. In ’97 Wofford joined the Southern Conference. In ’99 they enjoyed their first winning season in the conference, finishing second among their newfound conference foes. Since ’00 Wofford has endured only two losing seasons, won the Southern Conference three times and made the FCS playoffs five times. And all the while they defiantly ran the option.
The remnants of Spartan Mills, the old textile mill on Pine Street, that didn’t get bulldozed got renovated and restored with a dark red brick façade and pitch black opaque windows. Behind the tinted glass of what was once the old industry are the offices of the Southern Conference, the governing body representing Wofford College and eight other institutions of higher education in the Football Championship Subdivision. In so many ways it’s a fitting change of occupancy. Welcome to the new industry, the money making machinations of modern college football. The division you’re in is never good enough. Your stadium is too small. Your uniforms could look better in high def. Your conference can be realigned to suit television markets. Whatever it takes to make more money, to build the next buildings bigger and newer. Ignore geography. Forget history. Railroad tradition.
On Saturdays in the new stadium, you can look past the pristine practice fields, beyond the new buildings, painted black and white to match the old architecture, and see the skeletal frame of the old stadium bleachers, relegated to Saturday’s background and serving as a soccer pitch. In that view there is something short of hopeful, a quixotic happiness, something truly Southern. Though the scenery changes, just as they did in the old stadium, Wofford runs the option.