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By Stevie Cocksman
I am a Gamecock fan. Have been for over 30 years. It would surprise no one to learn that the things I associate most with Gamecock football are pain, suffering, and disappointment. Yet, for some reason – just like every year for the past thirty or so – I can’t wait for football season.
My first memories are of George Rogers running his way to a Heisman Trophy… only to stumble home in season-ending losses to Clemson (a recurring theme) and Pittsburgh.
Then of Joe Morrison leading his team to a 9-0 start and #2 ranking in the country and then losing… badly… to Navy… on the same Saturday the #1 team in the country lost.
Then of the South Carolina football program making it to the cover of Sports Illustrated… because one of its players confessed to rampant steroid use.
Of all of my early memories, some of my most distinct – and defining – memories are of the South Carolina game against Clemson in Williams-Brice Stadium in 1989.
I was a senior in high school in a small town in upstate South Carolina. Not Clemson. But a Clemson town. A town brimming over with Clemson fans. Yet, somehow, I was a Gamecock fan. Well . . . not just “somehow.” It happened when I was in first grade. I was just old enough to start to pay attention to sports. My best friend was a Clemson fan – a fact that he enthusiastically demonstrated at least bi-weekly by wearing his orange overalls. My best friend was a Clemson fan, so I decided to be one. When I made this announcement at home, my well-intentioned father – an otherwise better-than-adequate father who barely knew the difference between a football and a basketball – advised me that I should pull for the Gamecocks because that is where he went to college. My daddy told me to. So I did. And I have ever since.
I went to watch the game at the home of a friend of mine. It was me, the lone Gamecock fan, and – depending on how dramatic the story needs to be – somewhere between 8 and 15 Clemson fans. Clemson scored first. When they did, each of the other attendees pulled out an orange kazoo and played “Tiger Rag” on it.
Clemson won 45-0.
The game was defining because of a post-game statement made by Danny Ford – the highly successful coach of the Clemson Tigers and an equally-accomplished wordsmith. I can’t remember the specific question, but “Danny” – as he will forever be referred to by anyone who followed college football in the upstate of South Carolina in the 1980’s – was asked in his post-game interview to opine on the condition of the South Carolina football program under first year coach Sparky Woods.
Yes, the Gamecocks were led for five years – and into the Southeastern Conference, no less – by a man named “Sparky.” I look back now at the “Sparky” Era much like I watch one of the “Andy Griffith Show” episodes where Barney Fife is left in charge. Barney was eminently likeable. And there was much about Barney’s character that made me hope that he would pull it off. But Barney was desperately unqualified. Humiliation and disaster were inevitable.
“Them boys got a long way to go.”
That is how I remember Danny’s response. Those are likely not the exact words. And they may not even be that close. But that is what I remember him saying. And if that wasn’t exactly what he said, he should have. Because it was true. And it remained true – painfully, and unrelentingly true – for each of the next twenty years.
Always. Every season. At every turn. Them boys had a long way to go.
Them boys had a long way to go for the remainder of Sparky’s tenure…
Although I will forever hold affection for Sparky because he was just-incompetent-enough to inspire the player revolt that made him just-desperate-enough to start that long-haired freshman quarterback from Pennsylvania – Steve Taneyhill.
And Steve Taneyhill beat Tennessee his freshman year. And he almost beat Florida in the Swamp. And he beat Clemson in the rain in Death Valley. And he pretended to sign his name on the Tiger Paw.
And it was good to be a Gamecock.
But only temporarily. So Sparky got fired.
Them boys had a long way to go when Brad Scott showed up…
I confess I was convinced Brad Scott was a sure thing. Protégé of Bobby Bowden. Architect – or engineer, at least – of the high-powered Florida State offense. A relentless recruiter. Dripping with Southern charm. Perfect. How could he NOT be successful?
He treated us to a wide-open, pass-happy offense. With big plays. Trick plays. And he beat Clemson his first year – with a throwback to Reggie Richardson on the opening kickoff of the second half that went for a touchdown. I can still see it. A thing of football beauty. And he won a bowl game – the prestigious Carquest Bowl – for the first time in school history.
Yet, it took him only five years to direct the program to the point where it would lose 21 consecutive games – the first 10 of which he personally oversaw. And the 21st of which ended, ironically, or maybe fittingly, with him being carried off the field on the shoulders of his new team – the Clemson Tigers.
So, when Lou Holtz came to town… needless to say… them boys had a long way to go.
To permit myself a moment of self-congratulation, I will say I predicted Lou’s tenure with dead-on accuracy. I predicted he would win. Win big (by Gamecock standards). But that his stay would end badly.
The accuracy of my prophesy was inadequate salve to the wounds his tenure inflicted.
Lou did win. He won two New Year’s Day Bowls. He had what, at the time, was the most successful two-year stretch in the history of the Gamecock program.
Then, in 2003, he lost to Clemson, for the fourth time if anyone is counting… 63-17. There were rumors that Lou personally took over coaching the secondary the week of that game. The results of the game only serve to confirm that rumor in my mind.
Then, with the 2003 game not sufficiently catastrophic to be his final act, Lou came back for a sixth year. In the final game, he orchestrated a 31-7 loss to Clemson… for the fifth time in six years if anyone is counting… which culminated in an unforgettable, and widely-replayed, bench-clearing brawl. At least he left us an enduring image to remember him by.
Enter Steve Spurrier. Granted, when he got here, them boys had a long way to go…
But Steve Spurrier possessed mastery over college football. Steve Spurrier won the conference at Duke and a bunch of times at Florida. Steve Spurrier could not lose. Even at South Carolina.
That was the prevailing sentiment in Columbia when he arrived.
It was only reinforced when Blake Mitchell hit Noah Whiteside for a touchdown on a 50-yard post. On the first drive. Of Spurrier’s first game.
Not even the most pessimistic of Gamecock fans would deny that success was inevitable.
But then… it didn’t happen.
There was, of course, Garcia. Then we learned that Spurrier doesn’t deal so well with adversity. Something we had no way of knowing because it had never come up before. Turns out, he doesn’t like to blame himself. And if others blame him, he is liable to take his ball and go home. For example, for the month of October in 2010. He even lost to some guy named Dabo.
And so, unbelievably, Steve Spurrier had been here five years – Steve Spurrier! – and them boys… still… had a long way to go.
Not any more. Now even the most pessimistic – or realistic as we like to call ourselves – Gamecock fan would admit that them boys really don’t have that far to go.
Two years ago, they played in the SEC Championship Game. Last year, even though in typical Gamecock fashion most of the first 11 games were agonizing, they won 11 games for the first time in school history. They even showed up for the bowl game, something that Gamecock fans have learned not to take for granted under Coach Spurrier.
Who knows where it will go from here?
Some great stories beat the main character down… and down… and down… just to make the ultimate triumph that much more dramatic and enjoyable. “Rocky” wouldn’t have been “Rocky” unless things got as bad as they did before he achieved glory.
But some great stories have to end badly. They just have to. We’ve all had the experience of watching a movie and realizing, somewhere in the middle of it, that the movie won’t have a happy ending. It is a great movie. Not a movie without moments of happiness or hope. But, because of what it is, it has to end badly, with disappointment. Or failure. Or death. It wouldn’t have been as memorable. Or as powerful. Or anywhere near as good if Old Yeller hadn’t died.
I don’t what kind of story the Gamecocks are. Maybe, no, certainly, that it why it is so compelling. But I do know this: I am a Gamecock fan. And, even though there has been a whole lot more bad than there has been good, I can’t wait for football season.
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