Clemson-South Carolina: A Rivalry Beyond Belief

Photo courtesy of Juan Blas/South Carolina athletics

In a week where rivalries fill the headlines, it is important to learn more about one of the most chaotic and hate-filled rivalries in all of American sports.

With rivalries like the “Egg Bowl”, “Iron Bowl” and “The Game”, it is understandable why Clemson and South Carolina may not be on your radar. But for fans in the Palmetto State, it is a rivalry that can only be described as “hostile”.

Clemson and South Carolina have played 117 times; 111 of which were consecutive (1909 to 2019). Over that span, Clemson has held that lead for its duration. In 1898, Clemson took a 2-1 series lead that has stood the test over a century. The Tigers currently hold a 71-42-4 all-time lead over the Gamecocks.

The Early Years

Something to think about in this rivalry is its creation. By all accounts, the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry was created to serve as a novelty.

It was to be played only during the State Fair as a way to bring fans and Cadets from upstate to Columbia. It was to serve as an attraction to help boost the local economy. However, it quickly became so much more.

“Big Thursday” quickly became the newest tradition in college football. And “Big” quickly made itself felt.

Following Big Thursday, the Elks Club Parade would take place. In classic form, the entirety of Clemson’s Corp of Cadets would participate in this march.

In the years of 1897 to 1900, Clemson Cadets would display fat grins and faces of enjoyment. It was indeed the day after their ball team had beaten its inferior opponents. However, those with an eagle eye can see another commonality in the Clemson Cadets.

Along with grins and cheers, Clemson Cadets had taped and tied pieces of cloth to their boots. Garnet and black cloth covered the Cadets’ boots, protecting the clean shiny footwear from the dust and dirt. This was just the first form of hatred and displeasure in the young rivalry.

The second form of displeasure came in 1900 following a thumping as Clemson defeated South Carolina, 51-0. This led to the South Carolina College’s administration finding difficulty in agreeing upon the 1901 matchup, leading to the first break in the young rivalry. Notwithstanding, it wasn’t long until the rivalry met its first breaking point.

The Transparency Incident

Following the 1901 break, Clemson and South Carolina found themselves on the gridiron once again in 1902. Ending a four-game skid to The Tigers, South Carolina won on “Big Thursday”, 12-6. The game itself was nothing to cause controversy. It was what followed that led to what is now called “The Transparency Incident”.

1902 was a milestone year. South Carolina College had found an unofficial nickname for its young football team. The Gamecock was not adopted by the school yet many students, players, and faculty have grown fond of the unofficial mascot. Professor F. Horton Colcock had one of his drawings make shock waves as it was printed all over the papers.

The image of a measly chicken whipping and riding the noble feline was not well received by Clemson to say the least. Following the Elks Club Parade, Clemson’s Corp of Cadets armed with bayonets and swords marched onto the South Carolina College campus. The Cadets jeered and made threats to those who called SCC home.

Armed with knives and promotive forms of defense, South Carolina students and faculty barricaded themselves in buildings as the angry mob made way. This incident would lead to the longest gap in between “Big Thursdays”. Both schools would play once again in 1909. From there, no more halts in the matchup would take place for more than a century.

1946: Chaos over a Chicken

1946 was a year filled with happiness. Babies were being made and born following the return home from World War II. The economy has started an upswing after the conclusion of the war effort.

That’s when two New York mobsters made their move. Those two men would pull the con of a lifetime. 

Printing off thousands of counterfeit tickets, the two mobsters were able to sell the fakes to Clemson and South Carolina fans who were eager to watch the game. However, those fans would soon find out that they could not see their sides play on Big Thursday. To say tensions were high would be a significant understatement.

Then, there is the chicken.

During halftime of the contest, an unnamed Clemson fan would perform an act that would come with a prison sentence. The fan took to the field and proceeded to strangle a live chicken in front of the entire stadium. To show their displeasure, South Carolina fans took to the field from the stands in a mad dash to apprehend the chicken choker.

Along with the attending fans, supporters of both sides who had seen their fake tickets denied saw an opportunity to make their way into the stadium. As the gates spilled and fences fell, it came down to U.S. State Secretary James F. Byrnes and South Carolina Governor-elect Strom Thurmond to settle the chaos.

As the chaos came to a halt, the game resumed. The displaced fans found themselves enjoying the contest from the sidelines with the schools they supported.

Sigma Nu Caper

Time grew on and slowly, the mark that head coach Frank Howard was making on Clemson was growing at an exorbitant rate. It was one that would lead South Carolina students to act out their dreams of becoming a Clemson football player.

Prior to the 1961 matchup, Clemson’s team, led by Coach Howard, would take the field for warmups. The band played “Tiger Rag” as the team assembled. As the squad began their preparations, it appeared something was off.

Clemson seemed to have complications: the punters were sending their kicks behind them. The running backs were performing well rehearsed somersaults at the line of scrimmage, and the team caught a real case of butterfingers. It was then that the ruse was up.

Members of the South Carolina fraternity “Sigma Nu Caper” had impersonated Clemson football players. In a prank that took months of planning and weeks of rehearsal, the members of the frat had pulled the lampoon of a lifetime — a lampoon at the expense of Clemson football and her faithful fans.

In response, Clemson fans took the field in fashion alike the chicken choking of 1946. The Tiger faithful went after the faux team and coach. Thankfully for the Sigma Nu members, they were able to escape relatively unscathed as officials brought the melee to an end, so the game could get underway.

The Brawl

In a rivalry full of hate, one of the more prominent memories took place less than two decades ago. Look no further than “The Brawl”.

Immortalized by a photo of Clemson’s Yusef Kelly kicking a downed Gamecock player, this is the incident that put Clemson and South Carolina at the forefront of national attention.

In the dying moments of what would be head coach Lou Holtz’s final game, South Carolina quarterback Syvelle Newton took a nasty helmet-to-helmet shot, followed by Clemson players laying on him and impeding him from getting up. This led to a pushing match that left both sidelines emptied and a full-force brawl taking place. Those six minutes would live in infamy as both Clemson and South Carolina players were wrestled and restrained from each other in an attempt to end the brawl.

Thankfully, the fans that filled the seats of Memorial Stadium remained in the stands — this time. Boos filled the air as Clemson fans showed their displeasure for both teams who had let their emotions run free. In an act of attempted salvation and public relations, both schools announced they would not participate in a bowl game following the brawl.

Players from both schools would also serve punishments and suspensions throughout the next season for their roles.

A New Tradition

Over the past few years, Clemson-South Carolina has seen a calming of spirit and support for a great cause. Clemson and South Carolina now partake in an annual matchup — not on the field, but in the hospitals and buses.

The annual blood drive is a movement where both student bodies see who can donate the most blood. It’s truly ironic that a rivalry rooted in bad blood can lead to the giving of good blood.

Clemson and South Carolina is rarely mentioned among the greatest rivalries in college sports, but make no mistake — it is as hostile as any and truly one of the game’s best.