The SEC’s decision to pursue a 10-game, conference-only schedule has sent shockwaves through college football, uprooting longtime rivalries and upending a season that some are skeptical will happen anyway.
Nowhere is this disruption being felt more deeply than in South Carolina as the Clemson-South Carolina game, after more than 100 years of continuous play, will be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It’s why South Carolina was the only SEC institution to vote against the conference-only plan in hopes of preserving what is affectionately known as “The Palmetto Bowl.”
The rivalry between the two schools existed long before there were competitive sports at stake and, well, even before there were two actual schools to set up said rivalry. And it’s a rivalry that ironically exists directly because of exhaustive efforts from various leaders, factions and organizations to smooth the tensions and turmoil between all these differing groups.
It’s safe to say that many folks in South Carolina aren’t taking the news too well. Consider State Rep. Mike Burns of Taylorsville, who is investigating whether or not the state legislature can do something about this:
“I’m sure a number of us will be advocating to get back into session and see if we’ve got enough people that agree that this game should go on and see if we can affect the reconsideration on it. I’m unsure where we will be able to do that, but I’m certainly willing to try,” Burns said. “I’ll say this much again: we’ve been through a lot of things over 111 years. Since 1896 was a long time. We’ve been through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, and all the Persian Gulf wars. Never have we not played this football game to keep some normality in life. It seems right now we have a lot of hesitation going around from certain places to make things abnormal and not get back to normal as quickly as we are able to. And this seems to be short-sighted and one of those examples.”
Now, you might think such a proposal sounds absolutely crazy, but getting the state government involved in The Palmetto Bowl is just par for the course here.
Let’s start at the beginning to show you why.
Founded as South Carolina College in 1801, the state’s flagship institution was initially envisioned to serve as measure of accord between a running feud between the region’s Lowcountry area, anchored by Charleston on the coast, and the more agrarian Upcountry in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Of course, more than geography divided the state.
In the days before the American Revolution, Charleston had established itself as one of the wealthiest and largest cities in the colonies. Its port was one of the most successful in the new country, thriving off an unholy trade mixture of rice, cotton and slavery. The money that poured in from the surrounding plantations led to a rise in aristocracy in Beaufort, Georgetown and Charleston.
The Lowcountry wielded money and power, using it to cast its influence across the capital city of Columbia.
The Upcountry, on the other hand, was largely made up of Scotch-Irish farmers who had migrated from Pennsylvania. The large plantations were replaced with smaller, single-family farms focused on individual sustenance and day-to-day living. This hardscrabble lifestyle contrasted mightily with the pomp and prestige of the powerful coast.
Per the state’s official encyclopedia, South Carolina College was intended to bring these two sides together:
Its establishment was a response to the changing political landscape in the Palmetto State at the outset of the nineteenth century. South Carolina’s political leaders saw a new college as a way of bringing together the sons of the Federalist elite of the lowcountry with the sons of the upcountry Jeffersonians in order, in the words of the college charter, to “promote the good order and harmony” of the state.
Placing it in Columbia was a symbolic gesture to remove the new school from the outsized interests of Charleston, thus making it more accessible to all South Carolina residents. Of course, that was easier said than done.
The college, one of several state-chartered institutions established during the late 1700s and early 1800s across the American South, thrived for more than 50 years before the upheaval of the Civil War forced its closure. The Confederacy needed able-bodied young men, and that meant higher education could wait.
The Union’s subsequent victory in the war, however, opened a tumultuous chapter in the institution’s history, one that began with promise but ended in the same way many promising things across the American South did in those days. Under Reconstruction, the state’s leaders opened the school to African Americans, installing Black leadership on the college’s board of trustees in 1868 and enrolling Black students in 1873. These positive steps toward integration came nearly 100 years before the American Civil Rights Movement.
This bold move was unfortunately short-lived. The end of Reconstruction, the violence perpetuated by the state’s Red Shirts, a white supremacist organization that served as a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan, the bloody election of 1876 that expelled Reconstruction-era leadership, and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South in 1877, all combined to usher in a return to power of white leaders sympathetic to the power structure of the pre-Civil War days.
These changes culminated in the closure of the integrated South Carolina College, with the institution reopening in 1882 exclusively for white males.
This decision may have aligned with the racial views of the white leadership of the day, but it also angered many in South Carolina who felt the reconstituted college was downplaying the importance of agricultural education. Benjamin Tillman, who had been a leader in the Red Shirts’ violent efforts to suppress the Black population through violence, intimidation and terror, emerged as one of the state’s top advocates for the establishment of a separate institution devoted to agricultural education.
Tillman’s vision meshed with that of Thomas Green Clemson, who included in his will plans to donate a sprawling stretch of his estate in the Upcountry to the creation of a land-grant institution for agricultural education. Seeing an opportunity to bring his dream to life, Tillman lobbied for the state legislature to take advantage of existing Federal funds to set up this new college at Clemson’s property.
While the legislature did make use of those funds, they opted at the 11th hour to divert the money to South Carolina College so it could be reorganized as the University of South Carolina in 1887. Unsurprisingly, this angered Tillman, who decided to retire … for all of three months until Clemson passed away. At that point, he resurrected his argument for a separate agricultural institution that could make use of Clemson’s donation of land.
Facing resistance from the state’s existing political leadership, Tillman suggested that an independent agricultural college was necessary to remove it from the political influence of Columbia and, by default, the Lowcountry. Never one to shy away from half-truths, distortions and intimidation to reach his political ends, Tillman went to work to sway, bully and compel this into being.
William Watts Ball, in his book The State That Forgot: South Carolina’s Surrender to Democracy, noted that Tillman believed the salaries of the professors at the University of South Carolina were too high, particularly when contrasted with the falling prices of various agricultural commodities in the state. This gave him the basis of an argument to portray the flagship college as an elitist institution that was hostile to the farmers in the upstate region.
In 1888, thanks to a tie-breaking vote in the state legislature from Lt. Gov. William Mauldin, Clemson was established as an all-male, all-white military academy that included a unique emphasis on the study of agricultural science.
This, of course, wouldn’t be the end of the acrimony. The two schools, their students, faculty and supporters, eyed each other with suspicion for decades. For instance, in the 1950s, South Carolina sought to build a truly integrated educational outreach system, establishing branch campuses across the state. Clemson followed suit by opening a branch in Sumter and setting up a partnership with Greenville Technical College in the 1960s.
This response from Clemson alarmed Sol Blatt, the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives at the time. As noted by William Lesesne in A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000, Blatt called for the Columbia-based university to invest in two-year colleges across the state to “prevent the expansion of Clemson schools for the Clemson people.”
It’s against this backdrop these two schools thought it would be a good idea to channel that generally hostile energy into a sport where you just strike, slam and tackle each other for a few hours in front of a divided crowd of passionate supporters who have been drinking bourbon since 7 a.m. What resulted was the longest continually played football rivalry in the South, stretching back to 1909. It survived both world wars, the Spanish Flu and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
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Known as “Big Thursday” up until the 1950s, the game long was the centerpiece of the South Carolina State Fair and held annually each October in Columbia. As the name would suggest, it was held on Thursday with classes canceled at Clemson for the week. After some protests from faculty members regarding how the game negatively impacted instruction time, the game was shifted to the end of the season and rotated between both campuses.
The series has provided its share of bad blood, weird incidents and mischievous pranks. Consider this tale from the 1902 contest, shared by Jay McCormick, a series historian, with reporter Dan Armonaitis of Metro Beat in 2003:
“The Carolina fans that week were carrying around a poster with the image of a tiger with a gamecock standing on top of it, holding the tiger’s tail as if he was steering the tiger by the tail,” McCormick said. “Naturally, the Clemson guys didn’t take too kindly to that, and on Wednesday and again on Thursday, there were sporadic fistfights involving brass knuckles and other objects and so forth, some of which resulted, according to the newspapers, in blood being spilled and persons having to seek medical assistance.
“After the game on Thursday, the Clemson guys frankly told the Carolina students that if you bring this poster, which is insulting to us, to the big parade on Friday, you’re going to be in trouble. And naturally, of course, the Carolina students brought the poster to the parade. If you give someone an ultimatum and they’re your rival, they’re going to do exactly what you told them not to do.”
This led to a massive fight on the field that resulted in the suspension of the series for seven years. Despite the resumption of play in 1909, the series featured countless other unusual occurrences and moments of tension.
In 1946, counterfeit tickets led to fans being denied entrance to the game, which resulted in chaos as fans of both schools stormed the venue. After things calmed down, a Clemson fan somehow found his way down to the field at halftime and proceeded to strangle a live chicken in front of the crowd. More unrest ensued, and it could only be calmed when James Byrnes, a Clemson graduate and former governor of the state, addressed the agitated crowd. South Carolina would win 26-14.
In 1952, the state legislature got into a test of wills with the Southern Conference, of which both schools were a member. In response to Clemson violating conference rules by accepting a bowl bid the previous season, the Southern Conference sought to punish the Tigers by suspending it from league play in 1952. Clemson cobbled together its own schedule, including trying to set up a contest with South Carolina. The state legislature had to get involved and passed a resolution that mandated the two schools play every year … which led to the Southern Conference suspending Clemson for another season … which led to Clemson, South Carolina and seven other schools leaving the conference to form the Atlantic Coast Conference. (For more, please check out this fantastic history of the Southern Conference from the SB Nation blog Black Heart, Gold Pants.)
In 1961, a collection of fraternity members from South Carolina managed to get onto the field prior to pre-game warm-ups, all wearing Clemson uniforms, and proceeded to intentionally play poorly in an effort to humiliate Clemson. It even resulted in Clemson’s band playing “Tiger Rag” as the faux players fell down, rolled around and bumbled their way through drills. Clemson fans – and players – were not happy, though no violence followed. This also is the same game where South Carolina fans had planned to bring a cow onto the field to be honored as the “Clemson Homecoming Queen” but the cow managed to die literally on its way to the stadium.
In 2004, a flat-out, full-on brawl upended the seasons for both teams. In Lou Holtz’s final game as South Carolina’s coach, the benches emptied following an incident involving a gaggle of Clemson defenders and South Carolina quarterback Syvelle Newton late in the game. As punishment for their roles in the fight, both teams would decline bowl bids at the end of the year.
The likelihood of the game happening in 2020 is low to non-existent. The SEC’s adjustment of the schedule means it’s not feasible to find an open date even if the two sides were able to negotiate an agreement separately from the stated conference guidelines. There will be a definite void with the loss of this particular contest given its history and passion.
Here’s hoping the 2021 edition will be played safely and can add to the lore and legacy of the rivalry.