Even now, after all these years of covering college football, there’s something about the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry that has an almost mystical feel for me.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the state of South Carolina and spent many of my Saturday afternoons and evenings in the fall listening to Bob Fulton and Jim Phillips paint a picture on the radio as only those two late, great broadcasters could.
If you grow up in that state, you’re either a Gamecock or a Tiger, a “chicken” or a “tater,” as the two fanbases refer to each other. There’s really no in between, although I somehow managed to hover in that margin as best I could.
Going back to the Jeff Grantz and Ron Bass days in the 1970s and attending a smattering of games at Williams-Brice Stadium before there was an upper deck on the East side, I cheered for the Gamecocks.
George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy in 1980, my sophomore year of high school. I can still remember somebody in the principal’s office at Rock Hill High School coming over the intercom and announcing that Rogers had won.
That was a huge deal for the state, and Rogers was the running back we emulated in our backyard games. We all wanted a No. 38 tear-away jersey.
So at the time, I leaned more toward the Gamecocks.
But, boy, were those Danny Ford years at Clemson a lot of fun, and I had several dear friends who were Clemson fans. I’ll never forget my first trip to Death Valley and the pristine beauty of that campus. The same goes for seeing the Clemson players get off that bus for the first time and come galloping down the hill to a sea of orange.
This rivalry will always hold a special place in my heart, which is why I’m so stoked to be going back Saturday and covering my first Clemson-South Carolina game in nearly two decades.
And talk about good timing.
It’s the first time in the history of the rivalry that both teams have been ranked in the top 10 nationally. There are BCS bowl implications for both teams, and South Carolina is trying to win five in a row in the series for the first time ever.
Back in the day, I’m not sure I ever envisioned a game between these two old rivals being this big nationally.
But my memories of the rivalry are as rich today as they were 30-plus years ago.
The first Clemson-South Carolina game I ever saw was on television, and very few games were on TV back then. It was the 1977 classic in Columbia, as Jerry Butler seemed suspended in midair for an eternity as he pulled in a leaping, twisting touchdown catch to beat South Carolina 31-27 in the final seconds.
I was watching that day from the sprawling metropolis of Taylors, S.C. (just outside Greenville) with childhood friend Mike Campbell and his family. They were huge Clemson fans, and you can bet it was one festive party at their house the rest of the evening.
The upset I remember most was the 1980 game when Willie Underwood intercepted a pair of passes, and Clemson -- adorned in all-orange -- stunned No. 14 South Carolina 27-6 in Death Valley. It was Rogers’ final game in the series, and Clemson fans will still tell you proudly that he never scored a touchdown against the Tigers.
The first game in the series that I personally attended was in 1984 at Death Valley. South Carolina’s “Black Magic” team rebounded from a disastrous upset loss at Navy the week before to rally from a 21-3 deficit and win 22-21. Mike Hold guided South Carolina on a game-winning 84-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. Scott Hagler actually missed the extra point. But Clemson was penalized for having too many men on the field, and Hagler didn’t miss a second time to win it for the Gamecocks.
I was also on hand for one of the signature moments in the rivalry in 1992, when South Carolina freshman quarterback Steve Taneyhill pretended to autograph the Tiger Paw at midfield after throwing a touchdown pass to seal the Gamecocks' 24-13 win.
Taneyhill was a jewel in those days, running around like a wild man and sporting one of the most hideous mullets the sport has ever seen. But he never lost at Clemson and told me a few years ago that he still catches some serious grief for his “defacing” of the Tiger Paw.
The mullet is now gone, but Taneyhill is scheduled to be at Saturday's game to lead the "Game-Cock" cheer right before the team makes its famed entrance to the "2011: A Space Odyssey" theme. Taneyhill has gone on to carve out a hugely successful high school coaching career in the state of South Carolina. And, yes, he even sent one of his players to Clemson.
This is a rivalry that transcends bloodlines. Former South Carolina kicker/punter Spencer Lanning, who’s now punting for the Cleveland Browns, grew up in a family that was Clemson to the core. His grandfather, Don Lanning, even helped Danny Ford do a little recruiting back when the rules were different.
In 2005, James Davis rushed for 145 yards and scored the winning touchdown to lift Clemson to a 13-9 victory over South Carolina in Columbia. Davis plans to be back in the Williams-Brice Stadium stands on Saturday to watch his younger brother -- South Carolina star running back Mike Davis.
I’ll be there, too, and I’m sure the memories will come flowing back.
It’s been 36 years since Butler made his legendary catch in what was my introduction to the rivalry.
I can only hope my return is equally memorable.