Omaha falls in love with South Carolina

Down-and-dirty players like Scott Wingo (right) make the Gamecocks easy to root for. AP Photo/Brett Flashnick

Omaha has always had its favorite teams. Today that club is one squad bigger.

The city's mysterious selection of favorites has been around for as long as anyone can remember. It's a College World Series tradition as timeless as Zesto milkshakes and beach balls in the bleachers. The people of the host city fall in love, start wearing a school's gear, then attempt to root for their de facto home team all the way to the finish line of the two-week marathon.

On Tuesday night the locals unabashedly cheered for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

"They really did, didn't they?" Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said as his team celebrated on the mound as a chant of "U-S-C" rolled out of the stands. "We were the team that won last year, so I thought maybe they wouldn't pull for us. But even in the pregame it was pretty obvious that the city of Omaha had embraced us again as their team."

There's never a plan to the selection process, no organized movement and no declaration from City Hall that says, "Hey everybody, let's support these guys!" It just kind of happens.

"At the end of the day, this is still a football town," says longtime official scorekeeper Lou Spry. "And with the exception of Creighton in 1991 and Nebraska's three visits during the last decade, there hasn't been a home team to pull for. So they adopt one."

O-Town has fallen for traditional powerhouses such as LSU, Miami, and Cal State Fullerton. It has become smitten with the upstart likes of Oregon State, UC Irvine and even The Citadel. How has such a small yet eclectic group seized the hearts of this city? Four basic requirements catch the eye of the CWS grandstands: frequency of visits, winning games, an underdog mentality and a willingness to get one's uniform dirty. South Carolina has all four.

This week marked the Gamecocks' fifth College World Series appearance in 10 years. They won their second consecutive title and 11th straight CWS game. Their championship celebration was punctuated with talk of "We're blue-collar" and "We battle," and over the past two seasons they've survived more should-have-died scenarios than Jason Bourne.

And as for the dirty uniforms ...

"Look at this guy," said catcher Robert Beary, who shook his head as he looked teammate Christian Walker up and down. Walker was holding the national championship trophy with his right hand because his left was wrapped up to protect a hamate bone fractured in Friday night's win over Virginia. "His hand's broken, his pants are all brown and he looks like he needs to be hosed down with a power washer."

"They're just easy to pull for," said South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman. "They work hard. They play hard. They're polite. And they're smart." He pointed to Michael Roth, who had just gutted out a 7-plus-inning, 5-hit, 2-run, 126-pitch performance. "He's also carrying a near-perfect grade point average in international business, the most difficult major at our university. That's special. People in a city like Omaha can relate to that."

The CWS old-timers will tell you that the first Omaha favorite was, believe it or not, Texas. The citizens of the Cornhusker State never wanted to love the hated Longhorns. But after a while, Hook 'Em simply became part of the annual routine, a member of the CWS family. Texas made its first visit in 1950, Omaha's first turn at hosting the Series. This year was its record-extending 34th visit.

During the 1970s the UT fans rolled in from Austin and set up camp in the parking lot of Rosenblatt Stadium, led by a group of semipro tailgaters known as the Wild Bunch. Tailgating for baseball? The citizens of Omaha were intrigued. Soon they joined in. Over the years they agreed to put their Southwest Conference differences aside in the name of cold beer and charred meat. Even now, as their relationship has hit the post-Big 12 rocks, they still welcome head coach Augie Garrido with open arms.

The 1980s and '90s belonged to Miami and LSU, blowing up from the shorelines of the Southeast with colorful coaches, colorful players and perhaps too colorful uniforms. Chants of "Geaux Tigers!" turned 13th Street into Bourbon Street. And in 2005 to 2007, Oregon State seduced the city with a two-title minidynasty and tales of off days spent buying temporary fishing licenses and taking to the Missouri River, fishing poles in hand.

The Beavers haven't been back since. The Hurricanes haven't made the show in three years. The Tigers have missed the past two. It doesn't matter. "We always stock those three schools even if they aren't in the Series," explained a salesman at one of the white, canvas souvenir tents the morning of Game 2. "And their gear always sells."

For the past two years the hot seller has been garnet and black. On Tuesday afternoon, a full two hours before the first pitch, the line for general-admission seating stretched from the left field gate, past the NCAA Fan Zone, the Qwest Center, and wrapped around two massive parking lots. The one-mile line of fans was overwhelmingly dressed in Gamecocks gear.

"I don't think I could show you where Columbia, S.C., is on a map," confessed Lindy Crossman, a student from Bellevue, Neb., sporting a black tank top with a bedazzled interlocking SC, her ponytail supported by a rooster-adorned scrunchie. "But I love this team. I've grown up watching them play here in Omaha every summer. I only love the Huskers more."

"And she also thinks they're cute!" a friend interjected.

"Yeah," she confirmed, blushing. "I do think they're cute."

Amid Tuesday night's celebration, South Carolina assistant head coach Chad Holbrook laughed at the story. "I don't know about cute," he said. "But there's something about these guys that Omaha seems to like. It felt like a home game. Sure, we had a lot of fans make the drive up, but not 25,000 of them. This city has really gotten behind these Gamecocks."

Of course they have. After all, they're family now.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.