COLUMBIA, S.C. – Steve Spurrier walked into the news conference talking about 1984, which for South Carolina fans is like reminiscing about the time they fell down the elevator shaft.
In ‘84, the Gamecocks were 9-0 and No. 2 in the country when they went to Annapolis to play Navy. Navy was 3-5-1 and without its best player, future NFL running back Napoleon McCallum. South Carolina arrived at the game on time but didn’t awaken until early in the fourth quarter. By then Navy was up 38-7.
It ended 38-21, and at the next team meeting, South Carolina coach Joe Morrison wrote five items on the chalkboard:
1. National championship
2. No. 1 ranking
3. Orange Bowl bid
4. $2 million
Morrison pointed to No. 5 and said: “That’s where you are right now.”
But the Gamecocks beat Clemson to end the regular season and were invited to play Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl. My grandmother lived in Florence, S.C., and that year we drove north from the Georgia coast to see her at Christmas. The southbound lanes of I-95 were filled with South Carolina fans headed to Jacksonville, flags clamped to their cars and signs painted on the windows in shoe polish.
Oklahoma State scored with a minute left to win 21-14.
Heading back south, we saw all those northbound cars with tattered flags and window smears where the shoe polish had been rubbed off.
The 1984 season was a double gut-punch. And here’s what you need to understand: It was still the best season in the history of South Carolina football.
Until last year. And maybe this one.
The Gamecocks are 5-0 and No. 6 in the polls. On Saturday they start a three-week gauntlet of Top-10 SEC teams that are all currently undefeated -- Georgia, at LSU, at Florida.
“Back in ‘84, South Carolina was obviously 5-0, 6-0, 7-0,” Spurrier asked the room of reporters. “Did they play any other undefeated teams during that stretch?”
Spurrier wasn’t giving a quiz -- he honestly didn’t know. (Turns out the answer is no.) Right after that he started in on how tough it’s going to be to beat Georgia. Spurrier is curious about the past. But he doesn’t dwell on it.
South Carolina fans dwell.
In 120 years of football, the Gamecocks have one conference title (ACC, 1969) and two 10-win seasons. They didn’t win a bowl until 1995. As my old boss Frank Barrows, former sports columnist and managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, puts it: “Seldom in the history of Western civilization has mankind invested more passion, money and time in an enterprise with less return than in South Carolina football.”
If the Gamecocks survive these next three weeks, they’ll be about where they were in 1984. That would be amazing. But, as every South Carolina fan knows, it could also be terrible.
You know the old joke about the girl who smiles when she gets a pile of horse manure for her birthday; somewhere in there, she says, there must be a pony. South Carolina fans have a hard time seeing the pony. They’re worried about what their team is going to step in next.
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Fall doesn’t arrive in Columbia until about Halloween. I talked to R.J. Moore outside his service station on Rosewood Drive and sweat rolled off both of us. He’s 89, but he held up OK until I ask him to remember some Gamecock losses that really hurt. Then he started to stagger a little.
“Baylor,” he said. “Out there in Texas. We were up 17-0 in the fourth quarter and lost 18-17.”
That was in 1976, and Moore was at the game -- over a span of 37 years he went to just about every Gamecocks game, home and away. It’s hard for Moore to get up and down the stadium steps these days, but he’s got space A1 at Cocks Corner, a premium parking lot next to Williams-Brice stadium. While the game goes on inside, he’s outside watching on TV.
His service station is a hoarder’s shrine to Gamecocks football. The walls are covered with player photos from back in the day when a linebacker would dive at the camera for his glamor shot. The door is a history of Gamecocks football in bumper stickers: THE MAGIC’S ALIVE IN ’85. IT’S FIXED IN ’86. (In the interest of accuracy: Those two years, the Cocks went 5-6 and 3-6-2.)
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been as excited as we are this year,” Moore said.
He tries to keep perspective. This Gamecocks team is about the best he’s seen. But other teams are better, too. The South Carolina players are big and fast. But they train all year, not like they used to.
We talked for a while about expectations, history, the joy of winning and the pain of falling short. After a few minutes he stopped and said, “Let me get something out of the car.”
He returned with a golf shirt bearing an insignia that celebrated South Carolina’s back-to-back NCAA baseball titles in 2010 and ‘11. The Gamecocks made it to the finals of the College World Series again this year, but lost to Arizona. Moore wants to embroider something on the shirt commemorating that team, too.
“That was a better coaching job, really, because there weren’t as many good players,” he said. “Anyway, they made it almost all the way. We should celebrate that, too, don’t you think?”
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Before we get too far along here, we should mention the Chicken Curse.
The story goes that future S.C. Governor and U.S. Senator Ben Tillman became infuriated at the state legislature after it initially opposed the creation of Clemson University in the 1880s. Tillman supposedly jammed a pitchfork into the ground on the University of South Carolina campus and declared the university cursed.
Tillman was also a notorious white supremacist, so take his side at your own risk. But South Carolina teams have gone so title-less over the years that some fans think the supernatural must be at work. Others think the curse ended with the baseball team’s back-to-back titles. Then again, baseball is not football.
Back in 1992, when South Carolina joined the SEC, some alumni paid a New Orleans witch doctor to lift the curse before the season opener against Georgia. He brewed up a potion in the parking lot and topped it with chicken feathers as the fans chanted “Chicken Curse, be gone!”
Georgia won 28-6.
* * *
If you can beat a curse with great players, South Carolina has a shot.
Running back Marcus Lattimore is a Heisman candidate who runs like Emmitt Smith. He doesn’t look fast or shifty, but give him the ball and he ends up eight yards downfield.
Quarterback Connor Shaw is steady and conservative -- two weeks ago against Missouri, Shaw was 20 for 21. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top recruit in the country coming out of high school, has 13½ sacks in 18 college games.
And then there’s Spurrier, often-brilliant head coach and often-epic jerk. At Duke, he posed his team in front of the scoreboard after shutting out North Carolina in Chapel Hill. At Florida, he ran a fourth-quarter fleaflicker up 45-17 against Georgia because no road team had scored 50 in Athens. Now, he’s in a bizarre feud with newspaper columnist Ron Morris that cost Morris a part-time TV gig. (I believe the great Dave Barry once said to never make fun of someone with more power than you. That might also apply to trying to get someone fired.)
Spurrier has made a career out of rehab projects. Duke was terrible before he got there. Florida underachieved before he won a national title. Two years ago, in his sixth season at South Carolina, the Gamecocks made the SEC title game. Last year they won 11 games – most in school history – and finished in the AP Top 10 (at No. 9) for the first time ever.
“The Florida people had to learn that we had a really good team, to handle it and this that and the other,” Spurrier said at his news conference. “So it has been sort of similar here. … When you start winning and so forth, all the stuff that happens is new for people. Sometimes you have to read books about it. You say, ‘This is what’s going to happen. Don’t worry about it.’
“It is sort of interesting. I think our fans have handled it very well and understand a little bit now more that we are expecting to beat those guys, expecting to win the game.”
That afternoon, Columbia sports-talk host Heath Cline played excerpts from the news conference on his radio show. The South Carolina fans calling in put Cline in a weird spot. Every caller talked about the greatness of Georgia’s freshman running backs, how QB Aaron Murray will shred the Gamecocks’ secondary, how linebacker Jarvis Jones is so fearsome that poor Connor Shaw might leave the stadium headless.
Cline finally took a deep breath.
“South Carolina fans,” he said. “You’ve got a good team! It’s OK to not be scared!”
Yep, the sports-talk guy tried to convince the fans of an undefeated Top-10 team that the team might actually win.
Welcome to South Carolina football.
* * *
One last story. This one’s from my friend Wayne Wingate, a businessman in Rock Hill, just south of Charlotte.
Wayne was a freshman at South Carolina in 1967. Paul Dietzel, who had won a national title at LSU, was in his second year as the South Carolina coach. In the season opener, the Gamecocks stomped Iowa State 34-3. The future looked so bright. As the clock ran down, Wayne’s buddy Frank rose from his seat and spread his arms wide.
This is what all of these people have been waiting for all of these years, Frank said.
The Gamecocks finished 5-5. That was 45 years ago.
“You know,” Wayne said, “Moses only wandered in the wilderness for 40.”