They have started football season early down in South Carolina.
Somebody broke off a hunk of Howard's Rock at Clemson the other day. That rock is literally the touchstone of Clemson football. In the '60s, former coach Frank Howard started the tradition of having players rub the rock before they run down the hill onto the field at Death Valley.
The Howard's Rock vandalism is probably retaliation for the Clemson tiger paw somebody painted on the field at South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium. The vandal(s) painted another paw and "GO TIGERS" outside the stadium on two Cockabooses -- the old rail cars that wealthy Gamecock fans have converted for tailgate parties.
South Carolinians are never shy about letting you know how they feel. That's especially true when it comes to Clemson-South Carolina football -- one of the most underrated, chippy and hateful rivalries in sports.
It's not surprising that a little Harvey Updyke is leaking out from both sides this spring. The Tigers and the Gamecocks both ought to be good. Early preseason polls have South Carolina around No. 7 or 8 and Clemson somewhere between 10 and 12. (SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Preseason polls mean nothing. But still.) Clemson brings back QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins, both quicker than heat lightning. South Carolina brings back Jadeveon Clowney, and sure let's go watch that one more time.
Both teams play Georgia in the first two weeks of the season -- Clemson at home, South Carolina on the road -- and then their schedules lighten up until Clemson hosts Florida State and South Carolina hosts Florida. By Nov. 30, when they play each other in Columbia, both teams could be …
Well, we probably don't want that, for the safety of our nation.
Let me take you back to 1902, when South Carolina beat Clemson 12-6 and held a victory parade of a Gamecock beating on a Tiger. This infuriated Clemson so much that the cadets (Clemson was a military college then) marched on the Columbia campus with guns and bayonets. Things cooled down eventually, but the two teams didn't play again for seven years.
Or let me take you to 1946, when New York mobsters printed up counterfeit tickets to the game. When fans showed up and found out their tickets were no good, they busted down the gates and overflowed the stadium. Then, at halftime, a Clemson fan wrung the neck of a live chicken at midfield. I don't have to tell you there was almost a riot.
Or let me take you to 1961, when the Clemson band played "Tiger Rag" as the players took the field … only the players kept falling down and dropping passes and whiffing on field goals. Turned out the "team" was a bunch of Sigma Nus from South Carolina dressed up in Clemson gear. Furious Clemson fans stormed the field but security held them back. The frat guys also bought a sick cow they planned to unveil as the "Clemson homecoming queen," but the cow died on the way to the game.
Or let me take you back to 2004, when the two teams got into the biggest on-field brawl in modern football history. It really is a remarkable thing. That's one of the few times you watch a football fight and think: Somebody could have died. It looks like "Gangs of New York" out there.
The heat goes back some 130 years, when powerful South Carolina politicians fought against the creation of the university at Clemson. The story goes that Ben Tillman, a future governor and U.S. senator, got so angry that he flung a pitchfork into the sod on the USC campus and declared the whole place cursed. This evolved into the "chicken curse" that some South Carolina fans still absolutely believe in.
All that is stacked on top of the normal college friction. South Carolina is the liberal arts school; Clemson's the ag and engineering school. The South Carolina campus is in the state's biggest city; Clemson is off by itself in the Upstate. Like Alabama and Auburn fans, South Carolina and Clemson people grow up together, work together, go to the same barbecue joints and the same bars. They can't get away from each other.
Clemson leads the all-time rivalry 65-41-4 and owns the two teams' only national title (1981, bless God and Danny Ford). South Carolina has been better lately, winning the last four matchups under Steve Spurrier. Over the years, one team has often been bad when the other one is good. This is one of the few years I can remember where they feel about equal before the season starts. So both sides are feeling salty, and with good reason.
This is the time of year when the heat starts to get brutal in South Carolina. Stay out in it long enough and your mind starts to drift to dangerous places. That's a way of saying: It's still more than two months before the season starts, Tiger and Gamecock fans. There are going to be a lot of hot days between now and then. Try to stay cool.
* * *
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. As a Georgia fan, I have been taught from birth to hate Clemson and South Carolina. But down here, where nobody is looking, I'll admit that Howard's Rock and the entrance down the hill is pretty cool. I also kind of like the Cockabooses. Tell no one I said this.