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The Chicken Tradition

An old article From The Herald Journal

Staff Writer
It was a dose of that good ole' black magic that South Carolina had never before seen. And it didn't happen on the gridiron.

In 1992, a group of weary Gamecocks fans had grown restless with mediocre football seasons. They wanted no more one-point losses, and no more upsets to schools such as The Citadel and Navy. So, they tried to find a cure. Their mission? To rid USC of the infamous Chicken Curse, a mythic force that has seemed to hamper the Gamecocks for decades.

Before USC's season-opener against Georgia, Flynn Bowie Jr., and a group of friends brought in a bona fide witch doctor for an old-fashioned exorcism.

"I don't know what happened with that. I think they went cheap on the witch doctor,'' joked King Dixon, who was then USC's athletics director. "Of course, I stayed out of that, when they got permission from the school to hold the ceremony outside of Williams-Brice. But you know, now I think they should have let (the witch doctor) inside the stadium.''

Actually, the exorcism may have only stirred up the Chicken. For The Curse has become so potent, perhaps the surgeon general should issue an alert. WARNING: The Chicken Curse has the power to frustrate any South Carolina fan, while any professional team with a former Gamecock on its roster is simply tempting fate. Anyone associated with the university also subjects themself to this affliction. For years The Curse was a joke among frustrated Gamecock fans. But when Dixon mentioned it in a 1990 speech, the lore grew faster than kudzu.
The Curse is like a kid brother: it gets blamed for everything.

Doug Nye, a Columbia columnist credited with penning the phrase in the 1970s, said he did so only in jest.
"I'm not saying (the Curse) exists, but ...,'' Nye said. In 1984, USC was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country heading into a meeting against a weak Navy squad. When top-ranked Nebraska lost early in the day to Oklahoma, the Gamecocks were a win away from No. 1. South Carolina lost 38-21.

Former USC quarterback Dan Reeves is one of the most successful NFL coaches ever, having taken four teams to the Super Bowl. Last season, it appeared Reeves had turned around the lowly Atlanta Falcons when he guided them to the Super Bowl. But The Curse struck again. Atlanta lost big to Denver, and not much right has happened since. The Falcons are back to being, well, the Falcons. By the way, Reeves' record in Super Bowls is 0-4.

And don't forget the 1972 Olympic basketball team. The squad had never lost entering the Gold Medal game in Munich, but a series of controversial officiating decisions late in the game helped the Soviet Union win. Kevin Joyce, a USC player, was on the roster.

Holtz and the Chicken

This year, another hapless chapter has been added to the Curse's tale. Lou Holtz, hired after the Gamecocks went 1-10 in 1998, is one of the most respected and winningest college football coaches of all time. No way, no how was he buying into The Curse. In March, Holtz joked: "I feel pressure that if we're not successful, there's going to be a tremendous amount of people who will start putting credence in The Curse.

"It's important that we win because of the Chicken Curse. I may be the last hope.'' Before the season he said people should be more concerned about blocking and tackling than The Curse. Holtz's credo was, "I believe in God more than the Chicken Curse.'' After 10 games, the Gamecocks still are looking for their first win under Holtz, who has seemingly changed his mind about The Curse. "I'm sure some of them figure the Chicken Curse is for real. And I'm starting to wonder,'' Holtz said.

Even Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said Holtz should go to New Orleans for some "voodoo potion."  "You've got to get rid of the Chicken Curse,'' Bowden said. "I don't know where it is, or what it is, but I heard coach Holtz say he's starting to believe it. Whatever that is, I'd find a solution.'' Sorry Tommy, but it's been proven that this Chicken doesn't respond to hocus pocus.

Chicken feed
The Curse has at times appeared to vanish. In 1995 when the Gamecocks won the Carquest Bowl -- their first and only bowl victory in nine tries -- fans celebrated and said The Curse was history. Actually, The Curse was hard at work. You see, it likes to tease and lure fans. And the Gamecocks have won just 16 games since that bowl victory five years ago. 

"That's the basis of the Chicken Curse. It makes fans think they are on the brink of greatness, and then it slams them in the gut,'' said Nye, who is now The State's television editor.

There have been other moments of hope. But each has been leveled by The Curse. In the 1980s, Joe Morrison took teams to three bowl games in five seasons, and had a 10-win campaign. But he never won a bowl. A few months after his sixth season at South Carolina, Morrison died of a heart attack on school grounds in 1989.  Frank McGuire's basketball teams earned four straight NCAA Tournament appearances during the early 1970s.  But one of McGuire's best teams, the 1970 squad, never got a chance to prove its worth. Ranked No. 1 in preseason polls, that team went 25-3 in the regular season and 14-1 in the ACC. But the Gamecocks lost in the ACC tournament final. Because only tournament winners advanced to the NCAA tournament back then, the Gamecocks stayed home. USC couldn't even play in the NIT because it was hosting the NCAA Eastern Regional. A rule in those days prohibited regional hosts from playing in the NIT.

History has also proven that it's not good to tease The Curse. In 1994, a group of Irmo fans recorded a song proclaiming Brad Scott's arrival. To the tune from the Wizard of Oz, it went, "Ding dong the Curse is dead, the worst ol' curse, the Chicken Curse ... Brad Scott came into town, USC's rolling now! Oh boy, the Chicken Curse is dead!"
On Saturday, Scott will be wearing orange and coaching from the Clemson sideline.

The Origins

Nye, former sports editor of the Columbia Record, first wrote about The Chicken Curse while the Gamecocks were in an early 1970s losing streak. Though the column was tongue-in-cheek, he was serious about its theme, which was how Gamecocks fans always seemed to expect the worst. "I really didn't think much about the column after writing it,'' Nye said.

Three decades later, his wife, a USC fan, has grown tired of all the Chicken talk.

"She always says, 'I hope you're satisfied because this is going to be on your tombstone,' " Nye said.
While Nye may have written about The Curse, he sure didn't start it. And there are plenty of theories about its beginnings.

Neither Williams-Brice Stadium nor the university were built on an old Indian burial ground, which many believe.
Some say The Curse started in 1861 as payback for the state being the first to secede from the Union and starting the Civil War.

Others say it started much earlier, and as proof point to the fall of the Alamo in 1836. The militia from Texas was led by, you guessed it, a South Carolinian named William Travis, who spent time on the USC campus.

And then there is the Clemson Conspiracy Theory. After Ben ''Pitchfork'' Tillman, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, had trouble convincing USC officials of the need for an agricultural school, he helped found Clemson. Tillman, the story goes, then put a hex on USC.

Most fans just curse The Curse and repeat the stories for enjoyment. They don't actually believe it.
"There comes a time when you have to stop crying and start laughing,'' Dixon said. Tom Price, a USC historian and former sports information director, said there is always more talk of The Curse when teams are losing.

And that's normal, said Matt Bernthal, an USC professor who has studied fan psychology. "It's a fun way for people to look elsewhere when their team is struggling,'' he said. "You see this in sports, when things are going poorly on the field people tend to externalize and look elsewhere for the reason. And when things are going well on the field, they tend to internalize.''

Steve Taneyhill, who was a Gamecocks quarterback from 1992-95, said he never gave The Curse a second thought, and players never discussed The Curse.  Even when things were bad, he never thought the team was cursed. "Games are won and lost on the field,'' Taneyhill said. "If you lose, it's poor execution.''

And as for that witch doctor ... "That was just goofy,'' Taneyhill said.

Here's a look at some more havoc The Curse may have caused: The Boston Red Sox were leading the New York Yankees by 14 1/2 games in late July 1978, and appeared headed to a division title. Then the Red Sox added USC graduate Gary Hancock to their roster. They lost the division race in a playoff. USC seemed poised in 1979 for an upset of Notre Dame at South Bend. USC had the ball with four minutes remaining but Notre Dame got the ball back on their 20-yard line with the Gamecocks leading 17-10. Notre Dame went 80 yards for the touchdown and made the two-point conversion for an 18-17 win. The Gamecocks started the 1928 season with five straight wins. But the Gamecocks still had a Big Thursday meeting with Clemson. The Gamecocks lost 32-0, and finished the season 6-2-2. Gary Hart saw his dreams of becoming president end when he was caught in an extra-marital dalliance with Donna Rice, a former USC cheerleader. Alex English is regarded as one of the best players in NBA history. Best, that is, without a championship. A reach maybe, but worth considering: six months after playing at Carolina Coliseum, Elvis Presley died. Fans were ecstatic when former USC standout Bobby Cremins decided to leave the program he had built at Georgia Tech to coach the Gamecocks. A day after announcing he was returning to his alma mater, he changed his mind. In 1997 and 1998, the Gamecocks won more than 20 basketball games and advanced to the NCAA tournament. Both teams were upset in the first round.