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Historical Eye of the Tiger: Clemson v. South Carolina

Conflict characterizes the annual clash of cultures between Clemson and Carolina in the “Palmetto Bowl”

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Every Tiger fan’s favorite week is finally upon us: Clemson-Carolina, Tigers ‘n Chickens, the newly dubbed “Palmetto Bowl,” or as it’s better known in the upstate, the annual “Chicken Pickin’.” The vitriol spewing forth from Clemson and Columbia and across the great state of South Carolina this week is ever-vehement, a tradition that dates to very founding of Clemson College and the very first years of this pigskin “rivalry.” Since 1889 Clemson and Carolina have despised one another, and since 1896 that hatred has played out on the gridiron year after year. The 2016 duel will mark the 114th all-time meeting, the 108th consecutive matchup, trailing only the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry as the longest consecutively tenured game in NCAA history.

We’re gonna do a lil’ chicken pickin’!

But it’s the six-year hiatus from 1903-1908 that embodies the passions entailed in this annual blood feud; that highlight the deeper cultural meaning that has always been and will always be attached to this game that is so much more than a game for so many people across the state. It’s not just “another game,” and it means a lot more than a preference for orange or garnet, Tigers or Gamecocks, ACC or SEC. This game pits two historically oppositional cultures against one another. It’s rural vs. urban, agricultural vs. industrial, white collar vs. blue collar, Midlands vs. Upstate. Some of these tensions have subsided over the years as both institutions grew beyond their original intent and functions, but what remains is a fundamental sense that “Tiger” and “Gamecock” are antithetical terms describing the two most prominent segments of South Carolina society on a perpetual collision course.

Tigers & Gamecocks on a collision course since 1896

We’ll not dwell on the well-documented facts in this annual gridiron grudge match. Simply put, Clemson has dominated the series that began in 1896, compiling a 67-42-4 overall record against the Gamecocks, a record of dominance rendered even more impressive when one considers that until 1960, every game was played on the Gamecocks’ home turf to kick off the SC State Fair on “Big Thursday.” Even with this decided advantage, the Tigers more than earned their stripes and generally silenced the crowing of Columbia’s feathered contingent, going 33-21-3 in the fifty-seven Big Thursday matchups. The Tigers are an equally dominant 34-21-1 since the onset of the home-and-home series beginning in 1960, and have generally owned the Gamecocks regardless of location, compiling a 17-10-1 record in Death Valley and a 17-11-0 record in Billy Brice since the demise of Big Thursday. The inaugural game in 1896 belied this orange-tinted dominance, as the fowl-weather men of the Midlands defeated the martial men from the Upstate 12-6 in Columbia.

1902 Clemson Tigers

That 12-6 score would again draw the ire of the Tiger faithful in perhaps the most contentious moment in the rivalry’s fractious history: the 1902 “Football War,” also known as the “Transparency Incident,” which followed that season’s Gamecock triumph and ultimately led to a suspension of the game for the next six seasons. Just the sixth all-time meeting (the two did not play in 1901), the 1902 game saw the Gamecocks steal the state championship and snap a four-game losing streak (three of the four by shutout, and the fourth a 20-6 blowout in 1897) by giving John Heisman’s Tigers their only blemish in a 6-1 season. It was the first Gamecock victory since that first one in 1896. Incensed by this shocking turn of events, and further goaded by Carolina students strutting through the streets of Columbia carrying a transparency depicting a rooster spurring a Tiger with its tail tucked between its legs, some 400 Clemson cadets affixed bayonets and proceeded to charge an impromptu barricade thrown up by the Carolina contingent in “the Horseshoe” to protect their campus from the destruction and themselves from the bodily harm threatened by the enraged corps of Clemson cadets. Dozens of violent incidents throughout town involving alleged cadet violence toward Carolina students had necessitated the barricade, and many of the Carolina students and professors went armed with pistols and rifles, prepared to combat the approaching column of belligerent Tigers.

The infamous 1902 “Transparency” at the root of the riot

Though a compromise eventually mitigated against any further violence, dissension over the affair and where to place the blame persisted. Clemson President P.H. Mell defended the actions of his cadets in the face of what he described as “the transparency [and] its intended insult,” which he asserted was “too much for them to bear,” wholly warranting the “results occurring therefrom.” Such recalcitrance from Clemson officials only fanned the flames of fury emanating from Columbia. Not since Sherman’s march through the Carolinas had Columbia burned with such hate. The impasse between officials over the impassioned violence of their respective student bodies produced a near-deadly result for the fledgling football rivalry between the two institutions: both sides agreed to suspend the annual rivalry game until tempers on both sides had cooled. Not surprisingly in the annals of South Carolina history, tempers cooled rather slowly, and six seasons would pass before either side wholly swore off actual combat to enable the gridiron competition to resume in 1909.

Clemson @ South Carolina, return of “Big Thursday” in 1909

How could passions have reached such a fever pitch in a rivalry just entering its sixth year in 1902? The answer most likely lies in the turmoil surrounding the founding of Clemson College and resistance to it from various dignitaries in Columbia and officials associated with the South Carolina College. The state university in Columbia dated to its founding as South Carolina College in 1801. Following the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era in which the overwhelming majority of students enrolled at the college were black (90% at its peak), and the subsequent “redemption” of the state government by white politicians from racially “progressive” Republicans in 1877, the state university was in danger of closing permanently. Federal funds provided by the Morrill and Hatch Acts granted the college a new lease on life, and that life included a shift from its previously classical education curriculum to one that included more applied mathematics, engineering, and agricultural knowledge, largely in the form of institutionally-affiliated “experiment stations” located throughout the state. It was the proposed re-allocation of these funds to form a separate agricultural college of South Carolina that spawned the tension between what would become Clemson College and the University of South Carolina.

Clemson Founding Trustee Benjamin Ryan Tillman spewing vitriol from the stump

Infamous SC governor and later U.S. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman won the governorship on a populist platform, claiming to be the voice of the neglected rural farmers of the state, and sworn to aggressively forward their interests against those of the elites whose power was concentrated in the state’s major urban centers, namely Charleston and Columbia. As the primary educational institution in the state, the South Carolina College drew much of Tillman’s vitriol and rendered him pariah in elite political circles throughout the state while endearing him to the white farmers he claimed to champion. The last will and testament of Thomas Green Clemson, granting his estate to the state for the establishment of an agricultural college, gave Tillman his first cause and largely carried him to the governor’s office in 1890. This effort to establish a separate state school for agricultural and mechanical instruction met with resistance at every turn from elitist politicians in Columbia and officials at the state university still struggling with enrollment in the wake of Reconstruction and “Redemption.”

“Old Green Tom”

Viewed in this broader context, the “Football War” in 1902, coming as it did just over a decade from the controversial and contested founding of Clemson College in 1889, appears far less surprising. “Bad blood” existed between the two schools from the beginning of Tillman’s campaign to capitalize on Clemson’s gift and consolidate his political potency by linking his “reform movement” to the college. In so doing he promised to provide the farmers who supported him with a state college focused solely on their interests. That tensions over a particularly violent sport like football would spill over into the streets, and that long-standing institutional antagonisms would get caught up in these conflicts seems almost predictable.

67-42-4. Rivalry? More like Domination.

Despite the overall dominance of the Tigers on the gridiron, such vehemence continues to pervade the relationship between Clemson and Carolina and their respective contingents and cultures to the present day. In some ways, the “late unpleasantness” (no, not the euphemistic moniker given by Lost Cause advocates to the Civil War, but rather the recent unprecedented five-game winning streak by the chickens) has only intensified these historical tensions. While much has changed in both Columbia and Clemson since they first began competing in football, much the same passion that colored every aspect of Clemson’s founding and has permeated every one of the previous one hundred and fourteen football meetings between them continues to percolate and every now and then even boils over in ways everyone on either side of that 1902 barricade would recognize.

“The Brawl” during the Tigers’ 29-7 rout of the Gamecocks in 2004

This year, the football game should resemble the majority of those that have come before, as Clemson brings a much more talented team and boasts a much more impressive resume than do the Gamecocks. The Tigers are historically comfortable in this superior position, and history shows that more often than not, the superior team (in talent as well as in rankings) typically prevails. Can “Coach Boom” get his boys’ “spurs up” for an epic upset and topple the Tigers title hopes, or will Coach Dabo, Deshaun and Company get another leg up in the rivalry? As Dabo himself said this week, “that’s why you don’t play the game on paper.” Affix bayonets my fellow Tigers, for tomorrow the battle for the Palmetto State begins anew, and the historical preservation of our dominance is at stake.

Clemson Cadets in front of Tillman Hall in 1898



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Travis Haney & Larry Williams, Classic Clashes of the Carolina-Clemson Football Rivalry: A State of Disunion, (The History Press, 2011)

Frank Howard, Bob Bradley & Virgil Parker, eds., Howard: The Clemson Legend, (Howard Publishing, 1990)

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