Let me say that there are few things I hate hearing more this time of year than "the Palmetto Bowl" and "the Battle of the Palmetto State." And whenever someone talks about The Hardee's Trophy I want to throw up in my mouth a little.
Don't get me wrong. I love the nickname "Palmetto State." But why-oh-why is one of the best and oldest rivalries in all of college football - a game that of such cultural importance to us that it was literally woven into the social fabric of our fair state - saddled with such disharmonious sobriquets that sound like they came straight out of chamber of commerce brochure? Isn't there is a simpler, more elegant and far more traditional appellation available?
The answer is yes, and to find it all we need to do is take a little stroll down a mutual memory lane for these two ancient rivals.
Generally speaking, we South Carolinians - whether by birth or by adoption - love history almost as much as we love college football. So most of us - whether we cheer for the "Orange and White" or the "Garnet and Black" (or neither) - already know all about "Big Thursday."
For those of you unfamiliar with the "Big Thursday" phenomenon, it was the name given to the the annual USC-CU tilt held every October on the first Thursday of the South Carolina State Fair. Back in the day, and well into the 20th century, the State Fair was not some hoi polloi traveling carnival peddling funnel cakes and dangerous rides to a primarily Midlands clientele, but the premiere social convocation of a primarily agrarian State - bringing together Sandlappers from every county and all social classes.
From its earliest days, the Clemson-Carolina Classic was connected with the Fair. The first meeting between the Tigers and Cocks (then known as the "Ploughboys" and the "Jaguars") was held in conjunction with the 1896 Fair.
In the 1890s, football was then a relatively newfangled Yankee fad. Carolina had fielded a team since 1892, but our Pickens County brethren picked it up for the first time in 1896. That year, some 2000 folks each paid the princely sum of 25 cents to watch USC prevail 12-6 at the old fairgrounds on Assembly Street in what was described as "the gaudiest athletic spectacle in South Carolina" history. Keep in mind, however, that the game was the undercard to the main event of the day: horseracing (if that helps put it into perspective).
For the next six decades, each successive meeting between the two bitter rivals was played at the State Fair, one of the most notable being in 1902, when after their victory some 300 Clemson cadets, armed with rifles and fixed bayonets, marched from their bivouac at the Statehouse grounds over to the Horseshoe to demand the surrender of a pro-Gamecck poster deemed offensive to Clemson's honor; there they were met by 30 USC students armed with club, sticks and several pistols. Fortunately, authorities intervened and a Palmetto State Thermopylae was averted.
Starting in 1909 (when the series returned after a six year moratorium following the riot) the game was played at the new Bluff Road fairgrounds which had opened in 1904.
Over time, the Big Thursday game became so important that literally the entire State shut down to watch it or (for most) listen by radio. There were never enough tickets and heavy drinking was the order of the day for the mostly male crowd. The game also had national and regional prominence; think of it as the pre-television equivalent of a modern ESPN national Thursday nighter, as the only college football game usually being played that day. The whole country may have listened, but it was still very uniquely South Caolinian in nature. Wrote TIME Magazine in 1949:
"In South Carolina, it is unpardonable for a red-blooded citizen to be neutral on Big Thursday. On that momentous day, by decree of State law and with the State Fair as a backdrop, Clemson College (enrollment 3200) fights it out on the football field with the University of South Carolina (enrollment 4000). As usual last week, schools closed down and politicians scurried back from Washington as citizens began working themselves in the mood for the 47th annual [sic] battle."
The matchup was so popular it ultimately resulted in the 1932 WPA construction project first known as "Carolina Stadium" - now morphed from 17,000 seats into our beloved 80,000+ "Willy B" (which, in my opinion is a lovable mistake - but still a mistake to have left the beautiful USC grounds; a fantastic on-campus stadium could have been built between the site of present-day Capstone Hall and Harden Street).
Clemson's legendary Frank Howard, with some justification, argued that fairness required the annual contest be a true home-and-home series. He got his wish following the 1959 tilt (won by Clemson), when the General Assembly approved the alternating series. Decoupled from the Fair, there was no reason to hold the game in October, or on a Thursday. Big Thursday passed into memory. Some have argued that returning the game to a Thursday would add luster to the rivalry - but without avail.
Looking back, its hard not fight back a wave of nostalgia for bygone Big Thursdays: the close games; the test of wills between Rex Enright and Frank Howard; the fights in the stands; the hard drinking; the counterfeit tickets; Howard's "Sunburn" [Alas, not the epic Sigma Nu prank of 1961 which took place on the first return game, but I am going to count it anyway!]. Many of the most poignant memories of the rivalry are intimately connected with Big Thursday.
You could say Big Thursday was one part Carthasis; one part Kulturkampf; and one part pure Chaos, all served together with your choice of cheap rye whiskey, gin or beer, and festooned with a black eye or two.
No less an authority on Southern sports than the late Furman Bisher - the longtime sports editor and columnist for the Atlanta Constitution-Journal - wrote about the final Big Thursday in 1959. One of the things that the great but oft-controversial Bisher penned back then really stands out:
"Big Thursday isn't dead in South Carolina. It merely moves to November and becomes Big Saturday. But for the rest of the nation which has shared the high moments of this Roman holiday in October, it dies at sundown, or when the last drop is downed, and when the last weary body has been returned to its bed in Wampee, Walhalla, Yamaseee or Tamassee (emphasis added)."
Amen, Brother Furman. (I would also add Green Pond, Green Sea, Sugar Tit, Lone Star and Ninety-Six to that list of all-time great South Carolina township names).
Seriously, though, Bisher was right. Big Thursday simply became Big Saturday. We just stopped calling it that.
Thus, I would respectfully urge we go back to our roots and put the "Big" back into the Saturday that still has the power to focus our entire State on the gridiron. It can never realistically be a Thursday game again since both clubs try to compete for their respective conference championships the following Saturday, and neither would accept a short practice week before playing the rivalry game. But there is no reason we cannot follow Bisher's lead, and call it "Big" again.
Big Saturday. Why not? It's our shared heritage. It makes sense, too. It is has the power of tradition and a dulcet-sounding simplicity. Let the ESPN announcers say "Now we are in Columbia [or Clemson], South Carolina for the game known in this State simply as 'Big Saturday'." Wouldn't that warm your hearts?
No one else uses Big Saturday. Let's take it back now!
Once. Now. Forever.
Go Cocks! Beat Clemson! Win Big Saturday!
PS - If you liked this article, then start calling it Big Saturday. Sooner or later it will catch back on if we all start doing it!
PPS - If you like articles on Gamecock history and traditions, also take a look at: