Early on Thursday morning, Gamecock fans were rocked with the news of the tragic passing of legendary quarterback Phil Petty at the age of 43. Petty came to South Carolina to play for Brad Scott in 1997 from Boiling Springs High School, redshirting his freshman season. Little did South Carolina fans know at the time that Petty would be one of the most important players in the history of the program.
In Petty’s redshirt freshman season of 1998, he saw limited time at quarterback in what would be Brad Scott’s final season as head coach of the Gamecocks following a 1-10 campaign in which the team lost its final ten games, including all of its SEC contests. Lou Holtz was hired to turn the Gamecock football program around in December of 1998, but things only got worse on the field before they would get better as the Gamecocks would go 0-11 in 1999. Petty saw time as a part-time starter that season as the losing streak reached 21 games entering the 2000 season.
As a redshirt junior in 2000, Phil Petty became the full-time starting quarterback of the Gamecocks. Petty helped the Gamecocks lead one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. After defeating New Mexico State 31-0 to open the season and end the nation’s longest losing streak, the Gamecocks upset ninth-ranked Georgia 21-10 the next week to end a 19-game SEC losing streak. The Gamecocks went on to finish the 2000 season with an 8-4 record after upsetting Ohio State 24-7 in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day to complete one of the greatest and memorable seasons in the history of Carolina football.
In 2001, Petty’s redshirt senior season, he only got better and so did the Gamecocks. In Week 2, Petty engineered one of the most memorable drives in South Carolina football history against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. Trailing 9-7 with just over three minutes remaining Petty completed three huge third-down completions to Ryan Brewer, Matthew Thomas, and finally to Brian Scott for the game-winning touchdown with 1:22 remaining to give the Gamecocks a 14-9 win. Three weeks later in South Carolina’s first home game following 9/11, Petty was back at it again, leading another memorable comeback. This time it was against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. Trailing 36-24 midway through the fourth quarter, Petty engineered two touchdown drives, including the go-ahead touchdown pass to seldom-used tight end Rod Trafford to lead the Gamecocks to a 37-36 win over Alabama. That win over the Tide was the first victory over Alabama in school history. The Gamecocks would finish the 2001 season with a 20-15 win over Clemson and a 31-28 win over Ohio State once again in the Outback Bowl to finish 9-3. That 9-3 2001 season would stand to be the second-best record in school history until 2011. Petty ended his career throwing for 5,656 yards and 28 touchdowns, appearing in 40 games throughout his career.
Phil Petty had spent time coaching at Hammond School and East Carolina before getting out of coaching. Petty recently returned to coaching as the offensive coordinator at Gray Collegiate in the spring of 2022.
So, what made Phil Petty so special to the Gamecock program and such a fan favorite? I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but listening to his former teammates talk about the type of leader he was has always stood out to me. Petty was the quarterback of a team entering the 2000 season that was going through the longest losing streak in the country. Teammates have spoken about how important Petty’s leadership was in the turnaround seasons of 2000 and 2001. Petty played through injuries throughout his career at South Carolina, he played in four different offensive schemes, but when I think about Phil Petty’s legacy there is one moment that will always stand out to me.
Phil Petty’s legacy as a Gamecock for me will always be a play that he was not even on the field for. In the midst of the greatest game of his career against Mississippi State in 2000, Petty had thrown for 305 yards and a touchdown before injuring his ankle with 4:43 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Gamecocks trailing the 25th ranked Bulldogs 19-13. Enter backup quarterback Erik Kimrey. Every Gamecock fan knows what happened next. Kimrey hit Jermale Kelly on 4th and 10 for the go-ahead 25 yard touchdown, or as Gamecock fans know it as today: “The Fade.” If you go back and watch the Jefferson Pilot Sports broadcast, you will see the first person that greets Erik Kimrey when he gets to the sideline is Phil Petty with a huge bearhug. Petty, hobbled by a high ankle sprain that had just occurred in the middle of his greatest performance, personified what it means to be a great teammate as he limped to Kimrey to be the first one to greet him and celebrate this moment. The turnaround, the late game-winning drives, the victories over Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Clemson, and the Outback Bowl victories over Ohio State are all great memories for Carolina fans. However, that is the one thing that I will always remember and love the most about Phil Petty and what he meant to the Gamecock program. That is why history will look back at Phil Petty as one of the most important players in school history.