CLEMSON — A solid case can be presented by someone without a dog in the fight that the 1977 game in Columbia, ending with a catch for the ages, was the best in the Carolina-Clemson series.
It featured big plays by gifted players and seismic shifts in momentum. The iconic moment was captured in a mottled and grainy black and white photo taken from the press box at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Historically it proved to be a milestone for a Clemson program at the doorstep of grand success while South Carolina was still trying to find the address.
As a reporter and editor in the Upstate for more than 35 years, it has been fascinating to watch the drama unfold each season, though the intense acrimony can be a bit unsettling.
Before the fall of 1973, Clemson was vaguely familiar as a basketball doormat in the ACC for teams like South Carolina. Red Parker was in his first season at Clemson. Paul Dietzel, who coached LSU to a national championship in 1958, was in his eighth season as coach and athletics director at South Carolina.
Both were gone by the 1977 season but their influences lingered.
Parker, a homespun fellow from Arkansas, was a crack recruiter. He landed several top prospects during four average-to-miserable seasons, including quarterback Steve Fuller of Spartanburg only weeks before practice began in 1975. In the same class was Jerry Butler, a skinny four-sport star from Ware Shoals.
After Clemson beat South Carolina to finish a 3-6-2 season, Parker thought he might get another year. Days later he was fired and defensive coordinator Charley Pell was promoted to head coach in what amounted to a bitter coup. Benefitting from Parker’s foundation, Pell built Clemson into an instant winner.
Dietzel had been shown the door after the 1974 season. He left a legacy that included first-rate athletics facilities as shrines to compromise, and a role in ending Carolina’s affiliation with the ACC.
Jim Carlen, with a track record of success at West Virginia and Texas Tech, was hired for the 1975 season and was plugging away three years later.
Entering the Nov. 19 game at South Carolina, the Tigers were on course to their best season since a 9-2 record in 1959. Clemson ranked 15th in the AP poll, its season blemished by a seven-point loss to Maryland in the opening game, a tie at North Carolina and a four-point loss at home the week previous to the rivalry game to eventual national champion Notre Dame.
The Gamecocks were 5-5, a virtual microcosm of their football history, having lost to Georgia, Duke and N.C. State by a combined 10 points. Ron Bass (“Remember the Titans”) was the quarterback.
The game seemed secure when Clemson led 24-0 in the third quarter on touchdowns by Warren Ratchford, Lester Brown and Ken Callicutt, and a field goal by Obed Ariri.
South Carolina rallied, starting with a long touchdown by Spencer Clark followed by back-to-back touchdowns by Steve Dorsey. When USC missed a two-point conversion, it was 24-20 in the fourth.
Clemson shanked a punt, and Bass hit Phillip Logan for a 40-yard touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 27-24 lead.
Back came Clemson from its 33-yard line. Fuller passed for 26 yards to Rick Weddington and 18 to Dwight Clark. At the 20-yard line with 49 seconds to play, Fuller sent Butler out on a corner route – a “seven cut.”
Butler broke from the line of scrimmage, faked a break to the post and turned left toward the corner. He noticed Fuller was in trouble so Butler broke back toward the quarterback.
“I knew Steve had been taught not to take a sack in that situation, and I knew he’d try to throw the ball out of the end zone,” Butler said in an interview a few years ago. “I knew also that if I could make a quick adjustment, he might find me.”
The Gamecock secondary followed him, Butler said, and “I knew I had all of the end zone behind me if I needed it.”
Fuller’s throw was as much out of futility.
“I can still see that ball. It looked kind of white against the black sky,” he said. “I didn’t think I had a chance.”
Butler leaped. Playing with two jammed fingers and a wrap he manufactured that allowed him to spread his fingers, he extended himself to reach the ball.
A film clip on YouTube is clearer than the old snapshot, but it’s over in seconds.
Fuller is rolling left when he throws. Butler is off the ground, arms extended, the ball clutched between his hands, his momentum carrying him backwards, and he falls into the arms of angels and the pages of history.