Anyone new to Columbia will learn quickly that life here revolves around the University of South Carolina, better known as USC to folks in these parts.
(Do not listen to people outside the state who try to tell you USC stands for the University of Southern California. Not here it doesn’t. Everyone in the Midlands knows which school you mean when you say USC. Or you can just say Carolina, but that would require you not to listen to those snooty people from North Carolina who try to say that name only applies to their school. Again, not here it doesn’t.)
You also will discover that USC serves as the center of activity in Columbia, from education to entertainment to athletics. The campus, with nearly 31,000 students, sits in the heart of the city, a few blocks from the State House. And since the bustling college grounds are so close to the state capital’s downtown area, it may be tough for newcomers to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
Here’s a hint: If a large group of nice-looking, casually-dressed young people wearing backpacks steps out in front of your car and collectively acts like it’s no big deal that you had to slam on your brakes, then you’re on campus. Drive through at your own risk.
And don’t even think about parking to take a look around. The last time a parking space came open anywhere near campus was at some point in 1977. Three cars arrived simultaneously and tried to pull in at once, prompting a heated discussion between the drivers over which one got there first. I’m pretty sure they’re still there arguing today.
So when you can’t find a space but want to hang out, you can always head over to Five Points or the Vista, the rival restaurant and shopping districts that border the campus on opposite ends. Five Points is where the cool college kids hang out, and the Vista is where the people who wish they were still cool college kids hang out. You decide where you belong.
Native Columbia residents love their sports, too, and when I say sports, I mean Gamecock athletics. If you think anybody wants to hear you talk about the professional team in your former city, think again. It’s all about cheering for the Gamecocks here, and the words “Go Cocks!” are openly shouted in public places without fear of disapproving looks.
For many years, South Carolina’s teams were viewed nationally as either underachieving mediocrities or mediocre underachievers. But no more.
With a stable of big-name coaches, from Steve Spurrier in football to Dawn Staley in women’s basketball to Ray Tanner in baseball, the Gamecocks have finally ended the long-standing and diabolical “Chicken Curse” with a history-making 11 wins last season in football and back-to-back national championships in baseball. And now they’ve hired a firebrand men’s basketball coach in Frank Martin, whose intense glare has been reported to turn referees into liquid butter.
So welcome to Columbia. Enjoy our beautiful city and, by extension, U-S-C — now that you know what it stands for.
Neil White is a sports writer and columnist at The State.