Nov. 20, 2004
John Strickland saw the pass hit the turf and knew his final chance to beat Clemson had slipped away. Trailing 29-7, with 5:48 remaining in the game, South Carolina was going to lose.
Running downfield to block on the play, the Gamecocks’ center saw the pass waved incomplete. A Clemson defensive back offered a consoling word, then suddenly ripped off his helmet, dropped it and sprinted toward the line of scrimmage.
Befuddled, Strickland turned and saw a pile of players – white and black uniforms colliding with purple and orange. Accidentally kicking the fallen orange headgear, Strickland ran with only one thought.
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The thought summed up a strange two weeks.
Assured of their first bowl appearance since 2001 after beating Arkansas on Nov. 6, the Gamecocks felt great. They were 6-3 and figured they had a good chance to beat Florida and Clemson, go to a nice bowl game and finish with nine wins, just like the 2001 team.
But a week before, a phone call had started a change.
“When we played Tennessee, coach (Lou) Holtz thought we had a great opportunity to win the game,” then-athletics director Mike McGee said. “He was real excited going into that. Turned out, it was not the case. They thumped us pretty good.”
The 43-29 loss drained Holtz. He called McGee that Saturday night.
“He said he’d been giving thought to it. He was very disappointed and called and said it would be his last year coaching,” McGee said. “I asked him if we could talk about it Sunday and he said he had made a very final decision. It wasn’t a total surprise.”
By kickoff of the Clemson game, the Gamecocks, then the nation, knew that Holtz was gone.
“He wanted to get back to a bowl game and then retire,” Strickland said. “He said he loved coaching us, but he’d been coaching for a long time and it was time to step away. His wife had been fighting cancer and he wanted to spend time away from football.”
Getting ready for Clemson after a 48-14 pasting at Florida, many players were more emotional than usual, wanting to send Holtz out a winner.
“After he told us, it seemed like the team got lost,” Strickland said. “Some of the players were kind of upset about it … I would say 35, 40 percent of the guys were not happy. It might have been that some of them gave up. It knocked the air out of the team.”
Players were in their Greenville hotel, watching ESPN’s SportsCenter, when the news alerts began scrolling. A fight had broken out in an NBA game in Detroit the night before, and the Gamecocks watched clip after clip of Pistons and Pacers players decking fans and each other.
They talked about it at breakfast and on the bus to the game. Blood was already hot for a rivalry matchup, many seeking revenge for the humiliating 63-17 whipping Clemson had posted on USC the year before, and there was a tense feeling in the locker room.
“You’re talking about state bragging rights,” said Jonathan Alston, a USC offensive lineman. “You might be playing against high-school friends or opponents. Our guys, I thought, were ready to compete.”
“I think some of the guys, knowing coach was leaving, were like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Strickland said.
The Gamecocks entered Memorial Stadium as the Tigers prepared for their famous run down the hill. A few USC players broke from the group and went to the lower corner of the hill, motioning for the Tigers to come get their whuppin’. The group quickly swelled.
“It was a couple of young guys, and one older guy,” Alston said. “We were always taught and coached to always have class. Throwing a wrench in their tradition, of running down the hill, that was a little tasteless.”
“Hostile territory. We were behind enemy lines,” Gamecocks offensive lineman Jabari Levey said. “I ran over there to pull on my guys’ backs, get everybody re-focused.”
A few swings, a lot of shoving, but each team was eventually herded back on its sideline. A TV announcer ominously said, “Please, let’s not go back to Detroit.”
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s something that I’m sure is going to put Clemson in a bad mood,’ ” former USC sports information director Kerry Tharp said.
The game began as Tigers special-teamer David Dunham separated Gamecocks kick returner Cory Boyd from the football. Two plays later, Clemson was in the end zone. An ugly simmer was set to boil over.
There had been some late hits, but there always are in football, especially in a rivalry game. Still, there was something different that day. As Clemson built a 22-point lead, the mood on USC’s sideline became sullen, then defiant.
“There were a lot of things that shouldn’t have been going on on the playing field, late hits, dirty hits,” Alston said. “You compete, you talk trash, but there was a lot more going on. There’s a big difference between letting guys play and letting guys play dirty.”
“The refs didn’t control that game,” USC tight end Andy Boyd said. “There were cheap shots left and right. I’m sure it got rousted up from us, several of our players meeting them at the hill, but there were cheap shots from each team.”
As USC quarterback Syvelle Newton eluded pressure and threw downfield, it happened.
Tigers defensive end Bobby Williamson tackled Newton. Levey, who like all offensive linemen was told to always, always protect the quarterback, went to help.
“I saw Syvelle on the field and the guy aimed a kick to the helmet. He kicked him in the face,” Levey said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I pushed him, said, ‘Hey man, back up, what you doing?’ ”
One shove became four. Two scuffles became six. The teams had more players than normal on the field, because Clemson’s offense was replacing the defense and vice-versa. When the fights began breaking out, each sideline cleared and the melee was quickly joined by police, coaches and support staff.
“There were 44 kids right there,” Boyd said. “It just erupted.”
The scene covered 60 yards of turf. One tussle would be broken up only to see one or both of the players re-engage by running downfield, locking a chokehold on an opposing player or taking another swing. Clemson’s Yusef Kelly became the enduring image of the nastiest moment in series history when he was photographed kicking a defenseless USC player who was face-down on the ground, trying to cover his helmetless head.
“Some guys just went berserk, running up and down the entire field, and it got to a point, it was a little disgusting,” Alston said. “Ten years later, I’m still disgusted. For a moment, you’re like, ‘What is going on?’ It’s surreal. You step back in reality, and start pulling guys off.”
“My biggest fear was fans getting involved,” Boyd said. “It easily could have gotten into an out-of-control situation.”
The game finished without incident. The Gamecocks and Tigers were ordered to their locker rooms without shaking hands. USC’s players crammed into the visiting team’s space, some still jacked and punching walls, some with head in hands, immediately regretful for a much larger black eye to Holtz’s storied career than just another rivalry loss.
“It was a sense of disgust, especially for a coach like Lou Holtz,” Alston said. “No coach should go out on a game like that. We could have been undefeated, we could have just won that game, but those actions tarnished Lou’s legacy a little bit. That did not illustrate anything he was trying to get across to us.”
“Everybody was just stunned,” Strickland said. “I think he said he was embarrassed, and we should be embarrassed for everyone in the program. Guarantee you that if all those guys had known it would have the repercussions it did, they would have never did it.”
There was no sense pointing fingers. Everybody on each side could have been blamed for having some role in the squabble. All the Gamecocks were thinking how a promising season had suddenly turned sour.
“It just exploded, man,” Levey said. “The game got out of hand from the beginning. Once I saw that guy kick my quarterback in the head, I had to retaliate.
“But it left a bad taste in my mouth. I wish that brawl never happened.”
Tharp knew that the fight might be just the beginning of a dark period. With the NBA fracas the night before, there was going to be even more focus on the USC-Clemson affair.
“I knew that it was the type of situation you never want to have happen,” Tharp said. “On the heels of what had happened less than 24 hours earlier, you figured it was going to be highly scrutinized and looked at by the two schools, the local (and) regional media. This was going to be a national story.”