WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA and Clemson meet on Frank Howard Field at noon Saturday it will mark the 23rd consecutive year the Palmetto state football rivalry has been televised live. That is quite a streak to those of us who once wondered if the game would ever be on TV.
In the 1950s, the only way a kid could “see” the game live was on radio by listening to Bob Fulton call it for the Gamecocks or Jimmy Coggins call it for the Tigers. Few imagined actually getting a ticket to watch in person.
There was live college football on television every Saturday afternoon, but the games always seem to involve the Big Ten, Notre Dame, Oklahoma or some eastern school. Infrequently, a southern team would pop up.
Back then, South Carolina and Clemson didn’t play their game on a Saturday. That was the era of Big Thursday: The two schools met every year in Columbia on the Thursday of State Fair week. I knew it was a big deal because we got out of school for two days that week. Big Thursday was a holiday.
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It was the only sports event in the country that day. The World Series had long been over and the NBA and NHL hadn’t started pre-season practice yet. It was kind of neat to check out the New York Times on Friday and see that a report on the Gamecocks-Tigers contest was above the fold of the first sports page. Not surprisingly, the game was the lead story on the front page of that Friday’s issue of The State.
A still-new sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, took notice of the tradition and began to send a reporter down to cover it. Writers from cities around the South always were there. Afterall, what else was there to write about on a Thursday afternoon in October?
It was a game I only heard and read about until one afternoon in1955 when my dad came home, held up two tickets and announced that he was taking me to the Big Thursday game. Talk about Christmas coming early.
When the big day came around, we left about 11 a.m. for what was then called Carolina Stadium. I noticed that dad wore a suit. That surprised me a little until we got to the game. As we found our seats, I noticed practically every man was wearing a suit or sport coat and tie. The women were decked out in their finest clothes and hats. Big Thursday was not only a football game but also a fashion show.
The stadium seated about 35,000 people, but to a kid it looked absolutely huge and sparkling beneath that beautiful blue autumn sky.
Once the game started at 2 p.m., it was all Clemson. Quarterback Don King and halfback Joel Wells led the Tigers to a 28-14 victory. It turned out to be Clemson’s first victory in the series since 1948. In fact, it was only the Tigers’ second win against USC since 1944. It’s probably difficult for today’s South Carolina fans to imagine there once was a stretch when the Gamecocks dominated.
On that day, it didn’t really matter to me who won. The only thing that mattered was I had actually seen the Gamecocks and Tigers in person.
As we walked out of the stadium I asked dad, “Do you think this game will ever be on TV?” He looked down at me, smiled and said, “I doubt it, son.”
In those long ago days, there was no way dad could have envisioned a television universe with hundreds of channels capable of delivering dozens of college football games each week. Probably most people don’t appreciate the luxury we have these days; the opportunity to watch practically any game we desire. But I do.
Over the years, I was fortunate enough to see many more USC-Clemson games either in person or on television. But that 1955 game will always be special because it was my first.
I still have the ticket stub. It’s kind of jolting to look at it, though, because printed in the right hand corner is “Admission — $4.80.”