The rivalry started in 1889 with a man named Pitchfork Ben Tillman. And honestly, it’s probably only gotten more heated from there.
Before he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1890 and then U.S. Senator in 1895, Tillman was a champion of South Carolina farmers who had grown weary of the fact that the state’s flagship university in Columbia seemed more interested in taking boys off the farm than teaching them how to tend it.
“The agricultural element said that (the school was) spending farmers’ money to educate lawyers,” said Don Barton, a former South Carolina sports information director and a South Carolina athletics historian.
So Pitchfork Ben helped found Clemson in 1889, and “The Agriculture vs. The Aristocracy” was born. Legislation passed along with the founding of Clemson pushed down South Carolina’s enrollment to 89 students, while Clemson opened its doors with more than 400.
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South Carolina and Clemson would not play their first football game for another seven years, but “it was a rivalry before they ever hit the field,” Barton said.
Jeff Grantz, who quarterbacked South Carolina to its most emphatic victory in the series (a 56-20 win in 1975 during which the Gamecocks scored a touchdown on every possession), grew up just outside Baltimore, Md. He made his recruiting visit to South Carolina during one of the Gamecocks’ games against the Tigers.
“Right then, I knew how big a rivalry it was, and I was never disappointed,” Grantz said. “I think it’s similar to Auburn-Alabama because you really don’t have any professional football (in either state). People in this state are a Carolina fan or a Clemson fan.”
Clemson leads the series 65-41-4 and leads in tradition (17 conference champions vs. one), which has served to make South Carolina’s current four-game winning streak that much sweeter.
The Gamecocks won the first meeting in 1896 (12-6) but would win two of the next 16 games. Since then, droughts have been more frequent than winning streaks for South Carolina.
Through it all, however, the rivalry never has lost its fierceness.
In 2004, the teams engaged in an end-of-game brawl so raucous that each university withdrew its team from bowl consideration.
How can a small state produce such a hot-blooded rivalry?
Precisely because it is a small state, Barton said.
“Being a small state makes it even more heated because we interbreed,” Barton said. “You can hardly see a family that doesn’t have both Carolina and Clemson, including mine. In fact, I was a rabid Clemson fan growing up (in Anderson). I became a born-again Gamecock.”
Tommy Suggs, who quarterbacked South Carolina to the 1969 ACC title and has worked 40 years in the football team’s radio booth, had a similarly religious conversion. (Yes, it counts as religion here.) He and his family were Clemson fans when he grew up in Lamar.
Meanwhile, former Gamecocks quarterback Steve Taneyhill grew up in the 1980s halfway between Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh. In those days, the Nittany Lions and Panthers were two of the country’s top programs and the rivalry was heated, but that game lost its sizzle years ago. Taneyhill doesn’t believe Carolina-Clemson ever will.
Heading into his first rivalry game in 1992, Taneyhill asked his teammates, “What’s this thing like?”
“I figured it out after the game and the ensuing months,” he said. “You figure out that it’s awfully important to a lot of people. Here we are 20 years later, and I still hear it. ‘You can’t do this, you’re a Carolina guy.’ It’s a special, special thing for us.”
Former Gamecocks quarterback Mike Hold, an Arizona native, also had to be indoctrinated into the rivalry upon his arrival in South Carolina. When friends first asked Hold about his favorite game from the 1984 season, he thought the answer was obvious.
“I’d always say Notre Dame. We won at Notre Dame,” he said. “I quickly learned that Clemson was the right answer.”