Morris: Crowds show S.C. fans' passion

South Carolina fans show their support for the Gameocks against Ole Miss at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009.
South Carolina fans show their support for the Gameocks against Ole Miss at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009.

SOUTH CAROLINA AND Clemson had much to be proud of this past week, and I am not talking about their performances on the football field. The fan bases at each school proved once again that college football is king in this state, no matter the conditions.

Given every reason imaginable to stay home, USC and Clemson fans instead were at their leather-lung best in support of their teams, first at Williams-Brice Stadium on Thursday and then on Saturday at Death Valley.

Granted, the attendance numbers were not pretty. USC estimated its attendance against Mississippi at 74,724 or 6,500 short of capacity, which means there actually were between 65,000 and 70,000 fans in the stands. Clemson estimated its attendance at 70,000, or 11,500 short of capacity, which means there actually were between 60,000 and 65,000 fans in the stands.

There is a simple explanation for why the upper reaches of the south end zone stands and across the top of the east stands were empty at Williams-Brice Stadium: The game was played on Thursday night.

Weeknight college games have been relegated to TV shows for ESPN with little regard to the local fan. The Egocentric Sports Programming Network could care less how many folks are in the "studio" for their three-hour show, because the games play well to their national audience.

Most recently, USC played No. 2-ranked Auburn in 2006 on a Thursday night and fell an estimated 6,500 short of capacity. Factor in USC's new seat-license policy and a slumbering economy, and a sellout is not likely to happen even for weekend games, save the regular-season finale against Clemson.

The same holds true at Clemson, where all of its three home-game crowds have fallen short of capacity. It is where we are at in college athletics. Expendable income is in short supply. No longer can athletic programs simply open the gates and expect sellouts.

Making matters worse on Saturday at Clemson was a dreadful forecast of steady rain throughout the afternoon. Even though the game was not televised, it took a hearty fan to commit to sitting through the elements.

Given the conditions under which each game was played, my guess is those fans in attendance truly wanted to be there. They were not at the stadium for the tailgaiting or to brag to their next-door neighbor about being at the social gathering of the week.

Those who attended Thursday's game were there with what appeared to be the express purpose of helping USC defeat a Mississippi team ranked No. 4 in the country. Those who attended Saturday's game clearly believed their screaming and hollering could provide an assist to Clemson against 15th-ranked TCU.

The atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium was electric, due in large part to a USC student section that arrived early and remained late. Rarely does the student section fill for home games, but the spillover for this game forced students into the upper east stands.

The students cheered in unison and jumped up and down together as if by design. When Mississippi moved the ball toward the north end zone, the student section played havoc with the team's playcalling at the line of scrimmage. They helped create a home-field advantage rarely seen at USC.

"Quite frankly, one of the main reasons we won was because of our students and our crowd," USC athletics director Eric Hyman said.

Clemson did not fare as well on the field, falling 14-10. Yet its fans proved most resilient in the face of a downpour that began shortly after halftime and remained steady through the end of the game.

The playing conditions were treacherous, and the viewing conditions were worse. Amazingly, very few fans departed once the rain began. The crowd seemed to get louder and more involved the harder the rain fell, and was at its best when the game's outcome was on the line at the end.

"The crowd was into the game from the beginning, and they stayed to the end," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "Considering the weather conditions, I know our team appreciated the support.

"But it did not surprise me or our players. We have a very loyal and passionate fan base."

Perhaps never was that more evident than Saturday, just as USC fans proved their mettle on Thursday. Any doubts about fan loyalty at the two schools were erased this past week.