This is a chapter from the book: “100 Things South Carolina Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” written by Josh Kendall.
It has been called some unkind things, most notably an upside-down cockroach, but it’s been home to South Carolina for almost 80 years and it’s getting more and more comfortable.
What is now Williams-Brice Stadium, the home of the Gamecocks, began life as Municipal Stadium in 1934. Its construction was a dual project between the city of Columbia and the Works Progress Administration, which built a wooden wall around the field and stands as part of the federal government’s attempt to put the nation’s labor force back to work after the Great Depression.
The land for the stadium was purchased from a Columbia dairy and early aerial photos show milk cows grazing just outside the gates. It seated 17,500 fans on September 29, 1934, when it hosted its first football game. The Gamecocks beat Erskine 25–0 and the next week officially dedicated the stadium with a 22–6 victory over Virginia Military Institute. It grew in fits and spurts from there, being named Carolina Stadium in 1941 after the city gave the stadium to South Carolina. But the most significant change came in 1971.
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It was that year that Thomas H. Brice made a donation from the considerable estate of himself and wife Martha Williams-Brice, whose family operated the Williams Furniture Company in Sumter. Martha Williams-Brice died in 1969 but had made arrangements for the donation in her will.
“Tom Brice actually owed us that money,” South Carolina historian and former Gamecocks sports information director Don Barton said with a smile.
Brice lettered at South Carolina from 1922–23, and in 1923 he fumbled in the South Carolina–Clemson game, setting up the Tigers’ winning touchdown in a 7–6 South Carolina loss.
When Phil Lavoie fumbled during a South Carolina–Clemson game in the 1950s, he was chagrined to learn it was his only contribution to the football team that was noted in Barton’s book on the Big Thursday rivalry between the schools.
“Phil said, ‘Of all the great seasons I had at Carolina, all you had about me was I fumbled in the Carolina-Clemson game,’ ” Barton said. “I said, ‘If it makes you feel any better, they named the stadium after somebody who did the same thing.’ ”
The improvements made possible by the Williams-Brice donation came during Paul Dietzel’s coaching tenure. Dietzel dubbed the arena “not very attractive” and set out to find the money for a facelift.
The first problem was finding a willing donor. That was accomplished with the Williams-Brice family.
“They both loved Carolina a lot,” Columbia lawyer Tom Brice Hall, the grandson of Thomas Brice and Martha Williams-Brice told The State newspaper in 2009 when the stadium celebrated its 75th anniversary. “I can’t drive by the stadium without thinking about my grandfather. It’s an honor to have the name up there.”
The second problem was getting the donation past tax laws, which Dietzel said came with the help of Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. L. Mendel Rivers.
“I remember Strom asked Rivers, ‘How do we get this through?’ ” Dietzel told The State. “And he said, ‘Well, we’ll stick it in this bill, and no one will pay attention.’ And that’s how we got it.”
The Williams-Brice donation was in the $3.5 million range.
“That would give you a concession stand now,” Barton said.
In fact, the bill for the facility kept going up and up while its stands went up and up. In 1982, an upper deck was added that took the capacity to 72,000. Another upgrade was needed when the Gamecocks entered the Southeastern Conference in 1992.
The school added club seats, luxury suites, and a new press box in 1995 at a price tag of $9.9 million. In 1996, it took another $10 million to increase the capacity to 80,250 where it sits today, making it the 20th largest college football stadium in the nation.
The seating stopped there, but the improvements did not. In addition to significant infrastructure upgrades, the school also spent $6.5 million on a 36' x 124' video board that gave Williams-Brice the third largest in-stadium screen in the SEC.
On Gamecocks game days, Williams-Brice Stadium is the fourth-largest city in the state, and the school ranked No. 17 in the nation in home attendance in 2012 and finished that season with an 11-game home winning streak, the third longest in school history. From 2008–12, South Carolina was 27–3 during a 30-game span at home.