Birmingham Bowl preview: 3 things we're watching as USC faces USF
When South Carolina’s football team was 2-4 at the midpoint of the season, Gamecocks fans would’ve been delighted to hear they were headed to any bowl game.
After rallying to win four of the final six games, USC is going bowling, but many of its fans aren’t so sure they’re going with them. That’s because of the memories associated with the destination.
The Gamecocks (6-6) face South Florida (10-2) on Thursday in the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. It will be South Carolina’s first trip to that bowl game since it was known as the Papajohns.com Bowl on Jan. 2, 2010.
That day didn’t go so well. The Gamecocks lost 20-7 to UConn and the game is best remembered, although certainly not well-remembered, by most of the team’s fan base for the frigid temperature.
The high temperature that day was 36 degrees –16 degrees lower than the average in Birmingham at this time of year. The low was 21.
As of Tuesday, South Carolina had sold 3,000 of its allotment of 7,500 tickets for the game. A look back through the eyes of the team’s fans and two of the game’s most notable participants might explain why.
‘WE’RE GOING TO BLOW THEM OUT’
Michael Stubblefield, Spartanburg native, pastor, lifelong Gamecocks fan:
“The tickets were a gift for Christmas and we were excited because we were from the mighty SEC, we’re going to play this little school from up north and we’re going to blow them out. That was kind of the attitude that all the fans had. I’ll admit that.”
Rob Willm, Columbia resident, recent Presbyterian graduate, lifelong Gamecocks fan:
“The festivities and everything else were a lot of fun. We did all the pregame stuff. We did all that and everyone was in good spirits. People were on that buzz. Aside from that kickoff return against Clemson, we had just smoked Clemson. Everybody was going to the bowl game it seemed like and then, it just fell flat kind of.”
Legion Field “is not in the prettiest section of town. You are going through roads wondering where in the world you are at. We parked in an old cow field or something. You hear about the place, it’s supposed to be legendary and honestly, the place is a dump. The bathrooms looked like something out of the early 1920s. Whenever you see old clips of Yankee Stadium, that’s kind of what I had in mind. It was never upgraded.”
York W. DeVeaux Jr., Columbia resident, lifelong Gamecocks fan:
“When my wife came back (from the portable bathroom), she was smoking hot and she said, ‘There’s no toilet paper there.’ She came back to get ours because I always take it because I’ve been married a while and I’m not stupid. So we had a few rolls and we ended up passing it out to the people standing in line because there was literally no more left. It just didn’t seem like it was too well organized.”
“My most vivid memory is the cold. I did a stint in the Army, and I was in Korea. There’s a term we used, ‘Korea Cold.’ It wasn’t quite that cold, but it was close. That’s the coldest I’ve been since I’ve been in Korea.”
“If I remember correctly, I think the high that day was 29 degrees and we were in the shade. We never got any sunlight whatsoever. I looked out there in the warmups and I told my wife, ‘We’re going to lose this game.’ She said, ‘We’re not going to lose this game, we’re playing Connecticut.’ I said, ‘Look, our players are huddled up over there. They’re cold.’ You could see the players physically balling up and rubbing their arms and blowing on their hands and doing everything they possibly could to stay warm and I look over at the guys from Connecticut and they’re in short sleeves, the fans and the players. It was very apparent from the very beginning of the first quarter that Connecticut wanted to be there and we didn’t want to be there and when I say ‘we,’ not only the football team, but the fans either. The game itself was very miserable because you could just look and see that our players had no fight, no effort. It was just a situation of a team that wanted to be there and wanted to play versus a team that was cold and didn’t want to be there. Whether it was because it was a lesser bowl or because of how cold it was, I don’t really know. It was probably a combination of the two.
Stephen Garcia, South Carolina’s third all-time leading passer and quarterback that day:
“It was ice cold. That’s the first thing I remember. Oh, my God, that was the coldest game I ever remember playing in. Getting our (behind) whipped didn’t help either. Obviously, Connecticut, those guys were a little more used to the cold and I hate blaming the weather for a poor performance, but we definitely had that on our minds. We overlooked it. We thought we might get to a bigger bowl. There were just a whole bunch of factors. The bottom line is we just played terrible.”
Steve Spurrier, Gamecocks all-time winningest coach and coach for that game:
“It was a 20-degreer. There was a little bit of sunshine coming in on one side of the stadium. I think my wife, Jerri, and our fans were on the shady side. It was a cold one. I would never use that as an excuse. They were a little better in it than we were. It was playable. We just got beat.”
“I think there was a feeling among the fans, at least among us that were sitting up there and we’re freezing our tails off and we are miserable, but the football team was doing the same thing, and they’re the ones who were playing the game. A lot of us left thinking we didn’t compete because we were cold. The UConn players, they were having a ball. Their fans were sitting in the stands like, ‘Cold? This isn’t cold.’ That’s the impression we all left the game with that we just said, ‘Hey, it’s too cold to be playing football.’ ”
‘I DO NOT REMEMBER CHEERING’
The Huskies scored the game’s first 20 points. South Carolina’s only touchdown came on a 2-yard run by Brian Maddox with 3:24 left in the game. Overall, UConn gained 253 yards to the Gamecocks’ 205.
“We had a pretty good year, and UConn just absolutely ran it down our neck. We couldn’t move the ball on offense, a lot of dropped balls. It was just not a very fun afternoon. “
“I was in Clemson (on Nov. 26 this year for the 56-7 loss). We didn’t cheer much, but I remember cheering for the blocked field goal. I don’t remember cheering in the bowl game at all. I remember being cold. I remember getting hand warmers from the lady in front of me. She was very nice, but I do not remember cheering at all in the game. I don’t even think we scored until late in the game. That is one thing I remember is not cheering, just sitting down being cold.”
Leslie Simmons, Mooresville, N.C., native, mother of current USC student, lifelong Gamecocks fan:
“That was during Garcia’s time and when he was good, he was good, but when he was bad, he was bad. That was not a good day for him. It just didn’t look like he was prepared. He wasn’t really around when the team was around in the hotel. We didn’t see a whole lot of him. I don’t know if Spurrier was keeping him away, but he just had a horrible day.
“I’m not trying to blame any one person. Stephen Garcia, he had a lot of games now, but those bowl games weren’t his best, but again the whole team wasn’t all that good. Connecticut outplayed us, outcoached us, simple as that. … I think we scored with about a minute or two left to get off the schneid that day.”
Spurrier “was very (mad), very upset about it. To be honest, so was I. I was real close with all those senior guys, (Eric) Norwood and all those other guys and I hated it that they had to end their careers like that. I took it kind of personally, and I was really upset with the way we played on offense, the amount of dropped balls. We just couldn’t move the ball. It (stunk).”
‘PAPA WAS NOT IN THE HOUSE’
Pizza chain Papa John’s was the bowl’s sponsor from its inaugural game in 2006 through the Gamecocks’ game against the Huskies. Many South Carolina fans will always remember the final Papajohns.com Bowl ran out of pizza in the concession stands during the first half.
“At the media timeouts and it was early, I want to say it was in the first half, they ran out of pizza and at every media timeout, there would be something over the speakers saying, ‘Papa’s in the house, Papa’s in the house,’ I mean the whole game. Every media timeout, you’d hear, ‘Papa’s in the house.’ And they were out of pizza. Papa was not in the house. That was one of the funniest things. They kept bringing that up, and we were like, ‘No, there is no more pizza. This is false hope.’ ”
“The kicker was, when my daughters wanted to go get some pizza and they had run out and they went in just before half. We are sitting there saying, ‘OK, this is the Papa John’s pizza bowl and they don’t have pizza?’ That just kind of topped it off.”
“They did run out of food. They would play a commercial I guess every TV timeout and there was one time the soundtrack got stuck and they played, ‘Papa’s in the house’ for about five minutes straight, and it was very, very loud. It got to the point that it was Chinese water torture. Sometimes whenever we see a Papa John’s commercial, I’ll look at my wife and say, ‘Papa’s in the house,’ and she’ll say, ‘Don’t even start.’ ”
“We still will pass a Papa John’s, and it’ll be, ‘Papa’s in the house.’ ”
‘THE ONLY IDIOTS LEFT’
“We didn’t even watch the second half of the game because we were in the bathroom where there were heaters trying to get warm. It was a rough day.”
“I don’t like to leave whether we are up big or we’re getting blown out. I don’t like to leave, but about two, three minutes into the fourth quarter, we did leave so when South Carolina finally did score, we weren’t even there to hear it. At that point, my toes were completely numb. It was just miserable. We had two drunk guys get in a fight about two rows behind us and it kind of fell down on my wife a little bit. Luckily there was a guy right behind us who was able to catch the guy from falling completely on her. I told her, ‘There’s more fight out here in the stands than there is on the field, let’s get out of here. Let’s go get warm.’ ”
“About halftime, the place emptied out. I didn’t leave. My mom looked at me in the fourth quarter, ‘I think we’re going to be on ESPN,’ and I got excited. I said, ‘Where? Do you see a camera?’ She said, ‘No, we’re the only idiots left in garnet in the stadium.’ That’s kind of how it was. It was just not our day.”
‘WE LICKED OUR WOUNDS’
The outcome of the game didn’t derail the program’s overall momentum. South Carolina came back the next year under Garcia and won the school’s only SEC East championship. From there, the Gamecocks won 11 games three seasons in a row.
“The next year (UConn) played in a BCS game against Oklahoma. They weren’t a bunch of (bad players) we were playing. That was a good team, a well-coached team. I think that once that game was over, we licked our wounds a little bit, got hungry again and went to work.”
“I have been going back and forth with my friends about going to the game, and I don’t know. I thought about it before the opponent was picked, and then once the opponent was picked, I knew who that was because I follow teams all the time. I was like, ‘Oh geez, I don’t know if I want to go to Birmingham for that.’ You end up going to that game and it ends up being cold, maybe not quite as cold, that’s a memory that I don’t know if I want to carry into the new year.”
Who: South Carolina (6-6) vs. South Florida (10-2)
When: 2 p.m., Thursday
Where: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
Line: USF by 10
Bowl week forecast in Birmingham
The Gamecocks arrive in Birmingham on Monday, with the game to be played Thursday.
Monday: 20 percent chance of showers. Mostly cloudy, high near 69.
Tuesday: 50 percent chance of showers. Mostly cloudy, high near 66.
Wednesday: 20 percent chance of showers. Mostly cloudy, high near 64.
Thursday/Gameday: 30 percent chance of showers. Mostly sunny, high near 58.
Coldest part of the week? Overnight low around 37 Thursday night