Competing for a Cause
Unknown rivalries between USC and Clemson
The University of South Carolina and Clemson University come together through the Palmetto Series to help raise awareness on supporting our local farms and farmers.
Photography by Michele Affronte-McCausland
Few collegiate football rivalries carry the magnitude of the one that unfolds in the Palmetto State each November. As family alliances splinter into orange and garnet, friends quietly reassign themselves to seats across the room or around the elaborate tented outdoor tailgate. There is no middle ground.
The Palmetto Bowl — the annual football clash between the University of South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tigers of Clemson University — is a bitter battle that was first fought in 1896. The contest, which was suspended for a short time in the early 1900s due to out-of-control animosity, is the longest uninterrupted series in the South and the third longest continuous rivalry in college football.
Seminal moments including The Riot of 1902, The Prank in 1961, The Catch in 1977, The Push Off in 2000 and The Brawl of 2004 have fed decades of tension. Today, 60 minutes of football crescendos in a Category Five frenzy of pride. During Rivalry Week friends, neighbors and even loving spouses stand on opposite ground.
In recent years however, the deep-seated bitterness of the rivalry has spawned a softer side. Now several philanthropic efforts unite the two schools, albeit at an arm’s distance.
Certified SC Grown Palmetto Series
The Certified SC Grown Palmetto Series was created using the full schedule of athletic events between the healthy Carolina-Clemson rivalry. Throughout the year, as the two schools compete head-to-head, each win will earn one point, including sports in which both teams are competing as part of multiple-team tournaments. The series will also take into account academics and philanthropy participation.
The winner will be presented the coveted Palmetto Series trophy, not to mention bragging rights. Presented by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, the series will also connect fans and farmers around food grown right here in South Carolina. “We might not all agree ON the fields, but there’s one thing USC and Clemson can agree on and that is what we grow IN our fields,” says Commissioner Hugh Weathers. “South Carolina has a rich tradition in both sports and agriculture, and we hope fans will come together and continue to select Certified SC Grown. It’s a matter of taste.”
“One of the most legendary rivalries in all of college sports has never had an official name, until now,” USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner says. “We appreciate SCDA for being a partner in this competition, bringing the series to fruition and granting official bragging rights to the overall winner of the Palmetto Series. We look forward to the competition.”
To learn more about the Palmetto Series, follow along and participate, visit PalmettoSeries.com.
The Carolina-Clemson Blood Drive
While technically a contest, the Carolina-Clemson Blood Drive fights a greater threat to South Carolinians: a perennial decline in blood donations during the busy holiday season. “The competition is one of the largest blood drives of its kind in the nation,” says Krystal Overmyer, external communications manager of the American Red Cross — South Carolina Blood Services Region.
The student-led blood drive encourages USC and Clemson University students, faculty, staff, alumni and fans to participate. Every pint donated counts toward the school of the donor’s choice and helps provide lifesaving blood to patients in about 50 hospitals across South Carolina and in parts of Georgia.
“Over the past 30 years, the universities have collected about 100,000 pints of blood,” says Krystal. With a single pint being able to save as many as three lives, the schools’ blood drive has impacted countless lives in South Carolina. “The Carolina-Clemson blood drive helps us shore up the blood supply right before the holiday period,” she says.
The stats are impressive and usually very tight from year to year. In 2014, 6,896 total donors presented to give blood at both locations. USC supporters totaled 4,103, or 16.9 percent of the undergraduate population, while Clemson supporters totaled 2,793, or 16.5 percent of the undergraduate population. Currently, USC holds a slight lead in the series, 16-14.
According to Mackenzie Van Dam, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, the week-long blood drive strives for a different kind of glory: to make a difference in the community. “Public service is part of being a Gamecock,” she says. “We can do so much more than get a ‘W’ at the end of the game.”
This year’s blood drive, set for Monday, Nov. 16 through Friday, Nov. 20, promises to be like every other, says Mackenzie. “Students and fans are drawn and want to donate,” she says. “It really rallies the troops!”
The Sigma Nu Game Ball Run
When it comes to the Sigma Nu Game Ball Run, an event where brothers of the schools’ fraternity chapters run a football from the visitor’s stadium to the home stadium to raise money for a nonprofit partner, there’s one good-natured point of controversy. Both chapters claim to have founded the event.
According to The Tiger News, the idea began in Clemson in 1977. Five days before the 1977 game, four Sigma Nu brothers decided they wanted to run a football the 138 miles from Clemson to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, the host of that year’s game. USC graduate and Sigma Nu alumni Jay Pitts begs to differ. “It started in 1980 at USC,” he says. “My class was the first to start the Game Ball Run in 1980. We ran from Williams-Brice to Death Valley.” One point of contention that’s crystal clear is the outcome of the 1980 match-up, which USC lost 6-27.
Despite the founding flack, in recent years, the two chapters have created a solid partnership. Members from each chapter now run half of the distance to their rival and meet in the middle — in the wee small hours of the morning — to exchange the ball. The ball carried by the Sigma Nu brothers, Jay notes, is the actual football used for the game’s kick off each year.
The Game Ball Run originally raised money to fight Multiple Sclerosis. Today, the USC Sigma Nu chapter primarily raises money for MS and several other smaller nonprofits, while Clemson’s chapter supports Dabo’s All In Foundation, which donates to multiple local charities in the Upstate.
By the time the first leg of the journey begins, both chapters have usually already raised between $25,000 and $30,000. “I remember running one year, somewhere outside of Clinton and seeing people along the way,” recalls Jay. “You could tell they didn’t have much themselves, but there they were. They were cheering for us. They were so proud to see that ball and to know what we were doing that they gave what they could. That really touched me.”
Steve McAbee, a USC Sigma Nu and chairman of the 1984 fundraiser, ran in four different Game Ball Runs: two to Clemson’s Death Valley and two to out-of-state rival University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. “On the off years, we’d run a ball to the University of Georgia,” he says. “Back then, we ran the ball the entire way from one school to the other. That trip to Georgia was tough. It’s nothing but farmland between here and there. That was always a long night.”
According to Steve, an important part of chairing the event was running interference in the small sleeping towns that lie in the fraternity’s path. “We’d go ahead to all of the small town police stations on the road to let them know what was headed their way,” he laughs. “We let them know we weren’t there to do damage. We were just running on through.”
In the 38 years the ball has made its way across the state, things got especially interesting at times — often in the middle of nowhere at night. The Clemson Sigma Nu brothers are reported to have lost a game ball one year while playing catch in a swampy area of the Upstate. They went back to Clemson to round up a replacement ball. Jay recalls several brothers who detoured into a pasture in darkness to give cow tipping a try. “Within minutes, they were tearing back toward the road,” laughs Jay. “It wasn’t a cow in the pasture. They’d tried to tip a bull!”
Steve’s fondest Game Ball Run memory is one night in Joanna, S.C. “One year we were sponsored by McDonalds. We had very nice uniforms with shorts and a shirt. One of our runners decided he was going to wear his shirt as pants and his pants as the shirt. You can imagine how silly he looked,” says Steve.
The brother, who was running with the ball in-between a pace car and a busload of fraternity brothers, stopped by a convenience store at about the same time as a truckload of locals. “He was there alone and before long they started pushing him around. You can imagine their reaction when a bus rolled up and 60 guys started spilling out the door,” he laughs. “They hightailed it out of there quickly.”
Looking back, Jay remembers the middle-of-the-night, brotherly adventures as one of the highlights of his collegiate experience. “It’s good to see that new and different generations of brothers are bringing their own ideas to this long-standing tradition,” says Jay, who also served as the USC chapter advisor from 1993 until 2014.
While the gridiron battle clearly has a winner and a loser, both communities benefit when Gamecocks and Tigers unite. This past year, both campuses participated in the It’s On Us Challenge, which aimed to reduce incidences of sexual assault. Students at both schools signed pledges to prevent and respond appropriately to sexual assault. The campuses united in a “white-out” where students donned white clothing on Nov. 20 to show support for the campaign and to spread awareness.
Earlier this year, when USC’s Columbia campus was locked down as a tragic murder-suicide unfolded in the Arnold School of Public Health, Clemson faculty and students were among the first to respond with fierce support and empathy. Many donned the very garnet and black they despise the day after the shooting in support of their grieving rival … just like the orange and purple many Carolina fans wore this past fall to support the family and friends of Greenville native and Clemson undergraduate Tucker Hipps, who died tragically while attending the university in 2014.
The epic battles between Clemson and Carolina will continue as long as blood runs garnet and orange. And, as enrollment numbers at both schools show no sign of slowing, there are more and more generations of Carolina and Clemson fans to take the sibling partnership of the two schools in new directions.