The dream of many a young Gamecock or Tiger football fan is to be a cheerleader for their team — to be one of the chosen few running ahead of the football players as they charge into the stadium. These dreams often start very young. College bookstores stock cheerleading outfits for newborns, and hundreds of “mini-me” cheerleaders can be found tailgating with parents at every USC and Clemson game.
Cheerleading in the South has many rich traditions that have grown out of a long history in the United States. Early cheerleading teams date back to the late 1800s, when most cheerleading teams were made up of only men.
Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, a former cheerleader at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, is widely considered to be the “grandfather” of cheerleading, and he founded the National Cheerleaders Association in 1948. Lawrence’s legacy includes creating the Herkie cheerleading jump, which is the traditional half-straddle jump, as well as inventing the pompom.
Former USC cheerleader Bill Boggs with the National Cheerleaders Association has a unique insight into traditions and history of cheerleading, both in South Carolina and nationally. He cheered at USC in the early ’80s and went on to coach the team from 1986 until 1995. Today, he lives in Columbia and is the senior vice president of the NCA. He has seen an evolution regarding what is required of cheerleaders over his 40 years on the front lines of the cheerleading business as well as on the sidelines of football fields.
“Early on, all cheerleaders were basically yell leaders who were men,” Bill says. “Then during World War II, when the men went to war, women took over as cheerleaders.” Eventually, cheerleading became an activity involving both males and females.
Bill was a cheerleader at a time when the stunts and tumbling were becoming more athletic with more acrobatic type skills being introduced. “Plus back then, there weren’t really any rules or governing bodies that regulated cheerleading. Cheerleading used to be commonly found under student activities or recreation. Today, most major cheerleading programs fall under the athletics department.”
Today college cheerleaders are expected to be athletic, personable, knowledgeable and, of course, cheery. Their responsibilities reach far beyond the game day performances that fans see; they include numerous weekly practices, daily workouts, and frequent public appearances. And, of course, cheerleaders must keep up with full course loads.
South Carolina’s two major universities have nationally recognized cheerleading teams that include both a coed squad and an all-girls squad. Each team at USC and Clemson ranges from 20 to 24 members. The universities hold tryouts in the spring for the following academic year.
Girls on the coed teams at both schools are dubbed “flyers” because a male cheerleading partner lifts or throws a female in stunts. On the all-girls teams, three girls lift one girl during stunts.
Clemson cheerleading coach Tori Polsinello uses the approach of basically coaching one team. “The main difference between the coed team and the All Girl team is the style of stunting,” she says. “Both teams use the same game day material. They are asked their preference when they try out, but I decide based on both teams’ needs.”
Tori is in her seventh year coaching at Clemson, following several years coaching at the University of Arizona after graduating from the University of Albany in New York.
At USC, cheerleading coach Erika Goodwin takes a similar approach. As a former Gamecock cheerleader who graduated in 1999, she is now in her 15th year coaching. Erika went on to graduate school where she cheered at the University of Louisville and later returned to USC to fill the coaching position.
“Our two teams practice some together and do individual practices. Generally speaking, both teams receive similar training,” Erika says. “Different positions on the team require specific types of body strength. A lot of what we do and how we train for nationals is body weight training, sprint, and agility training.”
Erika, a certified strength trainer, manages much of the teams’ conditioning and personal training. Intense workouts and conditioning drills are daily rituals for cheerleaders.
Kayla Causey, a Fort Mill native in her fourth year on the Tiger coed team, says mandatory workouts are held twice a week during the season from 6 to 7 a.m. Resistance training and cardio maintain their stamina for games.
“During the first few weeks of practice, we’ll spend at least six hours outside on dancing and practicing skills required to be in the heat on game days,” Kayla says. “Then we go to the weight room and work out other times during the week, too. We might run a couple of other days. It’s important to stay in shape. Game days are so long, and it’s important for us not to get hurt.”
USC cheerleader Kayley Manini says the Gamecock training routine is similar. A Lexington native, she is in her third year on the team. “We start practices in July in preparation for football season. During the school year, we practice three times a week and often use our off days for additional training in the gym on our own.”
This intensive training gets the cheerleaders ready for the long, hot game days that require physical stamina and include personal interactions with fans, university leaders, team members, and the public. The cheerleaders start getting ready four to five hours ahead of kickoff.
“On football game days,” Kayley says, “we meet four hours before kickoff to stretch, warm up, and head to our appearances. These appearances include the Gamecock walk, alumni visits, fan visits at tailgates, pep rallies, news shows, sticker handouts, and lots of pictures.”
At Clemson, Tori says that before the game starts, they do the Tiger walk from the bus into the stadium, then head to the other side of campus. “Fans are lining up well before game starts. It’s all pretty electric,” she explains.
Game day traditions are important at USC and Clemson, and cheerleaders play a critical role in bringing these traditions to life. “We always have a tiger paw on our left cheeks and wear tiger rags on our left wrists,” Kayla says. “Tiger rags are iconic at Clemson.” The tiger paws are always turned to 1 p.m. because that was the traditional game time many years ago.
USC’s Tanner Watson, a Gilbert native in his second year on the team, points to the band playing 2001 as his favorite football game tradition. This Gamecock tradition started in the early 1980s when the band first began playing Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the team ran onto the field. “It brings chills every single time,” Tanner says. “The excitement is unmatched by anything else when Cocky appears and the team runs out.”
Collegiate cheerleaders often come up through the ranks of all-star competition teams, dance teams, or gymnastics teams starting as young as elementary school in their hometowns. Erika graduated from Brooklyn Cayce High School in 1995 before the rise of the all-star programs of today. “We did compete but nothing like today. My senior year was the first year of an all-star gym at Carolina Cheerleading Academy,” Erika says. “I was fortunate enough to have that experience during my senior year in high school.”
Kayla was a competitive gymnast for 11 years before being sidelined by an injury. “I picked up cheerleading when I got hurt,” she says. “I loved tumbling and started cheering in high school.” She cheered for varsity football and basketball as well as competed throughout high school.
While cheerleading takes up a great deal of time, these students must also be mindful of the reason they attend college — to go to class and keep up with their work. Clemson cheerleader and Chicago native Adam Samuta is a graduate student in biomedical engineering in his fourth year on the team. “Balancing cheer and school responsibilities did not come easy at first but got better with practice,” he says. “We are always told that school comes first, but I’m never hesitant to lose some sleep so I can put in the extra work for skills and still get my schoolwork done.”
In addition to cheering and academics, cheerleaders also serve as ambassadors. Today’s cheerleaders, even more than in the past, are an important part of a university’s marketing and promotion as well as outreach efforts for all the school’s athletic programs. Bill says, “Whether it’s at games or just going to appearances, cheerleaders, along with the school’s mascot, are great ambassadors and entertainers.”
The connections among the spirit teams, band, and marketing staff have expanded tremendously since Lexington native Katie Watt was a Clemson cheerleader from 2000 until 2003. “The cheerleading coach goes to weekly meetings to discuss game day promotions and the schedule for each game day,” she says. “They communicate throughout each game over headsets. It’s really boosted the fans’ game day experience. Everyone is on the same page, and everything is planned down to the minute.”
While the eternal rivalry between USC and Clemson helps drive support and marketing of the football games, cheerleaders share a common understanding of the basic human connection that ties together everyone involved in collegiate athletics. One former USC cheerleader fondly points back to her favorite memory of her years on the team that involved the Clemson coach. Keleigh Satterfield Collins grew up in a football family in which her father, Steve Satterfield, was an assistant Clemson coach in the 1970s. (He was on the USC team as quarterback from 1956-1959 and then coached at Clemson from 1970-1974.) Keleigh cheered at USC from 1979 to 1981.
She recalls the 1980 Carolina-Clemson game when USC lost. “We were standing in the end zone after getting beat. I was very down and talking to my parents. Someone tugged at my hair and said, ‘Girl, what are you doing in that uniform?’ I turned around and it was Coach Frank Howard, who used to be our neighbor in the ’70s when my dad coached quarterbacks at Clemson. He made the effort to come speak to us as old family friends. It meant a lot.”
With their high visibility and involvement in the community, cheerleaders provide inspiration and serve as positive role models for countless people, children in particular. USC’s Ashlyn Cromer, from Lexington, says that the cheerleaders can have an influence on people’s lives. “My biggest surprise as a cheerleader has been how much younger kids actually look up to us.”
Tori recalls a particularly moving event Clemson cheerleaders were asked to attend. “We got a phone call about a family who had a young child with only a short time to live. We did a parade with the band down the family’s street. That’s something that I will always remember. It really stands out how cheerleaders can make an impact.”