The tenor of the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry has greatly improved since a melee between the two football teams in 2004 horrified supporters of both schools and drew national scorn.
But after a few antics during last Saturday’s game, both schools need to ensure the rivalry doesn’t revert to its darker days.
As the Clemson team left the field at halftime, several people sitting in the USC student section threw objects at the players. The objects – which included bottles, according to some media - were thrown for several moments as the players lined up to walk under a narrow covering outside the visitors’ locker room. The covering is intended to protect players from such boorishness.
A few minutes later, during the USC marching band’s halftime show, the video board at Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium showed a skit that spoofed a Geico insurance commercial. A man dressed in overalls and an orange shirt was asked to spell “Tigers.” He ends with “eieio.” The message was clear: Clemson fans are not smart.
USC spokesman Wes Hickman told The Herald that law enforcement and security personnel make every effort to identify people who throw objects from the stands. He said several removed from Saturday’s game for that reason.
South Carolina and Clemson have a great rivalry. Its intensity only increases the loyalty that fans of both schools have for their teams.
In recent years, for the first time ever, both football teams have risen to national prominence at the same time. In this year’s pre-season polls, South Carolina was the only state to have two major college football teams ranked in the Top 10. Both were back in the Top 10 before last Saturday’s game.
Both teams finished the season with 10-2 records, and both fell one game short of advancing to their conference championship games.
The Tigers and Gamecocks have moved well beyond the stench of the 2004 brawl. That fracas included a Clemson player kicking a Gamecock player in the head, multiple players trading punches, and helmets being ripped off. The fight was so embarrassing that both schools declined bowl invitations that year.
Tensions had been running high between the two teams before that fight. Some Clemson wins in Columbia featured Tiger players stomping on the Carolina logo at midfield. An iconic moment for Carolina fans came in 1992 when quarterback Steve Taneyhill pretended to sign his name on the field in Clemson following a USC victory.
In recent years, the USC and Clemson players and coaches have shown the nation how to have a clean, fierce rivalry.
“I think we have a good rivalry with Clemson,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier, who moved to USC after the 2004 brawl. “A little bit different than when I got here, maybe. We’ve had good, clean games with Clemson every year I’ve been here.”
On Sunday, after losing to the Gamecocks for the fifth straight year, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took the high road when asked about bottles being thrown from the student section.
“It’s not representative of their team or their coaches,” Swinney said. “That’s disappointing, because it’s dangerous. Guys are out there competing, trying to play at the highest level. You hate to see things like that, but that’s just part of it.”
Of course, Spurrier and Swinney have traded barbs in recent years, with Spurrier needling the Tigers over Carolina’s win streak and Swinney demeaning the Gamecocks’ football history.
But their substantive comments about each other have been generally positive.
Around the country, sports rivalries have turned violent recently. A fight during Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game resulted in three players being ejected. As one Ohio State player left the field, he made an obscene gesture to the Michigan crowd.
Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Dodgers fan was killed after an altercation with a San Francisco Giants fan following a game. Two years ago, a San Francisco Giants fan suffered serious head injuries after being attacked by Dodgers fans.
When blown out of proportion, sports rivalries can be ugly. USC and Clemson have proven they’re not immune.
Fans of both schools have reasons to needle their rivals. USC has its five straight wins; Clemson’s overall record against the Gamecocks is 65-41-4.
In recent years, the fans also could be proud that their teams and coaches have played with class. That must not change.
Administrators at both schools must do all they can to eliminate any antics that take the rivalry back to its more vile days.