S.C. State's football game with USC to bring added visibility

COLUMBIA -- Robert Howard, South Carolina State University class of 1941, expects 15 relatives in the Williams-Brice Stadium stands on Saturday to see their beloved Bulldogs football team face the University of South Carolina Gamecocks for the first time.

"That's including cousins," said the retired Orangeburg public-school administrator.

For Howard, Saturday's game will be an opportunity to showcase a small-school football program he considers to be above average and capable of a Saturday surprise against a much larger -- and richer -- team.

"We are capable of an Appalachian State-type surprise," said the fervent S.C. State fan. "It gives us a chance to show the people of South Carolina what we are trying to do here in Orangeburg."

None but the most die-hard Bulldog football fans are predicting an upset like Appalachian State University pulled on the No. 5-ranked University of Michigan Wolverines at the beginning of this season.

Nevertheless, S.C. State officials, alumni and fans are proud of this year of firsts, which has included Democratic candidates for president taking over the campus for several days in April for a debate that put the Orangeburg campus on the national map.

Saturday's game -- which many, including USC coach Steve Spurrier, believe is overdue -- will be rich with symbolism for S.C. State fans.

The historically black college, founded in 1896 as a small teacher's college for the children and grandchildren of former slaves, has evolved into a full-fledged state university that offers graduate-level education and conducts research.

For the second year, the college has been recognized among the Top 10 national universities ranked by Washington Monthly. The magazine bases its rankings upon an institution's track record of service -- as illustrated by the large number of black officers it has provided for the military; and upon its record of providing social and economic mobility for low-income South Carolinians.

The school has a student population of 4,500 and offers more than 50 fields of study on the undergraduate and graduate levels.

But it's football that gets emotions running the highest for many in the S.C. State family.

Bernard Cook of Atlanta, class of 1995, believes the match is "long overdue."

"It's the sort of friendly rivalry that could be developed," he said. "If we are not cheering for the Bulldogs, we'd be cheering for USC. It will be good interaction for the two colleges, from the social level right on up to the academic level."

Playing a big-league Southeastern Conference football team will bring a new level of visibility for the Bulldogs, a team that has sent players to the NFL and three into the professional Hall of Fame, and some years has been a legend in small-college football.

Maurice Washington, class of 1985 and chairman of the S.C. State board of trustees, said the Gamecocks-Bulldogs matchup should have become an annual tradition years ago.

"This game has great value for the state of South Carolina," Washington said. "It brings people together and gets them talking to each other. We've been playing football for 100 years, and we've learned to do it pretty well."

The significance of the game can hardly be viewed as a confrontation between black and white institutions; those barriers fell long ago. USC had its first black football player, Jackie Brown, in 1970. Today, about 70 percent of USC's football players are black.

S.C. State's legendary coach Willie Jeffries said Saturday's game is the talking point all over Orangeburg.

"It's being talked about by blacks and whites," Jeffries said. "Everyone wants to go to the game."