This is rivalry time in college football. Earlier this month Travis Haney and Larry Williams’ book about the nasty Clemson-South Carolina rivalry, A State of Disunion was published. I caught up with the two authors to get their take on that game and what's unique about it. I also asked Haney, who has since left the South Carolina beat to cover Oklahoma, about the comparisons between covering Steve Spurrier and his former assistant Bob Stoops and spoke to Williams about the Tigers' intriguing 2011 season.
Question: You guys have covered other programs who all have had some arch-rival. What makes this rivalry unique?
Williams: This rivalry is different from others because it's such a small state and there are no major geographic strongholds for fans of either school. Seems like all the bigger cities have a good mix of representation. That leads to a lot of fans sharing the same neighborhoods, boardrooms, barrooms, churches, even families in a ton of cases. I suspect it's a good bit different in, say, Florida with Gators and Seminoles fans. Not saying that rivalry isn't bitter, but it seems there are more geographic enclaves that favor one school or another. That state is just so much bigger and more far-flung.
One other interesting thing: This rivalry hasn't been bitter since the start; it's been bitter since before the start. Clemson owes its very existence as an institution to strife and bad blood with the school in Columbia. In the late 1800s, the farmers in this state thought the state school provided a sham of an agriculture program that misused federal land-grant funding during Reconstruction. Clemson opened its doors in 1889, and seven years later they started playing football. So it was the perfect battleground for a lot of the hostilities and strife. I suspect a lot of rivalries are cultivated through time; this one didn't take much time at all to get really nasty and bitter.
Haney: I was talking about this today with a friend. I believe it could be the most contentious rivalry between in-state, out-of-conference teams. (Florida-FSU in same ballpark?) But, well, that's probably just semantics, although it does make it unique. Larry made a nice point that the difference in Clemson-South Carolina and UF-FSU is that, well, those teams have historically been successful. Folks in South Carolina get amped up for a bigger game, like the 2011 game -- of course they do -- but they still care, a bunch, even if the teams flat-out stink. Could you say that in a lot of places? Geography is something I keep coming back to, also.
It's such a condensed state that everyone, alums from both sides, wind up living on top of one another. The kicker quote to the book is from Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a native who has also coached at Clemson. He said he creates an emotional wake wherever he goes. Depending on their persuasion, fans are either thrilled with his employer -- or they loathe it. They even remind him of this ... at funerals. It's a 365-day rivalry. Unlike Florida-Georgia or Alabama-Auburn or Oklahoma-Texas, there is no other rival on the schedule. This is it.
Question: How did this rivalry change when Steve Spurrier took over at South Carolina?
Haney: That's been sort of weird. I know I expected the Gamecocks to improve, and improve rapidly. I really thought he would signal a move toward success the school hadn't previously seen. I guess that's sort of happened the past couple of years, but I thought it would happen sooner and be more profound. He's done a nice job, relative to the program's historical mediocrity, but it hasn't gone to plan. He admits that, too. As far as the rivalry, it didn't initially change. For whatever reasons, Tommy Bowden had a stranglehold on South Carolina -- even if he couldn't win the ACC, when it was there for the taking. Whenever Bowden left, it's as if everything switched. Clemson sold its soul for the ACC (division) title, and now it's lost to South Carolina for the first time since the late 1960s. (Did you know it had been that long?) He does bring, even now, some national attention that it might not have if, say, Skip Holtz were coaching the Gamecocks. Spurrier will always provide that, as long as he's coaching.
Williams: I'm not sure it changed a great deal because the Tigers owned Lou Holtz when he was here, and Spurrier lost three of his first four against Clemson. People say Holtz placed far more importance on the rivalry game, and the conclusion is that it generated too much pressure on the players and they faltered in the game. I'm not sure I buy that. I believe the reason the Gamecocks have won the past two years -- they hadn't won back-to-back games in 40 years -- is because Spurrier upgraded the talent. They just became a better, more physically imposing team with horses they aren't accustomed to having traditionally.
One interesting thing about Spurrier is you haven't seen him take many shots at Clemson during his tenure. Maybe a few subtle jabs here and there, but nothing like the stuff he'd say about FSU and Tennessee when he was in Gainesville. I think he respects Clemson's program and some of its coaches. Or maybe he hasn't felt confident enough in his own team to brag. Or maybe he's just older and more mellow. All of the above, perhaps.
Question for Haney: Having now covered Spurrier and Bob Stoops, what is one thing diehard fans probably would be surprised to know about each?
Haney: Man, that's a great question. I presume I'll learn more about Stoops as I go, but I am thinking right now about a story my colleague Berry Tramel wrote this fall about Stoops visiting an area hospital on a regular basis, to see sick children. He develops friendships with them. That's pretty inspiring, for a guy who's incredibly busy. Fans see this coach who looks grumpy and comes off gruff in the media ... but there's a heart in there.
As for Spurrier, I think there's a prevailing perception that all he does is play golf and he doesn't work hard. I don't think that's the case. He really cares about winning at South Carolina, even if some (a lot?) of that is based on his own pride. A lot of people think he will retire once he becomes the school's all-time winning coach. So, he's still driven. He might be the youngest 66-year-old I've ever been around. He was the butt of jokes after that shirtless pic surfaced last year, after I did the workout story with him for his 65th birthday. But, heck, he's probably in better shape than I am now. I'm not going to judge the guy. He's just as competitive as you'd think, too. I remember, during my first year, I got paired with him in his media golf outing. He was supposed to switch groups at the turn, to play with some other media members. But we were in contention, so he blew them off to stick with us. We actually played through the group ahead of us, too -- in a scramble. First and only time that's happened in my life. I just sort of waved as we sped past then-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix's group.
Question for Haney: How has covering Spurrier helped prepare you for covering Stoops?
Haney: I was curious to see the differences and similarities between the two, with the understanding that Stoops was likely a hybrid of Spurrier and Bill Snyder. He's a lot more like Snyder, I think, in terms of how he deals with us. But you see little similarities in nuances and organizational things he picked up from Spurrier. (Minute things like what day he does his presser. Or bigger things like how he manages the clock.) Ha, well, Spurrier probably has the biggest ego of any coach/manager I had ever covered previously (Bobby Cox, Pat Summitt, Phillip Fulmer, et al.), so perhaps he prepared me for other coaches who don't really give us media boys a second thought. Spurrier and Stoops both do their media responsibilities -- after all, it's part of their contracts -- but neither really seem to enjoy it on any level. They're no Mike Leach, right? They're itching to go the minute they get going with us, because they'd rather be focusing on their team. Can't blame them for that, can you? I'm sure it's a big reason why they've been so successful over the years.
Question for Williams: Did the Clemson fan base completely buy in this year, thinking 2011 would be different before the NC State game? And how has the reaction been since that blowout to such a mediocre team?
Williams: The Clemson fans were really optimistic during the offseason, and the optimism was weird to some distant observers because they were coming off a 6-7 season. But the acquisition of Chad Morris, plus the infusion of some elite talent (most notably Sammy Watkins) gave fans a lot of hope that things could be turned around quickly. I don't think anyone expected them to go 3-0 against Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech, so when they swept those games and later went to 8-0 the people were really giddy.
The loss at Georgia Tech was jolting, and then people were really surprised that Wake Forest came within a whisker of snatching the Atlantic Division title from the Tigers' grasp at Death Valley. But last week's debacle in Raleigh really has people concerned about this team. It's starting to look like the epic collapse in 2006 (lost four of last five after 7-1 start), and that's a numbing possibility given that this team was the national media darling just last month.
If they win in Columbia and then win the ACC championship game for their first conference title in 20 years, I think all will be forgiven and the ugliness against N.C. State will be viewed as a mere blip. But if they lose to the Gamecocks for a third consecutive season, there's going to be a lot of heartburn and heartache in these parts. Remember: Dabo Swinney's predecessor (Tommy Bowden) went 7-2 against the rivals down the road.
Question for Williams: If Clemson loses this game against So Carolina, is Dabo back on the hot seat again?
Williams: I don't think he's on the hot seat, because the Tigers would still be a win away from a 10-win season and that hasn't been done here since 1990. Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips was the one who promoted Dabo and gave him the gig for good in December of 2008, and Phillips himself has acknowledged that his own fate as AD hinges on the fortunes of the football program. So Phillips definitely won't have a quick trigger.
Question for Williams: Who has more to lose this weekend?
Williams: It's a great question, and I've been asking myself the same thing. I think we could call this the "Forgiveness Bowl" because the winner atones for a lot. The Gamecocks haven't really done much this season, taking advantage of an uncommonly weak SEC schedule. Fans were really griping after the home loss to Auburn and the shellacking at Arkansas. But a win over Clemson gives the Gamecocks their second 10-win season ever, and they'd absolutely love rubbing three straight wins over Clemson into the faces of Tigers fans.
Clemson has a lot to lose, but I'll give SC the edge in the answer to your question because the Tigers can still win the ACC even if they lose Saturday. That said, it's hard to imagine them going to Charlotte and winning the ACC coming off back-to-back spankings at the hands of the Wolfpack and Gamecocks.