This is the first of an occasional series on 1992: South Carolinas first year in the Southeastern Conference.
Thursday evening in Nashville.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin called the game his teams Super Bowl. He begged for his fans to sell out the stadium. It was a season-opener on national television against a top-10 opponent and a win would put the Commodores on the college football map.
And the Commodores threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the visiting South Carolina Gamecocks, who still managed to prevail despite an uneven performance, 17-13.
Beating weaker opponents with less than your best. Expecting to do so. Winning the recruiting wars against your rivals. Putting Heisman-level talent on the field. Accepting your role as an elite member of college footballs most powerful conference
This is Gamecock football, circa 2012.
But the Gamecocks could empathize with the feelings on the other sideline. The pages are yellowing, the edges are softening and the memories are fading from technicolor to sepia, but there was a time when South Carolina yearned for more than a seat at the SEC kids table.
Through back-channel conversations, a dash of luck and why not the aid of a witch doctor, South Carolina started down the road to Thursday evening 20 years ago this week.
• • •
Sept. 5, 1992 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
First into the cauldron was a sack of something that was either magic dust or soot from his fireplace. Next game a dash of something green. Then a dash of something orange. And then three-quarters of something black from a jar. As a thick layer of smoke began to form, Archibald Thibeaux, wearing a black, felt-top hat, scattered a bag of chicken feathers in and around the pot encircled by some 100 bystanders.
Back to where you belong, said the 37-year-old native of New Orleans. Chicken Curse, be gone.
The crowd cheered.
Perhaps it was an extreme length to go to in order to exorcize the demons of a coachs unexpected death, a steroid scandal, probation and two decades in college footballs independent no-mans land.
Joining the mighty Southeastern Conference should have been enough, right? But when youre a long-suffering Gamecock fan, why not turn to the dark arts of a Cajun shaman for a boost?
The opponent was familiar, rekindling a rivalry that dated almost 100 years and had been played annually since the 1950s.
But this was the first time Georgia and South Carolina met as members of the SEC, a relationship Georgia helped to cultivate.
Four years earlier, former USC athletics director Dick Bestwick resigned and took a job in the Georgia athletics department. While there, he established a line of communication between USC and the SEC, then a 10-team league.
Im certain South Carolina doesnt need my recommendation, Bestwick wrote in an unsolicited letter of endorsement to SEC commissioner Roy Kramer on Sept. 20, 1988, but as someone who has been there, I can vouch for their qualifications as becoming a most worthy member of the conference.
USC presidents James B. Holderman and his successor Arthur K. Smith then worked through Bestwick to maintain a line of communication.
But then there was a breakdown. USC dropped down the SECs list when Florida State locked eyes with Kramer across a crowded landscape. Miami, too, was dropping hints. The crumbling Southwestern Conference offered the lure of a Texas-based team.
Strengthening the leagues base in Florida and expanding into the rich oil fields of Texas made all the sense in the world to Kramer.
Then one-by-one, the dominos fell. Texas rebuffed the SEC, which settled for Arkansas when Florida State and Miami waffled. Florida State then jumped to the rival ACC.
Thats when USC pressed its advantage as a large school in the heart of ACC territory with a solid, if not spectacular football program.
On Aug. 10, 1990, the USC board of trustees gave Smith the go-ahead to pursue a conference bid. At 4:55 p.m. on Sept. 25, USC accepted Kramers invitation.
Then on Sept. 5, 1992, the new era began with a witch doctors spell.
• • •
Was USC nervous? Hard to say, but missing its cue to storm the field during the playing of 2001 was some sort of sign.
I remember it very clearly, former USC coach Sparky Woods said. It was a great day for South Carolina. It was two schools that were close together but never played together. It was exciting. I was proud of those Gamecock people. They were always a SEC-type support base.
For Woods, the SEC meant more than money. It meant cachet. He could approach recruits and tell them they would be able to play in the best conference against the best teams in the nation.
Clemson couldnt do that, right?
We knew that when we went into the league, it would help, Woods said. We had to get not just a marquee guy but eight or nine. (Clemson coach Danny Ford) had done a good job of getting most of the guys in the state.
SEC teams also had been getting the drop on USC.
We lost out on Garrison Hearst to Georgia, who I thought wed get, Woods continued. Then we lost out on Stephen Davis, who went to Auburn. But then we got Steve Taneyhill and I thought we had a chance.
We were trying to get us to the caliber of players Clemson was playing with. Getting Taneyhill and Matthew Campbell, those two guys, were a big get and I think we competed in the state from then on.
On the field, once the Gamecocks arrived, they announced themselves to the SEC by shutting out Georgia in the first half.
We were excited, said Antoine Rivens, one of the teams captains. We just wanted to play football. Thats why we got into the SEC. We were excited. It was such a great conference.
If you phrase it properly, its a great trick question: Who scored the first six points for USC in SEC history? Youre thinking about a touchdown, right?
Answer: Kicker Marty Simpson. His two field goals gave USC a 6-0 halftime lead.
Simpson said looking back, he never gave much thought about USC joining the big boys. Rather, what I was thinking really centered on, man, I hope my kicks go straight.
Georgia reset itself after the intermission and went on to a 28-6 victory in front of a record crowd of 75,060. Hearst factored into that victory greatly.
I was asked after the game by the media if there had been a particular call that changed the game, Woods said. I told them I believe it was when Garrison Hearst called me and said he was going to Georgia.
Next would come a beatdown from Arkansas (45-7), an embarrassment at Kentucky (13-9) and an implosion against Alabama at Bryant-Denny (48-7).
It was a great time to be there, but a scary time, too Woods said.
But a foundation for success was being poured into place. With the influx of an addition $3 million per year, USC could step up its efforts to build its all-sports program. National television exposure raised the schools national visibility.
I do feel good about being a part of that, Rivens said. It was an honorable year.
Perhaps the Chicken Curse persisted, but slowly, surely, winds of change began to blow.
It took nearly 20 years and the aid of two Hall of Fame coaches, but the Curse finally ended with an SEC East Division title in 2010 (coincidentally, that was the title of the sequel to Arthur C. Clarkes 2001 novel).
I remember when I was playing, there was a huge sign right outside the lockerroom. It was Williams-Brice, back-lit, 10-feet by 10-feet with the words The Best Play Here, Simpson recalled. I remember I went to my long-snapper and said, yeah, they do now Alabama will play here, Florida will play here.
But Coach Spurriers Gamecocks, even through Lou Holtz, I think that has been fulfilled, Simpson concluded.
As for the remainder of 1992, there would be tumult. There would be tension.
Then there would be Taneyhill.
But thats another story.