Signing the Tiger paw, Taneyhill was just having fun

nwhite@thestate.comNovember 22, 2012 

USC Steve Taneyhill turns toward Clemson fans after USC beat Clemson 24-13 at Clemson.

TIM DOMINICK — File photo

Just like Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was twenty years ago today that Steve Taneyhill taught the fans to play.

For followers of the South Carolina football program, winning had gone completely out of style in 1992 after four straight losses to Clemson. But the long-haired freshman quarterback, well, let’s just say that he was guaranteed to raise a smile.

That game in the long-standing Palmetto State rivalry saw a brash Taneyhill mimic hitting home runs after each big play and autograph the big Tiger paw at midfield when the Gamecocks’ 24-13 victory was complete, a command performance that the Altoona, Pa., native punctuated with a bow before a sea of orange-clad fans.

“I was 19, a freshman, playing in an important game for a lot of guys on our team, and it was my first time at it,” Taneyhill said. “The energy in the stadium that day was unbelievable. Honestly, I was just having fun. The home run swings, we set all that up. We talked about having some fun with that. Standing at the Tiger paw and raising my hands, that was very spontaneous.”

The photo of Taneyhill with upraised arms has become an iconic one for USC fans, who were delirious over a young quarterback who could confidently march into Death Valley and complete 19-of-29 passes for 296 yards and touchdowns of 21 yards to Asim Penny and 30 yards to Toby Cates.

The win also was USC’s fifth in six games with Taneyhill as the starter, which capped the season and saved the job of coach Sparky Woods after a disastrous 0-5 start.

Taneyhill quickly became larger than life in the Capital City for the long, flowing locks that ran down the back of his uniform, the confident manner that made him cockier than Cocky, and the accurate arm that would eventually allow him to complete over 60 percent of his passes over four seasons for 8,782 yards and a school-record 62 touchdowns.

Today he’s the head coach at Union County High, and while he can sense the distance between now and 1992, he said he appreciates that it feels like it just happened yesterday for fans still sending him cards and pictures to sign.

“I’m getting older, and there’s no question to me that it feels like it has been 20 years. It might not seem like it has gone that fast to other people,” he said. “But from the general public, it has been continuous for 20 years. I think that’s just because the Carolina-Clemson game is awfully important to a lot of people in this state. I still hear, ‘I remember…’ or ‘I saw…’ -- and it was my introduction to the rivalry and how big of an event it is to a lot of fans at both schools.”

The Clemson fans, however, are more likely to tell him, “I hated you when you did that,” or “If I could have found you that night…” But he says it’s all good-natured, just as it was when he crossed paths a few years back with former Clemson defensive lineman Brentson Buckner, another famed trash-talker from the early 1990s. The two shared a few good laughs about their clashes.

That night in 1992, Taneyhill helped the Gamecocks pull away from a 10-10 halftime tie with a pair of second-half touchdowns, the last one coming on a four-yard run by tailback Brandon Bennett, who finished the game with 93 yards on 17 carries and four receptions for 42 yards.

“It was a special game, and Taneyhill, of course, had a lot to do with that,” kicker Marty Simpson said.

Simpson, who drilled a 43-yard field goal to end the first half and added three extra points, marveled at the leadership skills of the freshman quarterback in so many big situations over the second half of the season, which also included wins over ranked opponents in Mississippi State and Tennessee.

The two players got to know each other well that season because they had lockers next to each other, as Simpson wore No. 19 and Taneyhill wore No. 18. Simpson watched the veteran players embrace the bold, talkative Taneyhill as the season went along.

“Steve Taneyhill was one of the best teammates I ever had. He was a throwback, old-school, fantastic teammate,” Simpson said. “He was selfless in the locker room, he was a great verbal encourager and leader, and all of the antics just made it more fun to play with him. I always thought it was fantastic to have that element.”

Now 39, Taneyhill, who has won five state championships at two other high schools before coming to Union County this year, works on the other side of the equation. He’s the coach who must figure how make sure his players walk the fine line between winning and showing off their personal style on the field. Calling himself a players’ coach, he gives them leeway.

“I like to see some emotion and kids enjoying themselves,” he said. “As long as we don’t get a penalty that hurts the team, I let them have fun. I want them to celebrate together. I like to see that. It’s part of the game.”

Taneyhill made himself a permanent part of USC lore with his signature of the Tiger paw 20 years ago. He’s fine with that legacy.

“It wasn’t meant to belittle anybody. It was just emotion and having fun.”

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