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Origins of the Carolina-Clemson Rivalry: Why are These Two Great Schools at Odds?

University of South Carolina football team of 1896.
Garnet and Black, 1963; USC/South Caroliniana Library
University of South Carolina football team of 1896.

Every fall, fans of the University of South Carolina and Clemson University square up and begin preparing for one of the oldest rivalry games in southeast college football. For some, it means a bit of good old-fashioned ribbing and jokes that cast the other team in a not-so-flattering light; but for others, the football rivalry goes deeper, sometimes even going as far as dividing family members at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. But have you ever wondered when, and why this legendary rivalry took root?

I took the scenic drive from Columbia up to Clemson to draw on the knowledge of Dr. Jerry Reel. Reel has been a professor with Clemson University since 1963. He's also a historian of the university itself, having authored two books on his beloved school, and now in semi-retirement, Reel serves as an archivist for the university. I asked Reel his opinion on the origins of the Carolina-Clemson rivalry.

Reel notes that in its earliest stages in 1889, Clemson was not originally wanted. The state of South Carolina already had what was then called South Carolina College, established in 1801. South Carolina College was not only created in Columbia to bridge the Upstate and Lowcountry into one, central and unified academic institution, but its unity was also further refined during and after the Civil War. Among other traditional disciplines, South Carolina College offered educations in engineering and mathematics, but a man named Thomas Green Clemson wanted to establish a new college that focused on agricultural sciences, something in which South Carolina College did not provide notable instruction. Clemson saw that one of South Carolina's greatest strengths was its farming industry, and wanted to build on that strength.

Clemson inherited a large estate that included 814 acres of land from his wife, Anna Maria Calhoun, daughter of 7th Vice President of the United States, John C. Calhoun. Upon Clemson’s passing, he bequeathed that land to the State of South Carolina for the purposes of creating a school dedicated to the agricultural sciences. But there were several other provisions, which included the appointment of a board of trustees that had been selected by Clemson himself. One of those members hand-picked by Clemson was future South Carolina Governor Benjamin Ryan Tillman.

There was much debate between those who believed South Carolina did not need another college and those who believed South Carolina needed a college dedicated to agriculture. Before his ascension to governorship, Tillman managed to successfully appeal to the South Carolina General Assembly for the new school’s establishment, and by one vote that tipped the scales for approval, Clemson College became a reality.

It’s here that Reel interjects, “In his bequest, Mr. Clemson did not declare that this should be a military school. He did not put students in uniform. That was all decisions made by the trustees who were suddenly confronted with having 450 students running loose up here in the country. And they said, ‘I think the only way we can handle this is by making it a military unit.’”

Before fully dusting itself off from the Civil War, the United States found itself in several more military conflicts. By the end of World War II, many young men returning from battle to South Carolina pursued higher education. According to Reel, those who initially turned to Clemson for agricultural instruction began to desire the opportunity to acquire other forms of education, namely in engineering and mathematics. But the number of young men wishing to enroll was far greater than the still-developing ag school could physically accommodate. While a solid infrastructure had been established, land and resources were finite. Therefore, it became necessary for the school to raise the academic acceptance bar even higher, admitting only cream-of-the-crop applicants to the school.

It’s at this point that Reel notes, “Clemson was growing. And while USC had sort of an engineering program, it wasn’t very much. Whereas Clemson had and has the prestige program in the state. Clemson’s academic reputation began to out-shadow South Carolina’s. And that has been a been a continuum since then. And that’s the origin of it. I suspect the growth of the math program, which was very big, is probably the most important factor, because it’s one of the original seven liberal arts. And by 1966, the school had grown up, about the same time the football team had grown up.”

Reel makes a solid case for his hypothesis on the origins of rivalry between Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, a rivalry which finds itself rooted in the prestige of each school’s academic offerings, and the performance of its students.

I was intrigued by the involvement of Benjamin Ryan Tillman. To further expand on Tillman’s influence and success in establishing Clemson University, I turned to Alexia Helsley, current history professor at the University of South Carolina, author, and former long-time archivist at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Helsley’s knowledge on the topic of the school rivalry is not only detailed, but she also finds a specific turning point that seems to have literally fanned the flames of the football rivalry.

“I think the Clemson-Carolina rivalry is one of those often referred to and not necessarily thought about,” says Helsley. “It’s as if the two institutions were automatically from the beginning at odds. Benjamin Ryan Tillman, who was governor and later a US senator, was a very firebrand, charismatic demagogue from Edgefield County South Carolina. I think he has a roll in this when he began a campaign to be elected governor. To do that, he had to develop a constituency. Tillman was a very well-to-do farmer and came from a well-to-do family. But he styled himself as ‘The One-Eyed Plowboy.’ He talked about USC as being ‘a seedbed of the aristocracy.’” Helsley observes that Tillman’s rhetoric seems to have begun the rivalry while Clemson College was only a year in its establishment, pitting what Tillman characterized as the state’s privileged and elite against the state’s hard-working, salt-of-the-earth families.

Helsley tells of the first time Clemson College and South Carolina College faced off on the football field. It happened in 1896 at the original fairgrounds, which were located off Elmwood Avenue in Columbia. South Carolina was victorious, winning 12 to 6 against Clemson College. But in the following four football games, Clemson prevailed, with one of those games in 1900 shutting out South Carolina College 51 to 0, a record of margin that still stands to the date of this publishing.

In 1902, the Gamecock was adapted as the symbol of South Carolina College. According to Helsley, a retailer in Columbia prominently posted a transparency of a Gamecock standing over a dejected tiger in his storefront window. The image gained the attention of both Clemson and South Carolina students alike. Though Clemson’s football team was highly favored in the Big Thursday game, South Carolina won in a 12 to 6 upset.

That next day, a parade featuring students from both Clemson and South Carolina had been planned. Rumors that South Carolina students would incorporate the use of the retailer’s Gamecock transparency during the parade caught the ear of Clemson students, who then warned South Carolina students that if they were indeed planning to use it in the parade, they could expect retaliation.

Like Reel, Helsley also notes that, at that time, Clemson was still a military school, with students in uniform, armed with bayonets and sabers. Emotions from both teams were high in the wake of Clemson’s football upset the day before. But the parade went on as scheduled, with Clemson students marching in formation, and South Carolina students marching with a float, while holding high the controversial Gamecock transparency. The students maintained decorum during the parade. But according to Helsley, as soon as the parade ended at the foot of the South Carolina Statehouse, students from both schools charged across Sumter Street to the Horseshoe to reclaim the image.

“About 30 Carolina students or so throw up a hasty barricade there on the Horseshoe,” Helsley says, “because they don’t have sabers like the cadet officers did, and attempt to defend themselves. Christy Benet, one of the (South Carolina) coaches, tries to break this up. He at least stalls long enough for faculty from Clemson and from Carolina and the local police to arrive, and they mediate the differences, and they go onto the Horseshoe and they burn the transparency. This is supposed to seal peace. Well, it doesn’t. You have letters and allegations that some of the Clemson officers had attacked unarmed Carolina students with swords. To which the Clemson supporters rejoined that they were only defending themselves because the Carolina students had brass knuckles. Now, I don’t know about brass knuckles versus a saber, but USC decided the best thing to do was not hold the game again until 1909.” Since then, the annual matchup has gone uninterrupted.

What has also gone uninterrupted is the rivalry itself between Clemson University and the University of South Carolina. Students and fans alike have found ways to build on the rivalry, not just to stir the loyalty of the fans, but in ways that have been productive, like food drives, blood drives, and other worthy charitable events. Toward the end of our conversation, Helsley makes a greater point, which is even greater than the two legendary schools themselves, “You go for South Carolina. It doesn’t matter what the school is. It’s our state. With a very long history. And a fascinating one, I think.” I believe both USC and Clemson fans would agree with her sentiment.

Linda Núñez is a South Carolina native, born in Beaufort, then moved to Columbia. She began her broadcasting career as a journalism student at the University of South Carolina. She has worked at a number of radio stations along the East Coast, but is now happy to call South Carolina Public Radio "home." Linda has a passion for South Carolina history, literature, music, nature, and cooking. For that reason, she enjoys taking day trips across the state to learn more about our state’s culture and its people.