I almost did not make it to the Carolina/Middle Tennessee game. I was in Charleston the evening before, reconnecting with old friends, and it turned into a very late night. Before bunking at my friend's "Garage Mahal" on James Island, I set the alarm clock for 6 am. The next morning, while I was still waking up, I rolled onto Interstate 26, Columbia bound. I was in great need of a Chik-Fil-A biscuit and hot cup of coffee.
I fueled both my car and myself in Summerville. Following a few sips of java and bite of the biscuit, my sleepiness disappeared. I drove with the sun at my back and a smile on my face. After all, this was the last home game of the USC season. It was the day to recognize all senior football players in our program, and I simply could not miss the opportunity to show them my gratitude and support, along with rooting for the rest of my beloved Gamecocks.
I passed other Carolina fans along the way, waving and honking for a big "thumbs up." I cheered with Newberry College fans in their decorated cars, who were eagerly anticipating their decisive game against Albany State, which they later won! Of course, there were the highly recognizable Clemson taters clunking and wheezing along in their beat up old trucks, getting in everybody's way…but we all just ignored them as usual.
Homecoming for a Dear Friend
What would make this game especially memorable was the return of Rick Stockstill, (former assistant USC coach) back to Carolina. He is now the head coach at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), and the Gamecocks were going to face him on the gridiron as an opposing coach for the first time. The MTSU team was already bound for the postseason with seven wins under its belt. Alas, USC could not say the same…yet.
A win against MTSU could seal it. It simply had to happen.
Gamecock fans remember Stockstill fondly, as a wonderful coach and recruiter. Some of our current players are here at Carolina because of him. Fans, including me, held our collective breath when we realized how vital this particular game would be under these very interesting circumstances. Our young Gamecocks lost the last three games and have had a lackluster home game record this season, against some very stiff competition. USC would be ending regular play against in-state rival, Clemson University, next weekend on their turf.
I didn't pay much attention to the USC/MTSU pre-game chatter. Quite frankly, I didn't want to know anything. I simply wanted to enjoy the last home game, with an expectation to win, and win big.
Fans, Families and Friends
Instead of tailgating before the game, I headed directly to my season seat in the West Upper Stands. It seems I was not the only one who had that idea. The day was absolutely beautiful. This game was the only afternoon game we have had all season, and folks of all ages were happy to finally bask in the autumnal glow of the warm sun on game day. The cold, harsh night winds of the Arkansas game became a thing of the past.
It was wonderful seeing families attend with their children, all clad in garnet and black. There were little cheerleaders, along with miniature (and possibly hopeful) Sidney Rices and Syvelle Newtons, chowing down on cotton candy and hot dogs. I heard these youngsters enchanting pleas of "Where's Cocky, Mama?" prior to the pre-game opening pageantry, known to fans simply as "2001."
The folks in my West Upper family include three guys from Boiling Springs, SC, two lifelong friends from Union, SC, and a former fellow lowcountry resident. We all exchanged hugs and high fives, in anticipation of a victory. Being the lone Yankee in the bunch has given me entrée to the delicacies and delights of Southern living over the years with these fine folks. They have alerted and educated me in all things South Carolinian. They have also been more than patient with me when I might not have understood what they were talking about; whether it was about football or other topics.
Pedal to the Metal
The game did not start out very well for the Gamecocks. On the opening drive, MTSU scored. We fans were suddenly silent. The clock was stopped with over 14 minutes left in the quarter, and we thought this game just might be interminable. Actually, that first quarter was. It lasted close to an hour. The good news is that our team rebounded, and so did we. As a result of outstanding defensive play and fan involvement, MTSU was faced with tough choices and scant communication on critical third downs. The Gamecocks happy dance routine was being choreographed.
Running up the Score, Spurrier Style
One of the things that has set our head coach, Steve Spurrier, apart from many others in his profession, has been his ability to score and score big while coaching at his alma mater, the University of Florida. The same has not necessarily been true since he has come to Columbia. However, the Gamecocks turned a corner by scoring big against MTSU. The final score was 52-7 in our favor.
This was the kind of game the fans have been salivating over for almost two years now. Realistically, we knew that our Gamecock Empire was in dire need of repair and had to be rebuilt one player at a time. Spurrier became the new architect last year, and had his work cut out for him. We had to be patient. On November 18 of this year, our patience was rewarded.
As mentioned above, the defense was instrumental in keeping MTSU from scoring. But it was a golden day for our offense, as well. I don't pay attention to, or write about statistics and yardage earned and/or lost after games. I reserve that specialty for the experts to report about. But I will tell you this. Each and every player stepped up and played great football. It scored more than mere points. The offense also scored big with fans. It has been a pleasure witnessing the growth of this unit. It has become engaging, audacious and exciting to watch.
After our win, I decided to stick around Williams-Brice and catch part of Coach Spurrier's comments, but not before watching the crowds disperse and empty the stadium. I closed my eyes, entering a Zen-like state, and just breathed in the laughter and cheers around me. It was a great feeling for a fan to have on such a beautiful day.
I then made my way to the West Lower stands, joining the diehard fans that refused to leave until proper homage was paid to the team and coaches. I went downstairs to the team entrance and saw the throng of youngsters jumping up and down to catch a glimpse of their sports' idols as they exited. Plenty of adults were also on hand to applaud and share this victory with the team members. Players stopped to sign autographs for the children waiting by the gate. The kids were squealing with delight, and the players were clearly as delighted to oblige.
It's Miller Time
As for me, it was time to complete my game experience with that Carolina tradition known as serial tailgating. I walked down Bluff Road to meet with some buddies of mine, most of whom are posters here on GamecockAnthem. Mynok's hard cider beckoned, as did Oger's Belgian beer and Bethel's chicken and dumplings. All were scrumptious, as usual. We discussed the game, the bowl-game possibilities, and of course we swapped turkey recipes for the upcoming holidays.
As the sun started to set, I had to walk the mile back to my car in the opposite direction. Bethel saw to it that I had food to-go and we all bid adieus until the bowl game decision is made. By the time I got to the fairgrounds, the security team was already enforcing the "must leave now" rule. I got there just in time to welcome the evening.
There are standouts that I would like to acknowledge as the regular season comes to an end.
Seniors – Thanks to all players who are leaving us this year. They have worked so very hard under many daunting circumstances. They have hung in there with us fans during the good times as well as the not-so-good. The seniors are to be commended for their dedication and leadership during their tenure here at USC. We are very proud of them. They will always be part of the Gamecock family. I wish them the very best that life has to offer!
Syvelle Newton – He has proven what true leadership, versatility, humility, class and determination is all about. He embodies the essence of what all Gamecocks should strive to become, whether fans, followers or students. I know I speak for Gamecocks everywhere when I say we wish him success and look forward to watching him play more football on Sundays. On a personal note: I will miss his thousand watts smile. He can light up an entire room with it!
Blake Mitchell – How exciting to see the progress he has made! He is to be commended for his total commitment, humility and dedication to the team. Blake has proven even his harshest critics wrong. He took a negative situation and turned it into a positive. He could have left us, but he didn't. He put his pride in his back pocket and paid close attention while on the bench. In turn, he has taught us that correction and criticism can transmute a good, solid rock into gold, and we fans could not be happier with that result!
Coach Spurrier and staff – a mere "thanks" seems insufficient, but it is really the best I can muster at this point. Gratitude at this time of year seems so fitting, yet simple. But isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?
The USC Marching Band – I must give special recognition to this dedicated and talented body of students and its new director, Dr. George Brozak. Thank you for listening to us fans about what type of music we enjoy at games, and then delivering the goods. Thank you for working so hard and playing your instruments with such joy and professionalism. Thanks for coming to our tailgates and serenading us, and also for coming into the stands and getting us on our feet to the beat of your songs. How refreshing and enjoyable that was! You continue to become more engaging and energetic with each game. We fans are noticing and certainly appreciate it.
In my opinion, there are a few kinks that can be ironed out prior to next season, and after some discussion with others, I am not the only one who thinks so.
While the band is working so hard at becoming more interactive, is there anyway the cheerleaders can do the same? I know there are competitions and other things to prepare for, but at games, must they do routines and team chants only? Wouldn't it be nice if some cheerleaders scattered about in the stadium and really got to know the fans, helping some of us along? I know there are little girls sitting near us would be thrilled at that prospect.
While on the subject, why did they spring a brand new cheer on us, during 2001, on the last home game of the season? New cheers are great. We can rehearse them during the 60 minutes prior to the game.
A big "BOO" and "just leave the stadium if you get mad", to those who dared throw debris on the field after a few bad calls at the UT game. The Gamecocks don't need you, and we don't take ownership of your so-called fandom. In fact, if you don't clean up your act, don't go away angry; just go away.
And stay away. Please. Thank you.
I guess somebody was listening to the fans, since "Carolina Girls" is no longer played before the fourth quarter over the loudspeaker.
My question still remains:
Why is it being played at all? Who are these Carolina girls of which they sing? I personally do not care if it is being played during the first our second half. It is dumb, inappropriate and makes our team seem like…well, girls. Not that there is anything wrong with being a girl and living in Carolina. Opposing fans think it's a hoot. We Gamecock fans are not amused. Toss it!
Here's hoping that smashed (Clemson) taters will be served up big on our plate over this Thanksgiving weekend.
So much for Steve Spurrier having Phillip Fulmer's number. So much for the Ol' Ball Coach moving…