This word can have a variety of meanings and connotations for people. Sibling rivalry. Family rivalry. Competitiveness. Leaders in an industry (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison).
Some may see it as a positive thing. Others may think that there is a very negative side to the word with passion, hate, and a ‘win at all costs’ mentality pushing rivalries to the extreme.
For two participants in a rivalry, seeing things from the other point of view may be difficult. Setting aside differences, biases, passion, and loyalty can seem like an impossible task.
What happens when one attempts to look beyond these things? Does doing so make one appreciate a rivalry a little more?
This is what I am trying to figure out.
The other side of a rivalry
When I think of ‘rivalry’, I think of college football. Granted rivalries exist in all sports in places all over the world ranging from individuals to teams to countries.
Tennis has had some great rivalries with John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona can’t stand each other in soccer/football (this is as much political and cultural as it is the sport).
One of the most passionate rivalries in all of sports may be between two countries many people know little about in a sport many people know nothing about. However, the cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan may be as heated as it gets.
For me, my greatest rivalry is South Carolina – Clemson.
As a Gamecock fan and graduate, I am biased. Growing up in South Carolina, I think I understand it. Reading about the clash of culture and the state of disunion as it relates to football in the state of South Carolina makes me appreciate it even more.
However, as I’ve launched my College Football Travel Tour, I’ve wanted to dedicate myself to looking deeper at the culture of college football and explore the towns and discover the stories that make this such a unique part of the local culture here in the US. Football is so much more than a game on the field between two teams and these towns have so much more to offer than a stadium full of people on a Saturday afternoon.
As I attended the South Carolina football game against Clemson for my College Football Travel Tour, I knew I would have a hard time being objective about Clemson. When I interviewed Travis Haney about his experiences and time covering the Gamecocks as part of my feature on the Carolina Clemson rivalry for the book State of Disunion, I loved going down memory lane.
Now I am stepping back and taking a look at things from the other side.
When I was in Columbia for the game, I spent the afternoon and evening with a writer who covers the Clemson Tigers for their Rivals site, TigerIllustrated.com. Hanging out with Larry Williams that day was a blessing and allowed me to look at this rivalry with new eyes.
Larry also knows what it is like to look at this from the other side. So as I interviewed Larry about his experiences writing Classic Clashes of the Carolina – Clemson Football Rivalry: A State of Disunion, this was a chance for me to look at things a little differently.
What did I learn from this? A lot about myself, a view of the world, and why rivalries matter.
State of Disunion – an interview with Clemson writer Larry Williams
Larry Williams: I was terrible at math, somewhat good at English in that I could string a sentence together, and loved sports. Dabbled in broadcasting in my first year of college, then started writing for the school newspaper my second year and loved it. From that point, I knew what I wanted to do.
South Carolina – Clemson – THE rivalry in the state of South Carolina. How did you get involved with the idea of doing a book?
LW: Travis Haney’s first book on the Gamecocks’ first College World Series title, Gamecock Glory, did really well and he and the publisher were bouncing around ideas on another book. Pretty sure it was the publisher (The History Press) who thought of the idea for a definitive look at the rivalry. Travis approached me, and it took me about half a second to say “Heck yes.”
Other books about the rivalry have been written so why write another book? What did you feel you could share about this rivalry that others hadn’t touched on?
LW: The other books are more play-by-play and nuts-and-bolts stuff. That arrangement is good for its own purposes; if you want to know who scored a touchdown in the third quarter of the 1962 game, or statistics or whatever, Don Barton’s books are the authority in that sense. But we wanted to unearth a lot of the great stories of this rivalry’s history by talking to as many people and doing as much research as we could.
This approach is pure storytelling, and there’s enough material to write 10 books.
Having experienced things on both sides of the rivalry, you state that you aren’t emotionally invested in either team. From a neutral perspective, how would you sum up the history of these two teams?
LW: I’ve seen both sides of this rivalry and appreciate both sides of it. Grew up in Columbia, pulled for the Gamecocks, went to school there. But once I started doing it for a living, it didn’t take long for the fan part to wash away completely. I’m a fan of sports, and I do get excited over great games and such, but there are no emotional strings attached and I believe that’s the best (and only) way to do this for a living and do it right.
Spent five years at the Augusta paper covering both schools, plus Georgia and Georgia Tech. In late 2003 took a job covering Clemson for The (Charleston) Post and Courier. Since then have lived in the Clemson area covering the Tigers and have really grown to like the area and the people.
The two teams were on fairly even footing until the late 1970s, when Clemson’s program really took off. The Tigers won the national title in 1981 and collected a bunch of ACC titles from 1977 to 1991. The Gamecocks had some brushes with greatness (1980, 1984, 1987) but couldn’t win consistently.
Even when Clemson slid down to mediocrity in the 1990s and beyond, the Tigers still managed to own the Gamecocks most of the time. Things have changed in a pretty big way lately, with the Gamecocks dominating Clemson three years in a row. This is the way the Tigers are used to beating South Carolina, so it’s quite unsettling for Clemson fans to experience the other side.
Would you say that one school cares more about this rivalry than the other? From the perspective of the fans? From the perspective of the coaches and players?
LW: It’s common for people to think the winning team cares more about the rivalry than the losing team, but I think that’s just too simplistic. I thought Steve Spurrier made a great point after this season’s win over Clemson when he said (paraphrasing): “Maybe now Gamecock fans can see that we don’t beat Clemson by hating them as much as possible; we beat them by playing well on the field.” It really underscored the point that, most of the time, the team that wins this game wins it because it’s the better team and not because it cares more about it.
I do think Clemson’s traditional dominance of South Carolina has led to somewhat different mentalities between the two fan bases. Clemson fans have experienced more relief than jubilation in beating the Gamecocks, because they can’t stand spending the year hearing about losing that game. I think South Carolina fans typically experienced more joy and jubilation in their wins over Clemson. The wins happened so rarely that often it made the Gamecocks’ season to beat them.
It’s been different recently, though. It seems as if South Carolina expects to beat Clemson now. The further the Tigers are removed from their dominance of the Gamecocks, the harder it will be for them to have that air of confidence they used to have for this game. It’s unsettling for Clemson fans to think about.
LW: Very passionate and loyal, but also a bit scarred from going 20 years without an ACC title. It was really agonizing for them to see Maryland, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and others win ACC titles over that stretch.
That’s why winning the 2011 ACC title was so monstrous for this program. So much frustration was washed away when they beat Virginia Tech by four touchdowns.
Clemson fans are often criticized for having inflated expectations, but I don’t think that’s true. I’ve never once heard a Clemson fan say: “We need to get back to winning national titles.” The more common refrain is: “We need to win a dang ACC title every now and then,” and I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation at all. This football program, given its resources, tradition and fan support, should be at or near the top of the ACC most the time.
Give me an inside scoop or interesting story on what it was like to research and write this book.
LW: Pretty much lived at the library on Clemson’s campus last summer. Spent a ton of time looking at microfilm of old newspapers to try to get a sense of the great stories and anecdotes from a lot of those old games in the 1940s, 50s, etc.
What’s your favorite story from the book?
LW: I really like the 1987-88 chapter because it reveals something not a lot of people knew about: The friendship between players on both sides.
Clemson quarterback Rodney Williams was really good friends with a number of Gamecock players, and they’d spend a lot of time hanging out during the summers in Columbia when Rodney went home to Irmo.
Some of those games in the 1980s were the most cut-throat of the rivalry’s history, and yet you had some of the participants just doing typical things together like going to parties after the games, being regular college kids.
What did you learn about this rivalry that you didn’t know before?
LW: Learning about Big Thursday was a really cool experience. My grandparents had told me about it but I never thought much about it or researched it. It was such a big deal in those days, and educating myself on the spectacle was quite entertaining and enlightening.
In terms of college football rivalries, where does this one rank? Is this rivalry a little underrated?
LW: It’s definitely underrated because I don’t think people on the outside get a sense of just how bitter it is. Auburn-Alabama is at the top, but this one isn’t too far behind because it’s in such a small state and you have a lot of bickering year-round. So many communities and neighborhoods are occupied by fans of both schools. A bunch of families, too.
The only real knock on this rivalry is that no one really cares about it outside the state’s borders. The only way to cultivate respect for it is for both teams to be good more often. So the trend we’ve seen this year, with both teams bagging double-digit win totals for the first time ever, needs to continue.
What are your favorite memories or experiences covering this game?
LW: The 2004 and 2000 games stand out, not from the standpoint of being “favorites” but just because they’re so hard to forget. The brawl of 2004 was so surreal because I was standing on the sideline and was right there when it got to its nastiest point. I’ve never seen a stadium erupt like Death Valley did when Rod Gardner came down with that catch and then Aaron Hunt sent the kick through the uprights.
Some great games that stand out: 2007 (Clemson’s frantic drive at the end for game-winning field goal); 1996 (Clemson rallies from a big deficit but misses a game-tying field goal at the end); 1986 (tie game between two high-powered teams); 1984 (SC rallies from 21-3 deficit and wins 22-21 in a great game).
At the top has to be the 1977 game. I don’t remember it because I was only 2 years old, nothing else surpasses this one because of all the crazy momentum swings and the incredible game-winning catch by Jerry Butler.
What’s been your best experience or moment you have had covering Clemson?
LW: I’m probably in the middle of it. Being at a BCS game covering two high-powered offenses is pretty cool. The way this team mauled Virginia Tech, just seven days after getting smoked by South Carolina, was pretty crazy.
For people that don’t know anything about this rivalry, what would you tell them about it and what it means to the people of this state?
LW: I think it’s something you just have to experience. It’s just a year-round thing. Clemson people constantly have their eye on South Carolina, and vice-versa. They’re always measuring themselves and trying to claim victories in various areas whether it be recruiting, conference affiliation, or whatever.
It can get really nasty, but that’s sort of what defines a great rivalry. At least no one in South Carolina has poisoned any trees … yet.
A rivalry renewed, a different perspective, and why it matters
After spending time with Larry, I have a lot of respect for what he does as he gave me a different perspective on things.
Do I like Clemson any more after hanging out with him and doing this interview? Honestly, no. However, this has gotten me to think about things differently. And I think that is the point.
I don’t have to agree with his opinions or those of Clemson fans. However, being able to hear and understand another perspective is important – even if I don’t agree.
For those that love to travel, you can encounter people from all walks of life who think, act, and live life differently than you do. And while we may not agree with every person we meet or the way they choose to live, this helps broaden our perspective to include just one more person in our own judgmental, self righteous perspective we call “our view of the world.”
For me, this is a rivalry renewed. Just like it is every few years in the Carolina – Clemson rivalry, some event happens to change the way we look at things and stir the passion once again. For me, this perspective has renewed the rivalry for me as I look at things a little differently now.
Honestly, I will never be a Clemson fan. However, I appreciate the rivalry a little more as I look at it from the other side for once.
One great thing about a rivalry – the fierce competition between two teams makes each one better and stronger for having competed against the other.
A special thanks to Larry Williams for his encouragement, dedication, time, and friendship as he talked to me about the book and went above and beyond what was required to help me. Follow Larry and his work with Tiger Illustrated as he covers the Clemson Tigers and follow him on Twitter @LarryWilliamsTI.
Photo: Clemson football (Flickr)
How have rivalries or different points of view changed your perspective on the world?