Football at USC and Clemson has become a big business enterprise, with each program having annual budgets that reach into the millions of dollars.

South Carolinians have been playing football since the late nineteenth century. The sport was first played in the Northeast, and in the decades after the Civil War it spread south as cultural ties between the regions were reestablished. College students were the first to play the game, and club teams were formed on campuses across the state. As the sport became more popular, official college teams were organized and intercollegiate play began. The first official game played in the state saw Wofford beat Furman 5–1 (each score counted one point) in Spartanburg on December 14, 1889. The University of South Carolina (USC) played its first game in 1892, losing to Furman 44–0 in Charleston. Four years later Clemson made its football debut, defeating Wofford 14–6 in Greenville; and later the same season USC and Clemson played for the first time, with the Gamecocks winning 12–6.

It was not until after World War I that most state high schools began playing organized football. The economic recovery of the early twentieth century fueled by increased industrialization brought profound cultural changes to the state. Children spent less time in the fields and factories as economic improvements expanded the state’s middle class. Teenage boys had more free time, and organized sports such as football became more popular. Stadiums were built for high school teams using local tax dollars, and the boys’ exploits on the field became an important point of pride for towns and rural communities. Football increased in popularity in the years after World War II, but due to the segregated structure of the state’s school system whites and blacks did not play against each other until after desegregation in 1970. Friday night high school football continues to be an important ritual, with stadiums from Greenville to Charleston filled with thousands of fans rooting for their local teams. John McKissick, head coach at Summerville High School, broke the national record for the most wins by a football coach at any level in 2003 with 510.

College teams were racially segregated until 1970, when Jackie Brown became USC’s first African American player. In 1971 Marion Reeves became the first African American to play for Clemson. Although the tradition of USC and Clemson playing on “Big Thursday” during the week of the state fair in Columbia ended in 1959, the game continues to draw the largest football crowd in the state each year. Other rivalry games include the Presbyterian College–Newberry College contest for the “Bronze Derby” and the Citadel-Furman rivalry that dates back to 1917. South Carolina State and Benedict College played each other from 1926 to 1966. The schools renewed their rivalry in 1999 and briefly expanded the game to a weeklong festival, the Palmetto Capital City Classic, until South Carolina State pulled out after the 2004 game.

Football at USC and Clemson has become a big business enterprise, with each program having annual budgets that reach into the millions of dollars. Football also brings large sums of money into each school’s coffers, paying for many of the less popular sports; most of the revenue comes from ticket sales. USC’s Williams Brice Stadium and Clemson’s “Death Valley” hold well over eighty thousand fans each and are sold out for the majority of their home games.

There have been significant coaching careers at state colleges. At Clemson, John Heisman, for whom the Heisman Trophy is named, coached the Tigers from 1900 to 1903. Clemson legend Frank Howard coached the Tigers from 1940 to 1969 and holds the record for longest tenure at the school. Danny Ford coached Clem- son from 1978 to 1989, with a record of ninety-six wins and twenty-nine losses. The longest tenure at USC was by Rex Enright, who coached the Gamecocks from 1938 to 1942 and from 1946 to 1955. Other USC coaches of national prominence include Paul Dietzel (1966–1974) and Lou Holtz (1999–2004). Furman’s W. L. Laval (1915–1927), A. P. McLeod (1932–1942), and Bob King (1958–1972) all coached the Paladins for over ten years. Presbyterian’s Walter Johnson (1915–1917, 1919–1940) and Cally Gault (1963–1984) each led the Blue Hose to over one hundred wins. South Carolina State’s Willie Jeffries (1973–1978, 1989–2001) is a coaching legend at the Orangeburg school; during his tenure he led the Bulldogs to a record of 122 wins and 72 losses.

The state has produced two national championship teams: Furman, coached by Jimmy Satterfield, defeated Georgia Southern for the 1988 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I-AA title; and Clemson, under Danny Ford, defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the 1981 NCAA I-A championship. South Carolina colleges have produced scores of All-American players. Two of the best were USC running back George Rogers, who won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best player in 1980, and Clemson’s William “the Refrigerator” Perry, who went on to have an illustrious career with the National Football League’s Chicago Bears.

Doyle, Andrew. “Cause Won, Not Lost: Football and Southern Culture, 1892–1983.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1998.

———. “Turning the Tide: College Football and Southern Progressivism.” Southern Cultures 3, no. 3 (1997): 28–51.

Griffin, John Chandler. Carolina vs. Clemson, Clemson vs. Carolina: A Century of Unparalleled Rivalry in College Football. Columbia, S.C.: Summerhouse, 1998.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Football
  • Author Don Barton
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/football/
  • Access Date January 23, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date May 17, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 3, 2016