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Carolina On My Mind

Written by: Patrick W. Byrne

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press


Moving to South Carolina from New Jersey when I was 11 years old was eye opening. Whereas professional sports were king up north, they took a back seat to college football and there were only 2 teams that anyone cared about, South Carolina and Clemson. Growing up Irish Catholic in the north, being a Notre Dame fan was pretty much a right of passage, while also being quite normal. Not anymore. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was questioned more than once on why I liked Notre Dame of all schools. The common refrain was, "why Notre Dame, you live here now?" I was asked on a consistent basis whether I'd be rooting for the Gamecocks or Tigers going forward. Given I'm writing this article on a Notre Dame site you can deduce the answer to that question on your own, but that didn't stop the questions or "choosing sides" conversations. South Carolina is not unlike other states in the south, college football is king. The difference is, one team is more king than the other, at least in status and success (they wear orange if you hadn't guessed). Don't get mad South Carolina fans, I'm not throwing shade, if anything, I want Notre Dame fans to understand you better.


Lou Holtz had just been hired as the head coach of South Carolina. Understand, this was a huge development for the program and for the state. The fact a national championship coach, who had success everywhere he went, wanted to coach at South Carolina was a huge deal. The first season did not go as planned. The Gamecocks went win less, 0-11. Keep in mind, they had gone 1-10 the year before so a 2 year span of 1-21 was very Kansas-like and would be embarrassing for most fans. Yet, instead of embarrassment, I witnessed resilience and pride. Gamecocks fans filled the stands, with most if not all games being sellouts for that year. Consider that for a moment. A winless team, selling out games, kind of crazy to think about now. But anyone who knows football saw progress being made. That first year laid the foundation for an 8 win year followed by 9 wins, both capped off with Outback Bowl wins against vaunted Ohio State (the second won against an OSU team that would win the national championship the next year). Although these heights weren't seen again under Holtz, he became the first coach in the history of the program to win 2 bowl games and opened the door for another legendary coach to walk through.


Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia, SC in 2005. The second consecutive coach with a national championship on his resume, this was a massive coup for a program with one conference championship (ACC, 1969) and a 3-8 bowl record (the first win being the CarQuest Bowl in 1994). Spurrier proceeded to take the Gamecocks to 9 more bowl games, compiling a 5-4 record. He led the 2011 team to 11 wins, only one other time had the school reached 10 wins (more on this later) while also finishing ranked in the top 10 in a final poll for the first time ever. He followed this up with 2 more 11 win seasons with bowl wins against Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. Spurrier also went 6-4 against Clemson with his best team finishing 4th in the final 2013 poll.


In the span of 16 years, two coaches completely changed the trajectory of Gamecock football. What was once an independent playing the likes of East Carolina, Virginia Tech and a smattering of ACC teams was now an SEC up and comer playing and beating Florida and Georgia while actually winning their bowl games. Keep in mind, in 1990 South Carolina lost to The Citadel, at home. A 6 win season was a good year with potential for a bowl game. Remember that 10-2 year I mentioned earlier? The year was 1984 and Carolina had risen to #2 in the nation, having beaten the likes of Georgia, Florida State and you guessed it, Notre Dame. They entered Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium 9-0 and left with a 31-28 loss, dropping to #9 and eventually losing their bowl game to Oklahoma State to drop even further. Joe Morrison, the coach who led the program to heights not yet seen to that point, would die of heart failure while still acting as head coach 5 years later.


By now you're asking yourself, wait, isn't this a Notre Dame site? Why do I care? Well, it's always important to know your opponent and understand what you're walking into. Many will see South Carolina's record and gloss over the history of the program and what they've been able to accomplish over the past 20+ years. One such accomplishment is something all Notre Dame fans are unable to claim, a regular season win over #1 Alabama in 2010 on their way to an SEC East championship. This still stands as the biggest win in the history of the program; however, knocking off two top 10 teams in successive weeks (as they did this year) may top it for some fans, especially considering one of those teams was Clemson. The point is, Shane Beamer has this team pointed in the right direction, that much is obvious. He was able to convince Spencer Rattler, a former 5 star QB who was benched for the newly minted Heisman trophy winner, to transfer to Carolina. If the Irish are able to get back to the playoffs sooner rather than later, don't be surprised if South Carolina is a potential team they'd play, especially considering the 12 team format we'll see soon.



Photo Courtesy: Associated Press


College football has changed exponentially over the past 25 years. In this state alone, Clemson has brought home 2 national championships and South Carolina won 11 games for 3 seasons in a row, climaxed by Jadeveon Clowney being picked 1st overall in the 2014 NFL draft. South Carolina has moved with the times and they've been able to adapt to the shifting landscape that exists within college football circles. Notre Dame has done the same. Stadium upgrades that include field turf, an ND logo in the middle of the field and jumbotron along with piped in music and ribbon display all show the Irish are willing to adapt. Although our histories may be different, with Notre Dame having had more success in the first 100 years, the histories are more alike now than ever before.


This has the potential to be a fantastic Gator Bowl match up. Have no fear, we'll have plenty of game time information to share with you leading up to the game. Don't be fooled, although that team in orange may have more championships and national cache, the Gamecocks will treat this game with a Holtz/Spurrier like intensity. This is a big game for both sides, but Carolina will view this as another feather in their cap to aid in their continued rise out of football afterthought to SEC power. Notre Dame has to be ready, I know I will be. There's zero doubt I'll get more than one question in the lead up to the game wondering, "Why Notre Dame, you live here?"


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