Greetings, Welcome, and a Comment on “the Culture”
First of all, I owe a debt of thanks to our generous bloghost, Gullinkambi, for establishing Thoughtful Gamecock. He is a great friend of long standing and when he mentioned that he was setting up a blog devoted to Gamecock sports commentary, I was thrilled at the possibility of committing some of our ideas to semi-permanent form. I have always wished that we could find some way to share our frequent chats with the wider world, and now that he’s kindly provided us with such a forum, I encourage everyone who might be reading–Gamecock fan or no–to join in the discussion in the comments box.
I thought it might be useful, for purposes of introduction, to add a few thoughts to the excellent discussion below labeled Elevation. One of our defining characteristics as Gamecock fans is our Eeyore temperament, our constant rehearsal of “a hundred years of frustration” or “decades of mediocrity,” or what have you. (For the record, and as evidence that I’m living proof of the phenomenon, I consider the word “mediocrity” an over-generous euphemism for “awfulness.”) It’s something that ESPN analysts have been known to comment on after leaving our stadium–that palpable sense that something bad is about to happen, and in fact for some years it seemed that our players were more comfortable in a hostile SEC stadium than in pressure-packed Williams-Brice, a kind of Titanic on land in which everyone saw, or thought he saw, the outline of a glacier just ahead. And let’s face it, given our history, and given that USC fans have long labored under the delusion that the football program had all the resources it could ever need (a consequence of both ordinary stupidity and the years spent as an independent, which sheltered both the fans and several administrations from the competitive pressures of conference membership), who could blame us? The Chicken Curse was by far the most rational explanation for what Reece Davis has memorably described as the “mind-boggling faceplants” that have long been the trademark of Gamecock athletics, or at least it was if you didn’t want to admit that South Carolina had the worst-run athletics department of any flagship university in the entire country.
Since Lou Holtz first came into contact with this general environment of institutionalized failure, “changing the culture” at South Carolina has been the phrase of choice to describe what exactly it was the mission of our coaches and athletics directors to accomplish. It’s been used to mean different things to different people, of course, but we can probably encompass all those meanings by describing it not only as failure but the expectation of failure–in short, failing to act like winners, whether we’re talking about a player who inexplicably cracks under the pressure and drops a game-tying 4th-quarter touchdown, or the casual fan who literally takes offense when his coach tells him it’s probably best that he wear garnet rather than a lime green polo to the upcoming contest with Georgia. Changing the culture has meant not only ditching the locker room lawyers and getting the players to show up for mandatory-voluntary summer workouts, but also having Steve Spurrier implement a thoroughly embarrassing campaign called, usefully, Garnet on Gameday–embarrassing not because it was unnecessary but because it was. This man knows the SEC, and it has been evident to him from day one of his tenure that the people who call themselves Gamecocks–from boosters to fans to the players on the field–really have had zero appreciation for what is required to compete at a reasonably high level in the toughest of all football conferences outside the AFC and the NFC.
So how different have things become? Well, it’s hard to quantify but let’s illustrate it this way: Gullinkambi jokes that his wife hasn’t yet “paid her dues,” and I know just what he means, but it’s not a trivial point. My fiancee has remarked often that she just can’t understand how USC fans can be so negative, how they can complain so incessantly when things just aren’t that bad. And leaving aside the fact that she is blessed with a very positive disposition of her nature, it can’t be denied that as an objective measure, she’s right. We haven’t had that much to complain about the last few years and really, when compared to the long sweep of our history it is hard to argue we deserve a lot more than we’re getting out of the “Spurrier era.” Still, this misses something important. Her first year of Gamecock fandom was, you guessed it, 2005. That was Spurrier’s first year, and we were within one silly penalty in Athens of winning the SEC East that season. For her first live game experience, she bought us tickets for the Tennessee game, our first-ever victory in Neyland Stadium and one of the most emotionally uplifting days in the history of Gamecock football. In the ensuing years she has seen South Carolina embark on its best six-year stretch both from the standpoint of wins and losses in general, and from the standpoint of quality wins over key rivals like Georgia and Clemson in particular. She’s never been forced to watch a losing season, she’s enjoyed the exploits of all-time greats like Alshon Jeffery and Eric Norwood, and she’s seen the record books opened and re-written every year. That’s to say nothing of the school’s first National Championship in a major sport, breezy night games with Clemson at the gorgeous Carolina Stadium, and all the rest of it. How can this not color a person’s perception of what it means to be a Gamecock?
It isn’t as though the fans haven’t done their part, sort of. But they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into a culture of winning by coaches and a much-maligned AD who actually knows what it is to build one. Given everything that’s happened down through the ages, it’s certainly forgivable, at least for those of us who sat through Navy ’84, the 2002 College World Series Final, Coppin State, 63-17, the Pushoff, and Carolina Girls. But it’s also time to recognize that things have changed, perhaps for good.