Comparing college football fandom in the south to a religion has become a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I vividly remember my first time stepping foot in Williams-Brice stadium, and there really is no better way to describe it than a truly religious experience. I stood in such awe of the sheer size and majesty of the stadium I might as well have been in the Sistine Chapel. It’s easy to take the design for granted, but having such a unique layout is a blessing in this age of cookie-cutter construction. While they may detract from overall capacity, the ramps in all four corners make Willy-B almost instantly recognizable and ensure it stands out from the crowd. Even some of the most revered stadiums in the sport can’t claim this recognition. If all the iconography was removed, could anyone honestly say that they would recognize Tiger Stadium or Bryant-Denny? I consider myself a student of the game-day experience, but even I would struggle to tell them apart.
November 1st, 2014. I was a junior in high school making the rounds visiting college campuses trying to decide where to spend the upcoming four years of my life. At the time my heart was pretty set on attending the University of Texas and earning a business degree, with the goal of eventually working in college sports. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I found out that this kind of “Sports Management” degree actually existed, and one of the best programs in the country existed within the SEC… at South Carolina. The second farthest SEC school from my hometown. Despite the distance, I figured I’d visit and give it a shot. At the very least I could go see a football game at a new stadium. Well, like many before me, I fell in love with USC. I was blown away by the campus and the faculty in the SPTE department (and the STP Dipper at Groucho’s), and essentially made up my mind right there. And that was before I even saw the stadium. That Saturday my dad and I rode the shuttle from campus all the way to the fairgrounds and immediately realized that we were not prepared for the cold weather. After a quick stop at the game-day shop next door where my dad bought a sweatshirt that was way too small for him, we entered the cathedral of Columbia. Even at the very back of the upper deck, I was stunned by the view. In fact, an admittedly low-quality picture I took of the field became my phone wallpaper for years to come. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
For those who grew up going to USC games, or games at any other football powerhouse, please understand that this kind of environment is not the norm. Most venues offer a lackluster atmosphere, semi-regular fan attendance, and a passible stadium aesthetic at best. I grew up going to games at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, which fits this description to a T. Picture the concourse in the upper deck of Williams-Brice, and that was basically the vibe of the entire stadium. The fan experience was dominated by outdated traditions and advertisements (they played actual commercials on the video board during the game). It was a challenge just to get people to leave their tailgates and come to the game. And while there was a massive improvement when Ross Bjork was brought in as the Athletic Director, it still didn’t measure up. Just a month before my USC visit I went to the biggest football game in Ole Miss history. Undefeated Alabama came to town and brought ESPN’s College Gameday with them for the first time in the school’s history. Bowties were worn, corn dogs were thrown. It was an unforgettable experience. Surely a game of this magnitude would be sold out, right? Wrong. Only 62,000 people filed into the stadium that day, 2,000 short of its capacity. The student section did its part, as arriving an hour and a half before kickoff stuck my friends and me on the very last row up in the corner, but the rest of the stadium never fully filled in. The game was legendary, and one of the loudest crowds I had ever heard. In fact, it was only rivaled by the crowd when Cam Newton played his lone game in Oxford. The problem is, all the noise that day came from the visiting Auburn fans. All this is to say that, even in the SEC, there are plenty of stadiums that just don’t measure up.
It was almost time for kickoff. My dad and I were in our seats, made sure we had enough oxygen at that altitude, and the anticipation was growing. To my shock, the crowd was bursting at the seams. I could not believe that the stadium had gone over capacity for a game between two middle of the pack teams. Just the concept of fans showing up for that kind of game was completely foreign to me. The band finished their routine, and it was finally time for the Gamecock chant. I’ve had the privilege to witness concerts at NFL stadiums, all-time great football upsets, and NBA playoff game 7’s, but nothing compares to the deafening impact of that cheer. Goosebumps covered my body as the crowd roared back and forth, all building to the best one-two punch in sports. The stands became a sea of white as the haunting first notes of Strauss’ epic echoed throughout the hallowed grounds. Fireworks ensued, the goosebumps continued, and the excitement just kept mounting as the Sandstorm was brewing. Ironically, the tradition birthed out of the then painful upset of my childhood favorite, fourth-ranked Ole Miss Rebels became a life-changing one. At that moment I felt only two emotions: awe and envy. I was in awe of the spectacle, and in envy of the students able to experience the full effect of this tradition down in their section. The game had yet to kickoff, but I was completely hooked.
There’s no denying that the Will Muschamp era of South Carolina football has gotten off to a rocky start. But thanks to a miracle game-winning field goal against Vanderbilt from Friesman himself, hopes were still high at the beginning of the 2016 season, which also happened to be my freshman year at USC. Because of this optimism, the home opener against Eastern Carolina, my first game as a student, was sold out. Unfortunately, it also kicked off at 4pm in September in Columbia, but you can’t always get what you want. And while it didn’t match the intensity of a night game, the atmosphere before kickoff was incredible. I had waited almost two years for this moment, and my first time in the student section did not disappoint. It was truly magical, even though the game itself wasn’t. I’m not entirely sure if it was real or just the beginning stages of heatstroke, but it seemed like that same energy remained until the final whistle. A USC win capped off the perfect start to my life as a real Gamecock.
Not many people knew what to expect from the November battle of mid-tier teams. Neither USC nor Tennessee were particularly great or terrible at anything. Perhaps the only thing that would be surprising would be a full-on shootout between these two mediocre offenses. After Josh Dobbs ran into the end zone to make the score 21-14 at the half, everyone knew that’s exactly what we were in for. Thankfully the Gamecocks began to pull away in the second half. Brandon Wilds seemed to close it out when he put the team up 14 with just under five minutes left. My dad turned to me and said those fateful words every son attending a game with his dad hates to hear. “Do you mind if we go ahead and leave now to beat the traffic?” It was freezing cold, Tennessee’s offense had been stalling most of the second half, and 80,000 people could sure create a lot of traffic. “Okay.”
My childhood experience of tailgating was, admittedly, very much not normal. The Grove at Ole Miss is an entirely different animal in this regard. Grills, parking spaces, and t-shirts were replaced with trees, catering trays, and sundresses. Not only did I grow up in the Grove, I grew up in the crazy part of the Grove. The group my family tailgated with had the kind of tent that you see in magazines and on TV. Chandeliers, nice tablecloths, drink fountains (solely for alcohol of course), the whole nine yards. Obviously I never thought anything of it. I had never experienced anything different. Of course I knew that this wasn’t normal, but I had no idea just how abnormal it was. My first time tailgating as a USC student was shocking. Fun, but shocking. Gone were the refined setups reminiscent of the Old South (yeah it was unfortunate and 100% not a coincidence). What I saw was more like a Southern version of Bills Mafia. Who needs port-a-potties when you have pee bushes? What really entrenched this awe was when I caught my first glimpse of the oft maligned, and occasionally assaulted, mounted police patrolling the Memorial lot. It truly is an entirely different world.
“Uh oh.” During the trek back to the shuttle, I could hear a roar coming from the stadium. The problem was it was a quiet roar that could only have come from the visiting fans. That’s ok though. The Volunteers would have to recover the onside kick, which never happens. Until it does. Another wave of cheers sends my dad and I scrambling to find a TV. We end up nearly huddled together behind the tent of some kind fans who let us watch the end of the game with them. Looking back, I wish we had just kept walking. What I saw brought pain, and only pain. The now much more depressing walk to the shuttle began again. “Sorry, I really did think it was over.” A prolonged scowl was my only reply.
Despite the unfortunate outcome, my first trip to Williams-Brice truly was a once in a lifetime experience. Every single aspect of the game-day experience was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Seeing that I have always been fascinated by the game-day atmosphere of college football, this was about as close to heaven as I could get on this earth. What was even more impressive is that this level of awe never went away. My twentieth Carolina game produced just as many goosebumps as my first. It can be easy to take something you grew up around for granted. I certainly did this with The Grove, which I see now is unlike anything else in the college football world. But I hope that I never grow to take Willy-B for granted in the same way. I never want to go numb to the majesty of that modern-day cathedral, that monument to the sport that I love. And thanks to the Gamecocks, I don’t believe I ever will.