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The Counterargument for Clemson: A Respectful Reply to The Feathered Warrior, from One SEC Stalwart to Another

Now that the Big 12 may have been saved, the conference expansion conversation may have been rendered moot, but, because The Feathered Warrior was kind enough to pen an excellent rebuttal to my case for Clemson’s addition to the SEC as the league’s 14th team, I feel moved to answer, with a warning: Admirers of concision will not admire this posting, which I assure you is not intended as a filibuster.

The most compelling argument against the Tigers, obviously, is the fact that they do not deliver new markets to the conference, as Texas A&M will, Missouri and West Virginia arguably would, and Arkansas and South Carolina arguably did. Clemson is located roughly an hour’s drive from Athens, just across the border separating the Peach State from the Palmetto State, whose state university already belongs to the SEC. Accordingly, the Orange and Purple will not get the league into media markets in which the SEC currently has no penetration.

There is, however, a problem with this argument. There are no markets in which the SEC currently has no penetration; the Big Ten Network is a regional cable channel (and not a network at all, as it has no local affiliates), but Southeastern Conference football airs nationally on CBS and ESPN. What we need are not new markets, but new viewers. Florida State, which is tucked away at the epicenter of the overlapping circles on the Venn diagram depicting the locations of four SEC fan bases on the map, is considered an extremely strong contender for inclusion, despite the Tribe’s inability to bring in new markets, because the Seminoles boast a brand which will bring in viewers. The ratings numbers I cited regarding recent tilts between Clemson and the Tigers’ would-be future SEC coevals attest to the reality that the Fort Hill Felines would increase viewership, so it should not be held against them that they would be a geographically contiguous addition to the league.

That is one of many reasons I believe the comparison of Clemson to Georgia Tech is inapposite, as the Yellow Jackets would deliver neither a new market nor substantial numbers of new viewers. Moreover, the Tigers fit the SEC model to a much greater degree than the Engineers. Consider:

  • Bobby Dodd Stadium at historic Grant Field seats 55,000 fans. That is approximately the size of the stadium in Starkville, and the Ramblin’ Wreck would have the 13th-largest arena in a 14-team SEC, eclipsing only Vanderbilt. The official capacity of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium is 80,301, though Frank Howard Field has hosted crowds as large as 86,000. That puts the Tigers in the same range as such SEC stalwarts as Arkansas (76,000), Auburn (87,451), Florida (88,548), and South Carolina (80,250). Perhaps attendance numbers in Death Valley are inflated (as they are everywhere), but at least Clemson never substantially downsized its stadium; Georgia Tech, on the other hand, reduced the capacity of Grant Field to 46,000 in 1988.
  • SEC football is played in places like Athens, Auburn, Fayetteville, Gainesville, Knoxville, Oxford, Starkville, and Tuscaloosa. Clemson, a town where they paint tiger paws on the thoroughfares, offers a similar setting for intercollegiate athletics, much as College Station also does. Only three current members of the league play in on-campus stadiums located in their states’ capital cities, and even those seats of government are different in kind and character from Atlanta. Metropolitan Baton Rouge, Columbia, and Nashville have a combined population of roughly 3.1 million people; metropolitan Atlanta is home to 5.2 million people. I mean no disrespect to metropolitan Atlanta, an area in which I have lived all the years of my life that were not spent in Athens, but it’s a very different city from the sorts of places in which SEC teams play their home games. It’s a nice place to visit (for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, the SEC Championship Game, or the Chick-fil-A Bowl), but you wouldn’t want the league to live there.
  • Here’s the big one, though: Clemson has never spurned the SEC; Georgia Tech has. The Institute was a charter member of the league, but, when the Yellow Jackets left the conference, they left several of their coevals in the lurch, as schedules had been set and provisions had to be made. Several teams (including the Bulldogs) had to count non-conference games in the SEC standings. (For the record, we counted Clemson.)

    Look at it this way: If you had two equally well qualified applicants for the same opening, one of whom had never worked for your company before, the other of whom had worked for your company before but had quit his job without warning and without giving notice, which one would you hire? There’s an old saying: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." If the SEC is willing to let Georgia Tech fool the league twice, shame on us.

For those reasons, among others, the Golden Tornado would not make a suitable addition to the Southeastern Conference. (Incidentally, not to get nitpicky, but The Feathered Warrior is wrong when he states, "While it's true that John Heisman coached at both Auburn and Clemson, it is also true that he coached at Georgia Tech in between." Coach Heisman was at Auburn from 1895 to 1899, at Clemson from 1900 to 1903, and at Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1919. Walter Riggs, an Auburn alumnus and the founder of Clemson football, hired Coach Heisman in the Loveliest Village, then again at Fort Hill. Coach Heisman came to Atlanta because of Georgia; after the Red and Black lost to Clemson by a 29-0 margin in 1903, the Georgia team captain promised the Tigers one bushel of apples for every point past 29 in the Orange and Purple’s margin of victory over Georgia Tech. Clemson responded by beating the Golden Tornado by a 73-0 margin. It remains the second-worst drubbing in the Yellow Jackets’ history, and it prompted them to hire Coach Heisman away from Fort Hill.)

Nevertheless, I will concede The Feathered Warrior’s larger point that I don’t want Georgia’s in-state rival in the SEC any more than he wants South Carolina’s in-state rival in the SEC. While I believe the league is much better served by the addition of Clemson than by the addition of Georgia Tech, I concede that my partisan bias is as strong as his. However, I will say this: If Mike Slive announced that the SEC would accept Clemson as a member only as a part of a package deal that also brought Georgia Tech back into the league, you would see a posting in this space endorsing the proposal. If accepting the Yellow Jackets back was a prerequisite to bringing the Tigers into the conference, I would do so.

Georgia Tech is not the only school to which The Feathered Warrior compares Clemson, though. Understandably, he draws parallels between the Gamecocks and the Tigers, as well, noting the Bulldogs’ longstanding histories with both. He makes a good point in this regard, but there are important distinctions between the two series, and, with all due respect to tryptic67, he is simply mistaken when he claims in the comments that it’s "not important enough for [Georgia and Clemson] to play more often." (To his credit, though, tryptic67 verified and underscored the Gamecocks’ SEC credentials with his impassioned takedown of the Pac-12.)

With respect to the tale of the tape, The Feathered Warrior makes a very valid argument. Since 1894, the Red and Black have gone 46-16-2 in 64 series meetings with South Carolina, and, since 1897, the Red and Black have gone 41-17-4 in 62 series meetings with Clemson. On the whole, the two series obviously are comparable, though certain distinctions are noteworthy, starting with this one: Georgia played Clemson just six times in the 23 seasons from 1988 to 2010, and Georgia played South Carolina 21 times in that same span, yet the Gamecocks eclipsed the Tigers as a more frequent fixture on the Bulldogs’ schedule with the 63rd series meeting just last year.

Likewise, it’s a bit unfair for The Feathered Warrior to note, "UGA first squared off with South Carolina in 1894. It wasn't until three years later that the 'Dawgs faced Clemson for the first time." That’s true. It’s true because Clemson didn’t start its football program until 1896, four years after Georgia and South Carolina started theirs. One year following the founding of the program at Fort Hill, Georgia and Clemson began their rivalry. The only opponent that Georgia played in each of the 20 seasons from 1897 to 1916 was Clemson; the only opponent that Clemson played in each of those 20 seasons was Georgia. South Carolina appeared on the Red and Black’s schedule in just seven of the 24 seasons from 1895 to 1918, so, while the two series are comparable in longevity, it is clear which series was the more prominent from the outset.

Again, though, The Feathered Warrior’s overall point is a good one. Just as Georgia and Clemson saw nine of eleven meetings between 1977 and 1987 decided by a touchdown or less, so, too, have Georgia and South Carolina played many close contests, with eight of eleven outings between 2001 and 2011 being single-score games. There is no question that the Bulldogs’ clashes with the Gamecocks have been every bit as competitive as the Bulldogs’ tussles with the Tigers in the rivalry’s heyday.

One reason the series with Clemson became so heated during that eleven-year period was that the Tigers went 5-5-1 against the Bulldogs during that stretch. In that respect, the Gamecocks’ recent success against the Red and Black has done much to elevate the significance of the rivalry beyond what it was when the Classic City Canines could count on getting most of the breaks. While Georgia is only 10-7-4 (.571) over Clemson in games decided by seven or fewer points, the Bulldogs were 15-6-2 (.696) over South Carolina in close contests through 2006. The fact that the Garnet and Black have gone 2-2 against the Athenians in the last four single-score decisions between the two bolsters The Feathered Warrior’s case for South Carolina as an equally significant Georgia rival.

In large part, the greater historical significance attached to the Bulldogs’ series with the Tigers has to do with the consequences of those clashes. For three straight seasons from 1980 to 1982, the winner of the Georgia-Clemson game played for the national championship, winning twice. Partly because the conference tilts between Georgia and South Carolina have come so early in the season, they have had the feel of elimination games rather than deciding contests, and the two teams rarely have peaked simultaneously.

None of this is to disparage South Carolina, or Georgia’s rivalry with its nearby SEC East foe. Clearly, when 27 of 64 series meetings are settled by margins of seven or fewer points, you have a competitive series, even if one team holds a substantial lead in the all time won-lost record. All this merely is to provide context for the historical distinction between a series that saw the Tigers take seven straight from the Red and Black under Coach Heisman and his immediate successors on the one hand, and a series that has seen the Gamecocks claim six two-game winning streaks over the Bulldogs, but no three-game winning streaks, on the other.

Whatever the long-term significance of the two series might be, however, there is no question that the Bulldogs for many years included both Palmetto State rivals as permanent fixtures on the Georgia slate. In the 26 years from 1962 to 1987, Georgia faced Clemson 24 times and South Carolina 23 times. The choice of 1987 as an ending date is far from arbitrary, for that was the last year the SEC had its member institutions play a six-game conference schedule.

Beginning in 1988, the SEC slate increased to seven games, reducing by one the number of available slots for non-conference opponents. The Bulldogs, who were obligated to play Georgia Tech annually in any event, opted to begin alternating Palmetto State series. Georgia arranged to play the Gamecocks in 1988 and 1989, the Tigers in 1990 and 1991, the Gamecocks in 1992 and 1993, and the Tigers in 1994 and 1995, setting up two-year home-and-away series with each.

That plan was altered when, in 1990, the SEC opted to expand, bringing South Carolina into the newly-established Eastern Division, increasing the conference schedule to eight games, and setting up a championship game. In an eleven-game regular season, the Bulldogs now faced the prospect of playing eight conference games (including an annual tussle with the Gamecocks), plus an obligatory non-conference game against Georgia Tech, leaving just two spots left on the slate. There simply was no room left on the schedule, and Clemson found itself in a similar predicament as the ACC expanded.

Accordingly, it is simply wrong to state that it was "not important enough for them to play more often." If that were true, why would Georgia have honored the contract to play Clemson in 1994 and 1995, even after the intervening sea change in the SEC made keeping that series on the schedule difficult? Why did the Bulldogs take advantage of the initial opportunity to play a twelve-game schedule by arranging to play Clemson in 2002 and 2003? Why have Georgia and Clemson agreed to renew the series in 2013 and 2014? Why has Greg McGarity stated that "it’s important to play" Clemson more often? Why did Dabo Swinney suggest a spring scrimmage between the two teams, sparking strong reactions on both sides of the state line? Those do not sound like the hallmarks of an unimportant rivalry.

Yes, we are, as they say, "on a break." We were on a break before, too; in the 24 seasons from 1938 to 1961, Georgia and Clemson met just six times, but the rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Tigers was interrupted just twice in the 26 years from 1962 to 1987. That period culminated with the epic battles alluded to above, including the Labor Day night duel between the two most recent national champions in 1982 and the classic contest of 1984, which gave us arguably Larry Munson’s greatest call of a play occurring between the hedges. (Granted, that 1984 game represented the end of an era: One week later, Clemson lost to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Georgia lost to a Gator Bowl-bound South Carolina squad in Columbia. That Saturday, September 29, 1984, was the first date on which Clemson and Georgia both lost since September 15, 1979.)

At the end of the day, though, the crux of The Feathered Warrior’s argument is that the Georgia-South Carolina series is as good a rivalry as the Georgia-Clemson series, and there is much objective evidence in favor of this proposition. Accordingly, my reply is not a rebuttal, but an affirmation: The Feathered Warrior is right. The Bulldogs and the Gamecocks had a great series for many years before becoming conference rivals, and playing an annual SEC East battle has only heightened the quality of the conflict. Why, then, should we deviate from a model we already know works? If admitting a longstanding Georgia rival from the Palmetto State into the SEC East makes that rivalry, that Palmetto State team, and the conference better---and, clearly, it did in the case of South Carolina---what makes us think it won’t work with Clemson, as well, and what about the heightened interest in the annual Georgia-South Carolina affray suggests to us that the all-important viewers providing the all-important television revenue would not be equally disposed to tune into an annual Georgia-Clemson showdown, given the storied history of that series as a non-conference rivalry?

The Feathered Warrior’s rebuttal, like that of his fellow Gamecock fan C&F, makes note of the respect I afford to my alma mater’s rivalry with Clemson in the context of the corresponding disrespect I purportedly show for the Bulldogs’ rivalry with South Carolina. Given their partisan perspective, and given some of my own characterizations, this is not an unfair criticism. In light of this, I believe some clarification is in order.

I mean no disrespect when I refer to the Gamecocks as the "Palmetto State Poultry." South Carolina is the Palmetto State, a gamecock is a type of chicken, and I like alliteration. I use the term to avoid the redundancy of using "South Carolina" and "Gamecocks" excessively. For the same reason, I sometimes use the terms "Bluegrass State Bobcats," "Classic City Canines," "Fort Hill Felines," "Magnolia State Mongrels," "Music City Mariners," "Pelican State Panthers," and "Sunshine State Saurians" when referring to Kentucky, Georgia, Clemson, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Florida, respectively. No insult is intended. By the same token, I am not implying that any other Southern school is ungentlemanly when I use the term "Country Gentlemen," a term that has been applied to Clemson teams by upstate sportswriters for many years.

Along those same lines, I expressed myself poorly at the outset when I wrote that I didn’t care what South Carolina thought. I was attempting to make only a narrow, but not narrowminded, point; viz., that I believed the addition of Clemson would bolster the league to such an extent that it would be worth it to sacrifice unanimity and get the right school rather than settle for second-best solely to make everyone happy in the short term. As I indicated above, I don’t want Georgia Tech in the conference, but, if bringing in the Yellow Jackets is in the best interests of the league, I can live with that result.

What I did not mean to convey was a disrespect for the views of a full equity partner in the Southeastern Conference, or a suggestion that those views somehow matter less merely because they are the views of a team that joined the league in the early 1990s rather than the early 1930s. Because South Carolina fans are big enough to apologize in such circumstances, I should be, too. I am sorry.

I noted in the original article that "the addition of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the South Carolina Gamecocks nearly two decades ago has worked out spectacularly well," in part because it permitted Georgia and South Carolina to resume their annual series. The Gamecocks were a strong addition to the conference. The SEC is a better league because South Carolina is in it, and Georgia’s rivalry with the Garnet and Black is better because it’s a conference game.

Those things are so, not because the Gamecocks opened up a huge new market---South Carolina is the 24th most populous state, according to the 2010 census---but because they brought in passionate fans and produced exciting games that were fun to watch. Again, it’s all about affixing eyeballs to screens, which produces the advertising that generates the revenue that makes expansion profitable. At the end of the day, the reason South Carolina was a good addition to the SEC was on display in Williams-Brice Stadium on September 9, 2000. I know, because I was there.

The Bulldogs were ranked in the top ten. The Gamecocks had just won a game for the first time in two years. At kickoff, few observers believed the Garnet and Black had a chance . . . yet the place was packed. That game is a scar on my heart, but, no matter how much I wanted to deny it at the time, it was impossible not to be impressed with the devotion of a fan base that showed up, was loud, and was proud, even when the Gamecocks were struggling through the worst of times. That’s why South Carolina deserved to be admitted to the league; that’s why I chant, "SEC! SEC!" when the Gamecocks beat Ohio State in a bowl; that’s why, irrespective of whether I say it often enough, and irrespective of whether some South Carolina fans believe me when I do, I respect the Gamecocks. If I didn’t, would I have ranked them third on my SEC Power Poll ballot, ranked them eighth on my BlogPoll ballot, and picked them to beat the Bulldogs by 13 points?

Maybe I’m being selfish, but I remember when SEC teams played only six conference games a year, when I was allowed to enjoy two great series with two longstanding Palmetto State rivals. I no longer am afforded that privilege. I don’t just want to preserve one heated rivalry with a team from the nearest neighboring state to Athens; I want to retain them both.

The Gamecocks didn’t have to sacrifice their series with the Tigers when the SEC expanded; we did. Although the benefits of that expansion outweighed the drawbacks, we still lost an important part of our heritage in the process. For the reasons I have outlined previously, I believe the present circumstances afford us an opportunity to regain what was lost in a way that is financially viable. For Georgia, getting to renew an annual rivalry with South Carolina and make more money was a win-win in 1992. The Bulldogs’ ability to renew an annual rivalry with Clemson and make more money is a win-win today.

I understand and appreciate why the Gamecocks view it differently, but I would ask them to take the long view, just as we did when they were invited to join. Yes, it will aid Clemson in recruiting, but it also will aid South Carolina in scheduling, as the Gamecocks’ season-ender against the Tigers now will count as a conference game, freeing up space on the schedule for another, and probably lesser, non-conference opponent. Georgia was placed in the same position when Columbia became an SEC town, and we didn’t begrudge South Carolina the financial and recruiting boost that SEC membership gave the Gamecocks, even though welcoming the Garnet and Black into the conference clearly helped South Carolina and hurt Georgia on the gridiron: Seven of the Gamecocks’ 16 series wins over the Bulldogs have come since the Garnet and Black joined the league in 1992.

We didn’t begrudge South Carolina these things, because South Carolina had earned them, and has proven worthy of them. We were big enough to welcome the Gamecocks to the league, knowing the benefits they would derive from it, but also know the benefits in which we all would share, and I’m glad we did that.

While doing the research for Fighting Like Cats and Dogs, I made regular trips to Clemson with two old friends of mine, Pete Allen and Jeff Rogers. Pete, Jeff, and I had gone there in 1995 to see what we believed at the time would be the final football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers, and they were kind enough to take time out of their schedules to accompany me there to pore over old newspaper clippings.

Fridays were the best days of the week for us to make these trips, and, in the autumn, we made sure to go on Fridays that did not line up with Clemson home football Saturdays, so as to avoid getting caught in pregame traffic. Accordingly, we found ourselves on the Clemson campus on October 10, 2008.

The night before, the Tigers had lost a Thursday night game to Wake Forest. The setback dropped the Fort Hill Felines to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in ACC play. The following Monday, Tommy Bowden was fired. It was a dour day at Clemson, but, as we drove into town, we passed student after student wearing Tiger gear. The morning after their team had suffered one of the most disheartening losses in its history, they were wearing their orange and purple, wearing tiger paws on their caps, wearing shirts and jackets that said "Clemson."

That impressed me, in the same way and for the same reason that the South Carolina fans I met in Columbia impressed me in 2000. If the Gamecock faithful don’t want the Tigers in the league because they don’t want Clemson to have what South Carolina has, I understand that . . . but no one can say Clemson hasn’t earned it. The Tigers have, the same way the Gamecocks did.

In this debate, there has been a lot of talk about respect, and a lot of apologizing for the lack thereof. I would appeal to the South Carolina faithful by asking that they not begrudge their neighbors---the shared rivals we both get to claim, but only they get to play---what they deserve. I would ask that they be accepting, as we were accepting. We were big enough to run then the risks that rightly concern them now, and we were right to do it.

I, for one, have too much respect for my honored SEC brethren in Columbia to believe that, when push comes to shove, they will do any less for their rival than we did for them. I will not have it said that the South Carolina Gamecocks and their fans will be any less magnanimous or any less gracious about welcoming a worthy Palmetto State school into the Southeastern Conference than their fellow members of the league were before. Of course South Carolina will live up to the SEC tradition of which the Gamecocks are an integral part; how could they do less? They’re an SEC team, and the dialogue that has taken place in the blogosphere on this issue this week (not to mention the Gamecocks’ recent results on the field) makes it clear that they comport themselves as such, every bit as much so as their fellow members of the league. I believe a newly-expanded SEC will be big enough to accommodate Clemson, and I am now more confident than ever that South Carolina and its fans are big enough to accept that. We accepted them as part of us, and we all are the better for it. Now it is time for the next chapter, which will be as storied and successful as the first.