A lost rivalry between UNC and South Carolina is reborn, for one game at least

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2013 

Tommy Suggs played quarterback for South Carolina from 1968 through ’70 – the final three seasons the Gamecocks played football in the ACC.

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— South Carolina has its football rivalry with Clemson, and North Carolina with N.C. State and Duke, but there was a time when the rivalry between the Tar Heels and Gamecocks was among the fiercest in the ACC. Now, memories are just about all that’s left of a series that mostly has been lost to time.

“It’s like yesteryear,” Tommy Suggs said of an old rivalry that will resume, for one night at least, on Thursday night in Columbia, S.C., where UNC and South Carolina will play in the first nationally televised game of the college football season.

Suggs played quarterback for South Carolina from 1968-70 – the final three seasons the Gamecocks played football in the ACC. Now he’s an analyst on the Gamecocks radio network and yes, he said, preparing to call a UNC-South Carolina game has taken him back a ways.

“It’s probably more sentimental for me than most,” he said during a phone interview earlier this week. “I enjoyed playing North Carolina. … It’s just very special to me. But I don’t think it’s that way for a lot of people.”

Even after South Carolina departed the ACC amid tense circumstances, the Gamecocks and Tar Heels played regularly throughout the 1970s and 80s. Between 1977 and 1991, the teams played nine times – four times in Chapel Hill and five in Columbia.

UNC, though, hasn’t been back to South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium since 1990, and the game on Thursday night will be the second between the teams since 1991. Williams-Brice and UNC’s Kenan Stadium are separated by about a 200-mile drive, yet in some ways the distance between the programs has never been greater.

After UNC’s 21-15 victory against South Carolina in 1991, it took 16 years for the teams to meet again, in 2007. That was the longest gap, by far, between games in a series that began in 1903.

“They were very big games,” said Suggs, who never lost against the Tar Heels during his three seasons. “…We just haven’t played them in a long time. Our whole attention kind of focused away from the ACC to the SEC. I guess that’s the reason we haven’t played them. It’s just scheduling and where your focus is.”

Indeed, after South Carolina began playing football in the SEC in 1992 its series with UNC ended until the 2007 game in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels suffered a 21-15 defeat. There are slight signs, though, of a rivalry revival.

In addition to the game on Thursday night, UNC and South Carolina have also agreed to open the 2015 season against each other in Charlotte. Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, said there have been some discussions of extending the series beyond 2015.

“We’ve talked about it,” Cunningham said. “We’ve talked about it a little bit with South Carolina, we’ve talked a little bit about it with the Charlotte folks. But there’s nothing definitive right now.”

There are obvious obstacles that stand in the way of UNC and South Carolina ever again playing with regularity. For one, the Gamecocks already have an annual out-of-conference rivalry game with Clemson.

Second, Cunningham said, scheduling a marquee non-conference opponent often takes place years in advance, and there are plenty of variables that would affect scheduling philosophy.

“Both leagues had discussion about going to nine conference games, so that makes you a little bit concerned about how far out you want to schedule,” Cunningham said. “And we’re in a new era with this playoff, so you have to balance the number of wins that you have versus the strength of schedule.”

There is another obstacle, too: Desire. Though South Carolina and UNC once played every season, the death of the rivalry has come and gone with little fanfare.

In Columbia, at least, Suggs said the passion long ago disappeared for games against the Tar Heels.

“In all candor, I don’t think it’s something people walk down the street and say, ‘Gosh, I wish we played North Carolina,’” Suggs said. “I don’t think that’s where we are anymore. I think it’s a nice rivalry, don’t me wrong, and I think it’s good we’re playing.”

During Suggs’ years, the Gamecocks were in the midst of a five-game winning streak against UNC – their longest ever. South Carolina’s 32-27 victory at Kenan in 1968 is still remembered as one of the most improbable come-from-behind victories in school history, and the Gamecocks’ victory over UNC in 1969 helped propel South Carolina to its first, and only, ACC title.

About a year later, the Gamecocks departed the league. And so the game on Thursday night isn’t just the first nationally-televised game of the college football season, but a rebirth, of sorts, of a lost series. That it comes on such a stage, the first college football game of the season televised by ESPN, is a bonus to Larry Fedora, UNC’s second-year head coach.

“It’s obviously tremendous for exposure,” he said, “and what we’re looking for for our program, and creating a sense of excitement about the Tar Heels – not only statewide but in our recruiting footprint and really nationwide.”

Fedora isn’t familiar with all the history of the UNC-South Carolina rivalry. For a while now, it hasn’t been much of a rivalry at all.

He doesn’t see why that can’t change, though.

“I think it’s a natural thing,” he said. “I think it could eventually become a regional type of rivalry – a border war type of (game).”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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