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May 10, 2013

Rivalry Renewed

It's been known now for several years that North Carolina was going to open the 2013 season playing South Carolina in Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium, in order to make up for the 2010 season opener being moved to Atlanta so the Tar Heels could play LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Classic.

But with this week's news that the Tar Heels and Gamecocks would also meet in the 2015 season opener in Charlotte, suddenly there's a whole new level of anticipation about the renewal of what was once a vigorous Southern college football rivalry and just might could be again.

"We are extremely excited to bring these national football powers and regional rivals together in Charlotte for college football," said Will Webb, Executive Director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, during Thursday's official announcement of the 2015 game between North Carolina and South Carolina in Charlotte.

"Both North Carolina and South Carolina have a strong alumni presence in the region. This will be a tremendous game featuring a marquee matchup of ACC and SEC teams. We look forward to hosting the Tar Heel and Gamecock teams and fans in Charlotte."


FIVE GENERATIONS OF BORDER WARS


For multiple generations of UNC football fans living in the early and mid-20th century, a meeting on the gridiron between against its southern neighbor, the University of South Carolina, was almost as common as the sense of relief and accomplishment that came with the completion of the annual early autumn tobacco harvest around the state.

North Carolina and South Carolina's flagship Universities first met on the football field in 1903, and over the next seven decades the schools played a total of 44 times, including the entirety of the Roaring Twenties, playing every season from 1920 to 1929.

The Tar Heels and Gamecocks met annually through the tumultuous World War II years, as the schools met in Chapel Hill in 1942, Columbia in 1943, and back in Chapel Hill in 1944.

The programs both joined the Atlantic Coast Conference as charter members in 1953, and kept right on playing annually for another decade-plus, with a sixteen-year stretch of annual matchups from 1949 through the 1964 contest.

By the mid-sixties, when UNC was in the final years of the Jim Hickey era and South Carolina was suffering through the end of Marvin Bass's tenure as head coach, the all-time series had been owned by the Tar Heels.

The North Staters, in fact, claimed 29 of its 34 all-time wins over the Gamecocks in 1964 or prior.

Things began to change in South Carolina's favor when Paul Dietzel arrived in Columbia in 1966.

The architect of LSU's 1958 NCAA title team and its famed 'Chinese Bandits' defense (the fight song from that era still survives at LSU and is played on defensive three-and-outs), Dietzel brought prestige to the South Carolina football program unseen prior to that time.

UNC and USC didn't play in 1965 and 1966, but they came together again in 1967, Bill Dooley's first season in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels went down to Columbia and suffered a 16-10 loss---the first of five straight defeats for North Carolina at the hands of its southern neighbor over the next eight seasons.

The 1968 game may have been the wackiest of them all, as the Tar Heels, coming off a stunning 38-6 loss to N.C. State the week before in the season opener, came out and ran roughshod over the Gamecocks for 17 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 27-3 lead into the fourth quarter.

Unbelievably, South Carolina would score 29 unanswered points of their own in rapid fashion, scoring four touchdowns on an interception return and three rushing scores to claim a 32-27 victory, absolutely stunning the crowd at Kenan Stadium in the process.

The 14-6 win the Gamecocks got in 1969 over North Carolina and a young quarterback named Johnny Swofford helped propel South Carolina to its first and only Atlantic Coast Conference title.

Just two years later a change took place that forever altered the rivalry between the two schools, as in 1971 South Carolina, with a desire to seek football independence and prompted by a majority vote by the ACC's membership to raise the minimum academic standards for incoming high school student-athletes, left the league and never returned.


It wasn't terribly difficult for UNC to schedule South Carolina in football when they were an independent in the late '70s and even into the early '90s---the schools played nine times over a fifteen-season stretch from 1977 to 1991---but the days of annual battles between the two schools were clearly numbered.

South Carolina's move to the Southeastern Conference in 1992 was the final deathblow to any chance that the Tar Heels and Gamecocks would play regularly again---at least until this week's exciting news.

While two games in three seasons may not dictate that the teams will continue playing after that, it's certainly a start in the right direction for fans of both programs who still remember the good ol' days, and have had trouble over the years understanding why these programs haven't been playing each other too much over the last 20 years.


A WINNER ON AND OFF THE FIELD


From a business standpoint, and from a football standpoint, this game makes a ton of sense on both sides.

There will be a loser on the field of course when the teams meet up in Columbia in a little over three months and in Charlotte a couple years from now, but there's going to be winners on both sides---especially when the series rolls into the Queen City.

Parking lots will surely be filled to the brim with fans in the hours preceding the game, and this one will almost certainly be a hot ticket throughout the Carolinas. The fact that its a season opener only adds to the heightened sense of significance.

Those points obviously hold true for this year's game in Columbia as well, although the Charlotte game will provide UNC a chance to show out a little more and have more representation in the stands.

Give a great deal of credit to UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham for seeing a mark and nailing it.

He wisely asserted that there's no reason North Carolina and South Carolina can't play each other on the gridiron, can't schedule each other regularly, despite the limitations that come for each program playing in major conferences and needing a certain amount of home football games each year to help subsidize other sports.

It's easily arguable that South Carolina has the tougher time scheduling these kinds of games since they're already firmly locked into one of its out-of-conference slots with Clemson---UNC doesn't have such an annual non-conference opponent unless you count East Carolina, which isn't really annual the same way USC-Clemson is.

So certainly a ton of credit goes to South Carolina's folks as well for making this happen.

For most people who aren't behind the scenes that follow this sort of thing, the details don't really matter that much. All that matters is that the Tar Heels are back in business battling regularly against South Carolina.

And make no mistake, it means a great deal to a lot of people, even if it does wind up being just two games in a three-season stretch.

Think about all those Gamecock and Tar Heel fans throughout the Carolinas who run into each other on a daily basis, whether it's a co-worker, a family member, or a friend or colleague in the community.

Rest assured, there's a lot more to talk about with two upcoming matchups between these longtime rivals than pondering more ho-hum, built-in victories over the likes of The Citadel, South Carolina State, or Elon.

Of course it means a great deal to alumni and fans on both sides, but it also means a great deal to recruits, many of which are trying to choose in part between the Universities of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Recruits in both states will undoubtedly be closely following the action this August and in September 2015 when the Tar Heels and Gamecocks get it on again, and while it's not the be-all and end-all of recruiting, those games could very well make lasting impressions on recruits thinking about both programs.

For the folks organizing the game of course, it's the bottom line that's important.

And that should be a positive thing too, as undoubtedly tens of thousands of Tar Heel and Gamecock supporters will converge on midtown Charlotte on gameday to give the 2015 game a postseason bowl-like feel and atmosphere.

While it might have been easy for either program to schedule another layer of cupcakes to pad their win-loss record, the move to play each other again in 2015 took guts and courage on both sides.

Sure, the Tar Heels nor the Gamecocks will have seven home games in 2015 more than likely, but what they will have is a buzz and excitement about this looming matchup that will be hanging in the air for another two years.


RETURNING THE FAVOR


South Carolina's feathers weren't ruffled too much back in the summer of 2009 when UNC opted to back away for the 2010 season opener so they could go to the Georgia Dome to play USC's SEC rival LSU.

All former Tar Heel defensive linemen and then-Athletic Director at South Carolina Eric Hyman wanted was a guarantee that UNC would make the trip to Columbia to compensate for South Carolina's trip to Kenan Stadium in 2007, which had been the first matchup between the teams in 16 years, the longest gap in history between football games.

Then-UNC AD Dick Baddour was more than happy to make that guarantee, and there you have it. A season opener four years in the making.

Larry Fedora and his staff were still at Southern Mississippi and practically every current UNC player was still in high school or just finishing high school when the 2013 North Carolina-South Carolina game was settled, but here they are, now preparing for a game that was supposed to be played a long time ago.

Some said at the time that it might have been a mistake for UNC to opt out of the 2010 game with South Carolina considering the possibility that the Gamecocks would improve over three years under Spurrier, but all Fedora can do is get his team ready for what is, at least on paper, the biggest challenge on the entire Tar Heel regular season slate.

Simply put, if UNC can go down to Columbia and compete, they should be able to compete with anyone else on their schedule.


A NEW HISTORY?


In light of the announced 2015 scheduling of the two schools, a unique historical opportunity has been created to potentially re-ignite the flames of this gridiron rivalry.

Many will argue it was much more intense on the basketball court back in the day, especially when Frank McGuire was in Columbia, but that doesn't mean the Tar Heels and Gamecocks don't have some history on the football field.

And now the opportunity stands for both schools to drum up some considerable attention that may snowball into even more of these possible matchups in the coming decades.

Who's to say that if UNC and South Carolina have a couple of epic battles in the coming years that these games couldn't become more commonplace?

They'll never, ever be annual again---just too many factors in play to make that realistically possible---but even if they played a handful of times in a decade, similar to the way UNC has been playing East Carolina over the past dozen or so years, you've got another regional rivalry game that will surely draw solid TV ratings as well as 'put butts in the seats,' to coin a phrase.

And those two factors, more than anything else, are what's driving college football these days.

So if it works out, and North Carolina and South Carolina can find some of that old magic on the football field in the coming 2013 and 2015 matchups, there just might be some hope that these two age-old rivals, forever bound by proximity, just might grant their fans' wishes by scheduling each other again on at least a semi-regular basis.








 

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