A look back at last USC four-peat
It was a crisp Friday afternoon in Clemson on Oct. 15, 1954, as autumn began to set in. Inside Memorial Stadium, Tigers football coach Frank Howard supervised practice for the next Thursday’s game against rival South Carolina, which was 8-4-2 against Howard and was trying to win four straight games for the first time in a series that dated to 1896.
Hoping to break the streak, Howard had managers guard the fences around the stadium at practice to keep prying eyes away. He told a reporter that Clemson wasn’t changing its approach much, “but what we are doing different, we want to come as a surprise to Carolina.”
Down in Columbia, the Gamecocks were concerned about the health of junior quarterback Harold Lewis, who had a sore back. Halfback Tommy Woodlee told a Columbia newspaper that Lewis was “the key to the way things’ll stack up.”
But the Gamecocks seemed to have a reliable backup in Mackie Prickett, a sophomore from St. Matthews who didn’t letter in 1953, but in the 1954 opener at 18th-ranked Army led USC to a 34-20 comeback victory, just its fourth ever in 20 games against ranked opponents.
One week after that crisp Friday, the Gamecocks woke up having achieved history in a controversial 13-8 win over Clemson – the school’s second meeting as members of the new Atlantic Coast Conference. Prickett played almost the entire game, ran for both touchdowns and enjoyed another signature moment in a career that landed him in USC’s sports hall of fame.
A Columbia newspaper’s front page showed five smiling players, with no facemasks on their helmets, carrying coach Rex Enright on their shoulders. He was a players’ coach, and they adored him, referring to him as Daddy Rex to each other, because of his fatherly demeanor.
But even then, at 53 years old, Enright was in poor health.
He resigned after the 1955 season, which included a loss to Clemson. Before 1955, USC was 20-29-3 against Clemson. From 1955 to 2008, the Gamecocks went 17-36-1 and won back-to-back games just twice, including three straight from 1968-70.
Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, USC can win four straight games against Clemson for the second time ever. Fifty-eight years later, some of the boys who first did it are gone. The old men who remain will watch from afar tonight, and remember the special, but perhaps forgotten, place they hold in USC football.
Recalling best times
Larry Gosnell, a junior end in 1954, grew up in Conway during World War II. His family didn’t have enough money to send him to college, and if not for the full football scholarship he received to South Carolina, he would have entered the military in 1952, during the Korean War.
Gosnell had athletic determination, imbued in him by his father, Larry Sr., who lost an arm at age 13 while working in a sausage mill, yet still lettered in baseball, basketball and tennis at Wofford. Everybody called him Nub. He played mill league baseball when Larry Jr. was a child, and the boy eagerly tagged along to the field.
“I always followed him,” Gosnell said.
But for whatever reason, Gosnell slacked off academically when he got to USC. For the second semester of his freshman year, he moved into a dormitory with older players, intent on setting him straight. Junior Ned Brown had a particularly effective way of motivating Gosnell to study.
“He said he would bend my bed where I couldn’t sleep in it,” Gosnell said. “Those guys saved my life, I guess, and kept me in school. That’s the best thing I remember.”
Gosnell doesn’t recall much about the 1954 USC-Clemson game. Nor does Carl Brazell, a junior halfback that year.
His most vivid memory of USC football actually happened in the 1952 USC-Clemson game. Brazell, who is from Columbia, was a 5-8, 160-pound high school senior when he went to Clemson for a tryout with Howard. The coach looked at him, hoped to project some future growth, and said, “Boy, how big is your daddy? Look, I’ll call you back.” Enright not only gave Brazell a scholarship, he promoted him to the varsity for the Clemson game.
“I just about dropped dead,” Brazell said. “They didn’t even have a uniform that fit me.”
Before the game, Brazell saw Enright scrawling starters’ names on the chalk board. He had Brazell down to return the opening kickoff. Sure enough, moments later, the freshman in the baggy jersey was out there at USC’s Carolina Stadium, as the ball tumbled toward him.
“I was thinking about I was going to have a heart attack,” Brazell said.
A wild finish
USC-Clemson has always elicited emotions, and the events before and during the 1954 game were tense.
Five months earlier, the United States Supreme Court passed Brown v. Board of Education. It sparked the integration movement, though USC would not have its first black scholarship football player, Carlton Haywood, until 1969.
The Friday before the game, while Howard closed off practice, Hurricane Hazel crushed the South Carolina coast, leaving thousands homeless. As South Carolina’s state fair opened Monday and prepared for the Big Thursday game, as it was called, The Columbia newspaper published a photo of a family looking at its flattened home in Cherry Grove Beach. Hazel, a Category 4 storm that killed 95 people in the U.S., caused so much devastation that its name was retired.
The game, which was included on the state fair schedule, kicked off at 2 p.m. Thursday in Columbia - its permanent site until the rivalry went to a home-and-home format in 1960. USC led 13-8 after Clemson got an 81-yard touchdown pass with 9:50 left in the game. With about four minutes remaining, USC fumbled and Clemson took over at USC’s 34-yard line. This was Howard’s best chance to end the Gamecocks’ bid for a fourth straight win.
On first down and 10 at the 24, quarterback Don King passed to Walt Laraway at the 10. He attempted a lateral to guard Dick DeSimone, but DeSimone was flagged for leaving the line of scrimmage before the ball was thrown. He later disputed the call, saying “The movies will tell.” The penalty moved Clemson to the 39 and “broke our backs,” backup quarterback Charlie Bussey told reporters.
On the next play, Prickett intercepted King at the 10 and returned the ball to USC’s 32 with 1:45 left, completing a brilliant day on which he “demonstrated again that the expert field general is a useful bit of equipment in any football machinery,” as an Atlanta sportswriter said.
It was a bitter way for the Tigers to lose. According to the paper, on the bus ride to the hotel, a Clemson fan handed the players sodas. Someone jokingly warned the Tigers that a USC fan might be trying to poison them. “They’ve poisoned us already,” replied halfback Joe Pagliei.
Reminders of the past
Memories of that wild day have long since faded for Gosnell and Brazell, the former Gamecocks.
They are both 78 and retired, Gosnell living in Spartanburg, Brazell in Columbia. Gosnell parlayed his strong-armed studiousness at USC into a teaching job and got into homebuilding. Brazell went into the Air Force, played for its traveling team, then ran USC’s alumni association.
Neither plans to attend Saturday’s game, but they remain connected to USC, still talking to old teammates sporadically. At a reunion of the 1954 team several years ago, Brazell saw some guys who he hadn’t seen since college. He barely recognized them.
But as Brazell watches Saturday’s game on television at home, he won’t be far from the team picture on the wall of his den. They’re all there, Gosnell and Prickett and Daddy Rex, looking forever young, yet a relic of a distant time, with the history they made still unmatched.