Sixty years ago, Clemson and South Carolina met on the football field for the final installment of the “Big Thursday” game.
The Tigers and Gamecocks still meet every year, but now the rivalry game is traditionally played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Clemson will look to complete an undefeated season when it takes on South Carolina this weekend (noon, ESPN). The rivalry dates to before 1900 and has been played annually since 1909.
But before every game was televised and a playoff system was invented, schools were more apt to schedule games outside of the norm.
The Big Thursday game was just such an affair. Set against the backdrop of the annual South Carolina State Fair, it was always played in Columbia on a weekday and was held 57 times between 1896 and 1959.
Jackson resident Byron Vaigneur, an avid Clemson fan, remembers the game well. He regularly attended from 1947 to 1959, although he concedes that he might have “missed a couple.”
Now 88, Vaigneur can still recall the pageantry.
“The beauty of it was everyone dressing up like they were going to church,” Vaigneur said. “And, of course, there were fights in the stands.”
Big Thursday was eventually disbanded because the Clemson side didn’t think it got a fair shake as the Gamecocks had the home field advantage.
Vaigneur, who collected nearly 150 autographed footballs with signatures from some of the top men to prowl the sidelines, reached out to legendary Clemson coach Frank Howard in 1983. He asked Howard why the Big Thursday game was disbanded.
“This Big Thursday game did away with two dates that we could have played other football games,” Howard wrote. “The Gamecocks also always put the Clemson people in the sun and we did not get anything like one-half of the football tickets.
“In my opinion, one of the best things that ever happened was doing away with Big Thursday, and playing the game at the end of the season at Clemson and in Columbia.”
The game did give Clemson and South Carolina some national recognition in an era when newspapers were the dominant medium. Although the game was never televised, hundreds of radio stations would pick up the broadcast from coast to coast.
“It was also unusual because it was the only game of the day,” former South Carolina coach Warren Giese once told The State. “It made headlines all over the country. You could go to Seattle or Los Angeles, anywhere, and it was written up in the paper.”
The game certainly produced its share of stars and interesting moments. For Clemson, All-American Banks McFadden was part of a dominant Tigers squad that won seven in a row from 1934-40. For South Carolina, Steve Wadiak rushed for 256 yards in the 1950 game that ended in a tie.
The 1946 game might have been the most bizarre. Counterfeit tickets were printed and sold, and fans clamored to get inside the stadium. The crowd tore down a big wooden gate, and the overflow was so great that the fans ringed the sidelines. U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes was in the crowd that day, and he had to resort to getting on his hands and knees to view the game through people’s legs.
The game was first played in Clemson in 1960, and the Tigers won 12-2 in a game that featured two safeties, Vaigneur said.
Now the game rotates between Columbia and Clemson, and this year it will be held in Columbia. There will be plenty of pageantry and top-notch players, but it still won’t match the atmosphere for those who remember Big Thursday.
“A combination of a country picnic, Old Home Week, a state fair and a Roman holiday. That was Big Thursday,” Wilton Garrison of The Charlotte Observer wrote in the game’s final program. “There are many famous grid rivalries … but none of them has the carnival atmosphere and brawling tone of South Carolina-Clemson. Big Thursday – there will never be another one just like it.”