The Transparency Incident of 1902

"McKissick! Make every shot count!." Those were the words shouted to future USC President, J. Rion McKissick, who was clutching a pistol, as he and three dozen other Carolina students crouched behind a hastily-erected barricade on the Horseshoe in 1902. On the other side of the barricade, was an angry mob of 400 Clemson Cadets, armed with sabers, swords, and bayonetes, threatening bodily harm to the Carolina men and destruction of the South Carolina College ...

What had enraged the Clemson Cadets to such a degree? Merely the poetic and incongruent symbol of a fighting Gamecock. This was the Transparency Incident of 1902, and it is part of the history of the greatest rivalry in College football, South Carolina versus Clemson.

To understand the context of this armed confrontation between the Carolina and Clemson men one must understand the roots and origins of this college football rivalry. The Gamecocks had been playing football from 1895, but to be frank and honest, the early South Carolina football teams were poor. Of course, the school itself was small, not even a University at that time. South Carolina College, which had been stripped of its University status by former Governor Pitchfork Ben Tillman and his pals in the State Legislature, had only 79 students in 1890. By 1902, it was slightly better; there were 200 students.

Clemson on the other hand, was a much more powerful institution. By and large a creation of Tillmanism, Clemson was a great beneficiary of Governor Tillman's efforts. She was flush with revenue derived from taxes on Tobacco, and Tillman, a notorious racist who condoned lynching while governor and later on the Senate floor, ordered African-American prisoners to labor on and improve the campus. Then a military school, in 1902, Clemson had over 400 student-cadets.

The two schools began playing football against one another in 1896. Carolina won the first game, 12 - 6, but Clemson quickly overtook Carolina on the football field, winning the next five meetings. In fact, in those days, Clemson was one of the most powerful football teams in the southeast. In 1900, their football team was coached by the legendary John Heisman, whose first "Tiger" team went undefeated. The 1900 Tigers also whipped South Carolina by the embarrassing score of 51-0. The defeat was so complete, that the two schools were unable to work out an agreement to play each other on Big Thursday in 1901. (Of course, the Clemson fans claimed that it was because South Carolina College was afraid Clemson would administer another whipping.)

As most serious fans of both schools know, back in those days the Carolina Clemson game was always played on Thursday during the October State Fair in Columbia. As part of this event, every year the entire student body from Clemson--its entire Corp of Cadets-- would come to Columbia for the game on Thursday. Afterwards, the cadets would remain in Columbia and march in the Elks Club Parade on Friday evening.

During the 1897-1900 parades, the Clemson Cadets wore garnet and black colors around their shoes. In this way, Clemson literally dragged the Carolina colors through the dust. Clemson also carried a big bass drum, which a Cadet beat upon as they marched. Inscribed on this drum was a picture of a roaring Tiger with the letters, "S.C.C" (South Carolina College), inside its mouth. This was, obviously, symbolic of Clemson eating up their old rival on the football field.

As a modern-day Gamecock fan, I can easily sympathize with the feelings these indignities must have inflicted on the students and supporters of the liberal arts oriented, South Carolina College. But endure it our people did, in hopes that someday the incredible might reoccur against all odds, a victory over Clemson in football.

Now folks, 1902 was a very special year for the Gamecocks. South Carolina's current media guide, which discusses the school's nickname, does not credit the nickname's emergence until 1903. "At the turn of the century, after struggling for more than a decade under mumerous nicknames, the school's football team was first referred to unofficially as 'Game Cocks.'" According to our media guide, this did not occur until 1903 when "Columbia's morning newspaper, The State, shortened the name to one word and South Carolina teams have been Gamecocks ever since."

I'm here to declare that our media guide is wrong. You are hearing it first on scoop for this web site--that while perhaps not officially the Gamecocks until 1903, that 1902 football team was truly the first Gamecock team. And I'm confident that after you read about the Transparency Incident of 1902, you will agree that I'm right and the media guide needs to be corrected immediately.

The 1902 team was coached by Bob Williams, a Virginian, who still has the best winning percentage of any coach at South Carolina (overall 14-3). In 1902, South Carolina College began the year 3-0. The team would finish the year 6-1. The 1902 team had a stifling defense. It surrendered just 16 points all season, and shut out five opponents.

Prior to the Clemson game, the fourth game of the season, Williams hired Christy Benet, Jr., as his assistant coach. Benet, a former guard on earlier football teams at South Carolina College, was reportedly an inspiring speaker, similar to the Gamecocks' current Head Coach, Lou Holtz, also an old offensive lineman.

Meanwhile, the 1902 Clemson team was clearly a dominant force on the field. The Tigers also came into the game with a 3-0 record. Included amongst their wins was a 60-0 thrashing of N.C. State, as well as wins over two other powerful football teams, Georgia Tech and Furman.

Clemson had Heisman as their coach. He was a noted trick play artist. (Interestingly, this is another parallel to Saturday's matchup as Clemson's current coach, Tommy Bowden, is also known for his trickery.) According to newspaper reports, Clemson was so confident of the victory on Big Thursday, October 30, 1902, that the Cadets were offering bets with odds of four and five to one. What they didn't know was they were about to meet the first Gamecock team.

The game itself was described in both The State and The Greenwood Index papers as one of the "prettiest games of football ever played." The Gamecocks jumped to a quick 12-0 lead. The Gamecocks gained the advantage by simple old-fashioned football. They played great defense, and Clemson did not get a first down in the first half. Meanwhile, the Carolina offense ground out first down after first down running the ball through the middle of the Clemson line. Today, a quarterback draw for three yards will invariably evoke a few groans from some in the Carolina crowd, but back in 1902 Carolina fans knew that such a game plan might carry the day. Thus, the Carolina football team twice marched methodically down the field. Our great Junior Fullback, Guy Gunter, scored the two touchdowns on short runs. (Touchdowns were only worth 5 points in 1902.) Converting on both extra points, Carolina led 12-0 at halftime.

But this was Clemson we were facing. They had a weight advantage, a great football team, and a great coach. In the second half, the Tigers stormed back. First, Clemson scored on a 60 yard run by Half-back Sitton on an end around. Then, the Tigers took possession of the ball at the beginning of the fourth quarter and began a determined drive. The drive stalled, however, on the South Carolina 20 yard line, and the Gamecocks took over midway through the fourth quarter . The Carolina offense then proceeded to run out the clock by grinding out first downs through the middle of the Clemson defensive line. Thus, the game ended in a 12-6 Carolina victory.

This was a monumental upset! After such a long victory drought, what joy and happiness this brought to the students and fans of South Carolina College. One football player was quoted in the 1903 Garnet and Black as stating, "Well, Old Pards, how about we just lay down and die right here." Oh, were the South Carolina students happy and celebratory.

That is when the transparency arrived, and things got a bit ugly. That Thursday evening, Carolina's students obtained a drawing by F. Horton Colcock, a Professor at South Carolina. The drawing depicted a bedraggled tiger beneath the crowing gamecock. This picture was referred to as a "transparency" by the 1902 newspapers.

It was a poetic and incongruous symbol, a proud Gamecock crowing over the most powerful feline known to man, the tiger. The symbolism of Professor Colcock's drawing was beautiful, and the liberal arts students at South Carolina fully appreciated its meaning. In an era when football teams were typically named after ferocious beasts, it was the unique quality of a Gamecock, crowing over its beaten, apparently stronger foe, that made the symbol so powerful. Thus, on Thursday evening, South Carolina's students began carrying the transparency around Columbia as they celebrated the football victory.

It is not clear what it was about Professor Colcock's image that triggered such an angry reaction from the Clemson Cadets, but it had a detrimental affect on their minds. Enraged, the cadets attacked the Carolina students on Thursday night. The State paper reported that in two separate attacks, the cadets destroyed the offensive transparency, and wounded half a dozen Carolina students with sabers, swords and bayonets. The Greenwood Index also reported on the Thursday night incident. "Several students were slightly cut with knives and left the scene with blackened eyes and swollen faces and some scalp wounds made by canes and stones."

According to a statement later published in The State by Christy Benet, South Carolina's Assistant Coach, he was then approached Friday morning by the Clemson Commandant, Lt. Sirmyer, an Army Officer from West Point, who advised Benet that the Carolina students would be wise not to carry another offensive transparency in the Parade on Friday night. Lt. Sirmyer told Benet if the students carried the transparency in the Elks Club parade, he "would not be responsible" for any violence that might ensue. The State reported that after this meeting, "It was openly and repeated stated by the Clemson men that they would break up South Carolina College that night if the transparency was used."

Finding Benet unbowed by his threat, Sirmyer resorted to political pressure and he sought the aid of General Jones, Columbia's Chief of Police. Just before the parade, Benet met again with Lt. Sirmyer and the Chief. Both urged Benet to persuade the Carolina students not to display their transparency during the parade. The Chief said he saw nothing offensive about the transparency, but he wished to avoid trouble. In fact, Benet did just the opposite; he told the Carolina students that they must carry the transparency or they would, in effect, reward the violence and threats against them by the Clemson boys.

The Carolina students did carry their transparency in the parade. As Clemson marched by, the image, no doubt lifted in time with the beating of the Clemson drum, Lt. Sirmyer urged restraint . He told them to "behave like soldiers," but also added, "while on duty." This latter phrase was met with cheers by the 400 cadets. At the end of the march, on the State Capitol grounds, Lt. Sirmyer dismissed the cadets, and he retired from the scene. With some degree of haste, the 400 Clemson boys proceeded straight up Sumter Street toward the Horseshoe, and were, according to Benet's statement, "very angry and excited."

Word reached the Carolina students of the approaching mob of Clemson men, and they build barricades and armed themselves with pistols and repeating rifles. When the 400 Clemson cadets arrived waving swords, sabres and bayonets, they faced approximately 50 Carolina students behind the barricade. The State paper correctly pointed out that the Carolina students were entitled to protect themselves, and their residences on the South Carolina College campus, from the Clemson mob. The State said of the incident that most of the Carolina students were armed "with pistols and several with repeating rifles."

Fortunately, Benet learned of the approaching Clemson boys and he intervened to avert loss of life. Meanwhile, Lt. Sirmyer, the Commandant who stated he would not be responsible for the bloodshed that resulted from the display of the transparency, was absent. Recognizing the gravity of the circumstance--one that could easily have led to multiple fatalities--Benet stepped David-like between the two sides and offered to resolve the dispute by fighting any one of the Clemson men that they might choose. When this proposal was not accepted, Benet argued that the two parties should form a committee to arbitrate their differences. By this time, authorities and police began to arrive, and Benet's suggestion was adopted. The Committee decided that the Carolina students would burn the transparency--an image easily reproduced--and Clemson agreed to cheer Carolina. This accomplished, the two sides disbursed. Very fortunately, no death or further mahem resulted.

But here the transparency incident did not end. Upon learning news about the incident was reported in The State newspaper, the President of Clemson, P. H. Mell, wrote a letter, justifying the lawless behavior of the cadets. He also argued that Lt. Sirmyer had properly performed his duties, and he implicated Benet and the Carolina students who lacked the "good sense" not to display the transparency.

Clemson's President Mell stated in his letter that the image on the transparency was "too much for them to bear," meaning the Clemson cadets. He argued the violent actions of the Cadets were justified because the City of Columbia had refused to prohibit the Carolina students from displaying the offensive Gamecock symbol in the parade. Therefore, President Mell wrote, the city, "assumed responsibility for the transparency, its intended insult and the results occurring therefrom."

The failure to acknowledge responsibility and recognize that the Clemson cadets had acted lawlessly and breached the peace of the City, provoked a strong and direct response by the Editor of The State, A. E. Gonzales. Gonzales specifically blamed Lt. Sirmyer for the incident. He stated that President Mell should immediately dismiss Lt. Sirmyer as the Commandant of Clemson's Corp of Cadets. "One judges a tree by its fruit," wrote Gonzales. "The fruits of Lt. Sirmyer's actions have been lawlessness and provocation of domestic war."

To some degree, the power of the Gamecock image still can invoke feelings of bitterness amongst some of our Clemson brethren. Christy Benet resolved the controversy in 1902 by burning the transparency. But whenever the image of the Gamecock returns, an angry and bitter response amongst some Clemson people is aroused. Just this morning, as quoted in The Greenville News, one of Clemson's greatest players of all time, Linebacker Jeff Davis, was unable to even utter the name "Gamecocks." Instead, Davis said, "The bragging rights are huge. Everywhere you go you run into one of those Chickens now."

Mr. Davis, the Good Book teaches that we must rid ourselves of all bitterness, rage and anger. This Saturday, as the loudspeakers in Williams Brice ring over and over with the beautiful and glorious sounds of a Gamecock crowing over a victory, please do not be bitter or angry. Rejoice with us as we Carolinians celebrate in our victory. Just as was the case for that first Gamecock football team in 1902, our victories are are far too few and precious to deny us joy.

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