Pranking the Tigers: The great USC-Clemson game of 1961
Editor’s note: What follows is the transcript from an episode of “Remembering the Days,” a podcast produced in association with the University of South Carolina. The host is USC’s Chris Horn. The subject is a famed game in S.C. college football. University of South Carolina We’ve lost a lot of things this year because of COVID-19, and this is absolutely not the most important item on that list — but, for college football fans in the Palmetto State, it is kind of a big deal.
The Carolina-Clemson game, which has been played every year since 1909, is not taking place in 2020 because of the pandemic. I’m Chris Horn, your host for “Remembering the Days,” and this week we’ve gone into the history vault to give you an alternative to this year’s canceled Carolina-Clemson game. It’s a story about the Gamecocks versus the Tigers in 1961. It was a close game that year that ended with an exciting goal-line stand, but the story I’m going to share is about what took place before the game ever started — what’s been hailed as one of the best pranks ever pulled in the history of college football. Some of you might have heard about this escapade but even if you have, stick around. I found a Carolina graduate who not only was at that game 59 years ago — he was part of the prank, and he’s going to help tell the tale. Here’s some quick background: South Carolina and Clemson were not exactly lighting things up on the field in 1961. Before their matchup on November 11, Carolina had a 2-5 record; Clemson was 3-4. But a fraternity at South Carolina had a scheme to ensure that it would be a memorable game no matter what the final score. Someone in Sigma Nu had an inside connection with Orangeburg Wilkinson High School, whose football uniform colors were remarkably similar to Clemson’s orange and purple. The plan was for the fraternity brothers to borrow the uniforms and dress up like Clemson football players for the pre-game warm up on the field. Jack McCathern was a Sigma Nu member and a redshirt kicker on the Carolina football team who participated in the prank. He says he and his 50-plus fraternity brothers practiced several stunts aimed at making the Clemson team look like the most inept football players ever to take the field. Jack McCathern: We got together and went over what we were going to do on Saturday with kind of the situations of — we were having a cow milking exercise, we did the twist. We were running into each other and we were kicking the ball over our head and things like that, you know. On the day of the game, 47,000 fans crowded into Carolina Stadium, the much smaller precursor of today’s Williams-Brice Stadium and, right on cue, the Sigma Nu boys dressed up like Clemson football players streamed onto the field to start their carefully choreographed calisthenics. The real Clemson players hadn’t come out to the field yet and apparently were unaware of what was happening. One Carolina student had even dressed himself up in a suit and tie like Clemson’s legendary coach, Frank Howard, complete with a pillow stuffed into his shirt and pants to simulate Howard’s sizeable waistline. Every now and then, he’d squirt a stream of dark liquid from his mouth, imitating the tobacco-chewing Clemson coach. McCathern: We were going out on the field and going under the stadium. I mean, everything was just in a pitch and people were congratulating us, telling us to go and everything like that. And then when we came out on the field, they played the Tiger Rag. At first, the Sigma Nu boys posing as Clemson football players did normal football warmups with the precision of well-disciplined athletes. The Clemson fans cheered them on, anxious for their beloved Tigers to feast on the Gamecocks. McCathern says the borrowed high school uniforms didn’t really fit very well, but no one was expecting a prank so no one really noticed at first. McCathern: We had them fooled. They really bit hook, line and sinker. But if they ever really looked at us, they would have known that we weren’t … (laughs) Pretty quickly, the prank became apparent when a few of the fake Clemson players started dancing the twist like Chubby Checker. Elsewhere on the field, a fake Clemson running back proceeded to do a somersault in the middle of a practice play. For his part, McCathern in his fake Clemson uniform pretended like he was practicing a punt and magnificently kicked the ball — backwards. When Clemson fans realized they had been pranked, a lot of them rushed the field and … McCathern: All you know what broke loose. I mean, some of our people, they took their helmets off and they went — I was smart. I went to the sideline and stayed over there. Once they saw that it was a gimmick and everything was going wrong, it kind of heated up there. It took awhile for stadium officials to get the brawling fans off of the field. When they finally did, the game began and turned into an exciting contest. In the end, Carolina put up a ferocious goal line stand as the clock ran out to preserve a 21 to 14 Gamecock victory. McCathern: The beautiful thing about it is that we won the game. So that was the cherry on top of the cake, that was just really great about it. Stories about the prank appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press and a slew of other newspapers. It was the kind of thing that student pranksters could pull off back then, but it’s pretty doubtful anyone would fall for something like that now. No matter. It’s a great chapter in the long, long rivalry between Carolina and Clemson — and, for Carolina fans anyway, it’s a fun story to relive this season with no contest between the two teams. As we often say, wait ‘til next year!