Shortly after an epic weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia last year (story here), my friend Tyler immediately set his sights on one of the premier destinations in the SEC for a 2013 college football excursion. During our epic run through the Mountain State, we sampled jarfuls of moonshine, slammed beers out of giant fishbowls, and waded through the near riotous tailgating of the infamous “Blue Lot” before witnessing an incredible shootout in Milan Puskar Stadium. Clearly, the expectations were set high for 2013. And, perhaps even more inexplicably, his wife Kristi even allowed him to come along for another adventure this year.
With only a narrow weekend open in November, the South Carolina versus Florida matchup looked to be the most compelling SEC tilt we could find as we poured over the conference schedule early in the year. At least it was the most compelling when we first picked the game about nine months ago, as it would likely have implications in the SEC East Division race. While the Gamecocks held up their end of the bargain through the first few months of the 2013 season, Florida had floundered. Fresh off a 34-17 drubbing at the hands of Vanderbilt, the Commodores first win in Gainesville since 1945, the Gators were sporting an unsightly 4-5 record. What was supposed to be a marquee matchup in Columbia, might now turn into a lopsided affair.
As Tyler, a nuclear engineer by day, shared the upcoming football exploits with his Connecticut co-workers, a few eyebrows were raised. College Football in the Deep South has a shadowy, mysterious intrigue to native New Englanders – a barren college football landscape dominated by professional sports. As legends of raucous 80,000+ seat stadiums, tailgating lots filled with inebriated, unruly southerners and stunning, sun dress draped coeds were told; so to did interest grow in Tylers adventure. Before long, six of his pencil necked engineer coworkers had signed up for this excursion, and planning reached new heights of detail. Spreadsheets were created, as well as timelines, stress tests and contingency planning. Hell, there was probably even a regression analysis and some six sigma witchcraft thrown in there for sport too. In one particular stroke of genius, they even rented a thirty foot RV for the pilgrimage, and the full blown excursion was on. As a true marketer by trade, I booked a plane ticket and a rental car, and left the rest of the meticulous planning to the experts…
I meet up with the merry band on Friday afternoon at our hotel, after they had driven the RV through the night from Connecticut and played an early round of golf at the Oak Hills Golf Club. The round of golf was mostly obligation I presume. You see, for native New Englanders, there’s no such thing as a trip to South Carolina that doesn’t involve golf or fireworks (or both). They arrive at the hotel in the afternoon already sporting a handful of rosy, sun burnt faces, and shoehorn the RV into a dedicated lot out back.
In the hotel Tyler first introduces me to the other 6 members of the crew (and I’ll use nicknames and/or aliases here because frankly I don’t even know their real names): Kirby, Stack, Meat, Dave, Thibs, and, predictably, Murph – because in any group of guys from New England there always has to be at least one token “Murph” or “Sully”….it’s the rules. We swap a few beers and stories, while a few of them gingerly sample the apple pie moonshine I had bought at Palmetto Distillery in Anderson, South Carolina earlier that afternoon.
After a quick break, time enough for Tyler to put his face on, we hit the town on Friday night. Strategically located only a few blocks from our hotel, many of Columbia’s finer watering holes line the streets in the shadow of the state capitol building. We start the night with dinner and house microbrew at the Hunter Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse on Main Street, crowding around a few creaky wooden tables in the rustic reclaimed warehouse building. From there we move to Flying Saucer, one of a small chain of pubs famed for having hundreds of beers on their menu. For those brave (and wealthy) enough to try 200 of them, your name and accomplishment can be forever enshrined on a golden saucer tacked up on the walls. We take country tours of the offerings from Germany, Belgium and the good ole USA, all of which flow continuously while we bounce a few quarters off the wooden tables. After the Saucer, we bounce to a handful of pubs until the revelry ends in a fog in the early hours of morning.
The wakeup on Saturday morning is a bit groggy for Tyler and I, but we’re pleased when a few early rising go-getters have already loaded the RV down with provisions for the afternoon ahead. The rest of us soon pile in for the short 1.5 mile ride to Williams Brice Stadium, making a quick stop at a campus book store on the way for some black and garnet South Carolina garb. Having northern accents is bad enough, but the last thing we’d want is for anyone to mistake us as infiltrating, jort wearing Gator fans…
We park in the fairground lots across the street from Williams Brice, one of the few lots accessible to RV’s. Forking over a jaw dropping $150 for an RV parking hang tag, the attendant waves our lumbering fiberglass palace into the grassy field. As the orange vested attendant guides us in, he notes the young (and inexperienced) looking Dave nervously gripping the wheel. Peering through his mirrored aviator shades, the attendant sizes him up…
“Can you back this thing up?” he chides…
“Yessir” Dave responds.
“Yeah, but can you back it straight?” The attendant fires back in a thick southern drawl, as a sarcastic smile flashes across his face.
After some final fidgeting, we maneuver the whale into position between the white lines painted carefully onto the grass. While in the hotel parking lot our thirty footer looked like a luxury palace, once flanked by some of the opulent land yachts that lumber in beside us, it suddenly looks like a toy. We’re immediately struck with a case of RV envy, as the garish, coach bus sized, mobile estates unfurl carpets, outdoor kitchens and satellite connected flat screen TV’s. Inside, they’re luxuriously appointed with marble floors, granite countertops, leather upholstery and every posh modern convenience you could possibly imagine. From what I’m told, the American Coach behemoth next to us retails for nearly $500,000 alone.
While our crew may be newcomers to the nuances of RV ownership (or rental), they certainly aren’t rubes when it comes to tailgating. They unload an impressive spread from the various storage compartments of the RV, with every detail considered. After setting up the requisite tent, tables and chairs, we set to work tossing bean bags into a custom ordered “Gamecock” cornhole game. Dave puts together an impressive four course feast for the day – burgers, home made chili, pulled pork and grilled chicken – an aromatic lineup which got him accosted by hungry admirers as he scurried it out of the hotel elevator. The coolers brim with refreshing domestic light beer, and a few intellectual bon vivants exchange a riveting squabble over the merits of Miller Lite versus Bud Light. 75 degrees and sunny, a crystal blue sky sets in for the afternoon, and with a 7:00pm kickoff time scheduled, we have plenty of time to put in a solid shift of tailgating.
Despite a big time SEC conference adversary in Florida, the parking lots are surprisingly quiet on this pristine afternoon. We take a stroll close to stadium, along some of the prime tailgating real estate lining George Rogers Blvd only to find the lots half vacant, the entire atmosphere noticeably subdued. Even the infamous “Cockaboose Railroad”, a collection of old cabooses converted to extravagant tailgating rigs, is nearly deserted. The sun decks and patios on them are vacant, and the entire area surrounding the East side of Williams Brice Stadium is uninhabited. It’s inexplicable.
As the afternoon winds on, consumption accelerates and details become foggy. The few hours leading up to the game devolve into aggressive bouts of beer pong, flip cup, shot gunning beers, and daring, outlandish physical challenges – like who can climb onto the roof of the RV without a ladder. Before long, the jar of Palmetto Distillery moonshine is produced, and we swap pulls straight from the jar like a band of misfit hillbillies. What started as a clean cut band of genteel engineers has now deteriorated into a disheveled rabble of drunken degenerates. In other words – fun.
As often happens with great tailgates, the time passes in an instant. Before long, the sun dips below the horizon and our beer supply dwindles. We ransack the RV, searching every last crevice for a few remaining drops of alcohol. The inside of the unit now resembles a meth house after all night rave. Cushions and cans are strewn about, and the bathroom door lies defeated on the floor – ripped off at the hinges. I swish my hands through the icy slush remaining in the final plastic cooler, and, after coming up empty, decide it’s time to head towards the beckoning lights of Williams Brice Stadium. Fortunately, one member of the group had procured 8 consecutive seats ahead of time, so I could bypass the impossible task of trying to scalp 8 tickets off the street.
The inevitable downside to finding 8 consecutive seats, however, is that those seats will be nosebleeds – a far cry from the front row 50 yard line seats I swindled during my last visit to Columbia in 2010 (Story Here). In the towering concrete grandstands of Williams Brice stadium, sitting in the third deck would be like watching the game from the moon. Upon entering the gates we begin our ascent, winding up the dizzying corkscrew ramp into the high night air. I’ve hiked to Macchu Picchu before, and that was childs play compared to this….
Panting and lathered in sweat, we find our seats just in time for “Cocky” the South Carolina mascot, to make his signature entrance to the theme song of “2001 Space Odyssey”. As tension builds and the symphony reaches its crescendo, Cocky bursts out of his cage while red fireworks explode skyward, 83,853 thousands fans maniacally erupting. Shortly after, as kickoff looms, the entire crowd bounces and waves white towels to the pumping beat of the jock rock anthem “Sandstorm” while rhythmically chanting “U…S…C…U…S…C”. While it may seem contrived, South Carolina simply has one of the most energetic entrances in the sport.
Despite the Gators injury riddled, lackluster season thus far, the game proves a lot closer than anticipated. With starting quarterback Tyler Murphy injured, Florida pounds the ball on the ground in the first half, piling up 169 yards of rushing. Gator running back Kelvin Taylor streaks through great gashes in the Gamecock defensive line for a pair of touchdowns, while standout Defensive End Jadaveon Clowney is nowhere to be seen. The South Carolina offense is stymied for the entire first half. Quarterback Connor Shaw sails the pigskin over open receivers, and the Gamecocks manage a measly pair of field goals. At the half, they trail 14-6.
In the second half, the “Ole Ball Coach”, former Heisman winner and Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier makes a few defensive adjustments. While usually known for his offensive schematics, in the second half the South Carolina defense takes charge. They hold the Florida ground attack to only 31 yards in the second half. Quarterback Connor Shaw finds a bit of rhythm for the garnet and black, connecting for a 32 yard score – the only touchdown of the day for the Cocks. Kicker Elliot Fry is the true hero for South Carolina, however. He continues his field goal onslaught, booting another pair of them in the 4th quarter, one of them from 43 yards, to give the Gamecocks the lead. Ultimately, South Carolina squeaks out a 19-14 win over the reeling Gator squad, good enough to keep them in contention in the SEC East Division.
In the end, this was one of the best weekends on the season. A primetime tilt in the heart of SEC country is one of the great experiences in the sport, and this game proved far more competitive than expected. But ultimately, it’s the people that made the weekend such a memorable one, and a reminder that college football is best experienced in large groups. To a man, the entire Connecticut crew was a welcoming, raucous, fun loving bunch that put on a helluva show. For most of them, this was their first experience in the SEC. Witnessing the sheer delight and joy spread across their faces under the lights in Williams Brice harkened back memories of my own first SEC experience, a misty Saturday night in Baton Rouge that’s had me hooked ever since. Welcome to the SEC gents, can’t wait to hit another one with you next year…
Thanks to the Connecticut crew for making the weekend such a memorable one, and hope to share another one with you next year!
Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his ever patient wife Kristi for connecting for another year of adventure. It’s not often you get to spend weekends with best friends, and I’m glad we can make this an annual tradition. Can’t wait to see you again on the road next year man!
Full Clickthrough gallery below:
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