Who's better: 1984 South Carolina or 2013 South Carolina?
In 1984, for the first time ever, the South Carolina Gamecocks proved they could be a college football power.
The season was dubbed “The Year of Black Magic,” a nickname inspired by second-year head coach Joe Morrison’s propensity for wearing black clothes and emphasizing color, long before it became hip, into the Gamecocks’ uniform, which were predominantly garnet and white previously.
For the first time in school history, and out of nowhere after three straight non-winning seasons, South Carolina won 10 games.
Furthermore, the Gamecocks won them in the most dramatic, redeeming fashion imaginable to contend for a national championship for the first time in history.
An unknown quarterback recruited primarily for his ability as a punter, Mike Hold, repeatedly came off the bench in 1984, a la Don Strock, to lead South Carolina to dramatic comebacks against Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson. The Gamecocks avenged humiliating losses to Pitt in 1980 and 1981 by dominating the Panthers, 45-21, while also beating NC State in Raleigh for the first time since 1966.
The following week, a nationally televised 38-26 victory against Florida State in which the Gamecocks intercepted seven passes earned South Carolina — for the first time in history — 11 first-place votes in the Associated Press Poll and a No. 2 overall ranking with a 9-0 record on Nov. 13.
It was the highest ranking ever for a South Carolina football team, yet somehow the Gamecocks went to Annapolis and lost to a bad Navy team that didn’t even have the services of Napoleon McCallum, 38-21. The potential Orange Bowl matchup against Oklahoma for the national title became a trip to the Gator Bowl against Oklahoma State, where a late touchdown from a tight end, Barry Hanna, who hadn’t scored a touchdown all year, sunk South Carolina, 21-14.
Still, the ’84 Gamecocks have such a place in South Carolina lore that when USC-Sumter started fielding athletic teams in 2006, they were nicknamed the “Fire Ants” after the name given to the Gamecocks’ defense in ’84.
For the next 29 years, the 1984 Gamecocks would be the standard all other South Carolina football teams would be judged by.
There isn’t the drama surrounding the Gamecocks’ 11-2 2013 season that there was in ’84. After two straight 11-2 seasons and an SEC East title in 2010, South Carolina was expected to win.
And they did.
Oh, yes, there was the traditional “Chicken Curse” game, a trap 23-21 loss to 5-7 Tennessee in the second of three straight South Carolina road games. But were it not for the Vols WR Marquez North’s 39-yard miracle catch on 3rd-and-10 with less than three minutes to play to set up the winning field goal, it’s likely South Carolina would have won the SEC East and played Auburn in Atlanta (again) for the right to play for the national championship.
And a defense with Jadeveon Clowney coming off four straight games of allowing 17 or fewer points doesn’t figure to allow 59 points in the SEC Championship Game, either.
But which team is better?
“I think the clear thing is any team that’s equally good as a past team but played in the SEC is the better team,” says Tommy Suggs, South Carolina’s color commentator since 1973 and the quarterback of their 1969 Atlantic Coast Conference championship team. “It’s just so competitive. Taking nothing away from the ’84 team, but the 2013 team didn’t lose to Navy.”
Granted, even as an independent, the ’84 Gamecocks didn’t play a bunch of slouches, which was the primary criticism of eventual national champion Brigham Young that season.
But the 2013 Gamecocks did have more star power. Clowney, one of the most celebrated defensive players in recent college football history after his tackle of Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl, would be the top pick of the NFL Draft.
Linebacker James Seawright was a 1984 All-American, and the bad knees that prevented him from an NFL career shouldn’t be held against his college career. But no defensive player in South Carolina history was as celebrated as Clowney.
With his propensity for pulling games out of the fire in 1984, Hold is the most clutch quarterback in South Carolina history. But, save for a couple of games with the replacement Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987, his professional career was limited to being one of the first four starting quarterbacks in Arena Football history when he debuted with the Chicago Bruisers in 1987.
Compare that to 2013 quarterback Connor Shaw. In addition to posting an incredible 24-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio that season, completing a year in which he became the winningest quarterback in school history, he joined the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 2014 and wound up starting their final game. An injury prevented Shaw from playing last season, but he was recently picked up by the Chicago Bears and may very well become Jay Cutler’s backup this season.
All in all, 13 players from the 2013 Gamecocks went to the NFL. The lone NFL standout on the ’84 team, Sterling Sharpe, surprisingly was redshirted that year.
In South Carolina lore, Thomas Dendy is to George Rogers what Brent Fullwood is to Bo Jackson at Auburn. But Mike Davis rushed for 500 more yards in 2013 than Dendy did in ’84.
Perhaps where the 2013 and 1984 Gamecocks are most evenly matched is coaching. Morrison may not have had the personality of Steve Spurrier or Lou Holtz. When asked why he wore black, Morrison merely said “it was clean and it fit.”
But Morrison was unquestionably the face of the program. He recruited a level of player en mass that previously had not come to USC and was so popular that, according to a Sports Illustrated article the week following the Notre Dame game, the Sears in the Columbia Mall could not keep black clothing on the shelves in a city that routinely exceeds 100 degree temperatures in the summer.
In fact, since he had been a star running back for the New York Giants in the ’60s, some New York football fans began clamoring for Morrison to return as the Giants coach. After all, at the time when the Gamecocks were ranked second in the country, Morrison had won as many games that season at South Carolina as the Giants head coach had in two seasons dating back to his 1983 debut.
That coach’s name was Bill Parcells.
Sadly for Gamecocks fans, neither the 2013 or 1984 Gamecocks had staying power. Despite the return of Hold and the emergence of Sharpe, the ’85 Gamecocks reverted to losing and followed their season-ending No. 11 ranking in 1984 with a 5-6 record.
The ’14 Gamecocks didn’t live up to lofty expectations but did finish with a 7-6 record and the program’s fourth straight bowl victory despite the departure of Shaw and Clowney. Both programs suffered through three-victory seasons two years after peaking, though the Gamecocks’ near misses in ’86 against Georgia, Nebraska and Clemson previewed a rather strong 8-4 season in 1987.
The team of Black Magic will always have a special place in the hearts of Gamecocks fans. The 1984 team will probably never be matched for drama, complete with the tragedy of losing to Navy.
The team was so popular that when they returned from Annapolis with their national championship dreams shattered, a fan greeting the Gamecocks at the airport told The State, “We needed that loss to whip Clemson next week!”
Is there any fan base in America that has been more supportive for fewer results than South Carolina’s?
The 1984 Gamecocks showed the program’s potential. But by becoming only the 12th team in college football history to win 11 games in three straight seasons, the 2013 Gamecocks lived up to it.