Citadel coach Kevin Higgins played high school football in New Jersey and college ball in Pennsylvania. He won 56 games in seven seasons as coach at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and coached with the Detroit Lions in the NFL.
None of it, though, prepared him for football in the South, and in South Carolina.
“No question, football in the South is looked at completely different than up North,” said Higgins, who came to The Citadel in 2005. “I don’t know if it’s because the North has NFL and NBA teams, but down here the emphasis is on college football.”
The difference? Marino Casem, who coached at Alcorn State in Mississippi, once summed it up: “In the East, college football is a cultural attraction. On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is cannibalism. But in the South, it’s religion.”
And in South Carolina, it might be argued, it’s even more important than that.
Religious artifacts? The attack on Howard’s Rock, perched above Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, seemed destined to start another Civil War, until it turned out that Tiger fans, and not some garnet-clad faithful, are the prime suspects.
Mysteries of faith? Why else would Gamecock fans keep packing Williams-Brice Stadium during those years of losing?
Historians tell us that the South’s obsession with college football dates to the Civil War, that victories today in Tuscaloosa and Knoxville somehow avenge defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg back in the day.
But Palmetto State football, let’s be honest, has suffered from an inferiority complex over the years. Frank Howard was Bear Bryant lite, and USC-Clemson was never quite Alabama-Auburn.
It’s been a long time since Clemson’s national title in 1981, even longer since George Rogers’ Heisman Trophy in 1980.
But through it all we’ve never stopped caring. And now we have got two teams in The Associated Press Top 10 — No. 6 South Carolina and No. 8 Clemson, the only state in the union that can make such a boast.
If the Gamecocks and Tigers are still in the Top 10 when they meet Nov. 30, the words of anti-secessionist James Petigru, uttered in 1860, will ring true again:
“South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
We’re all crazy for football — but what a way to go.