The last time The Citadel's Corps of Cadets missed a home football game was supposed to be just that — the last time.
It was on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004, when The Citadel defeated Western Carolina by 17-0 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. With the cadets already on Thanksgiving furlough, a hardy band of 3,874 fans ignored the Clemson-South Carolina game that same day to cheer on the Bulldogs, who finished that season with a record of 3-7.
That's the lowest home attendance for a Citadel football game since at least 1966, which is as far back as attendance records go.
The late Col. Harvey Dick, a legendary Citadel figure and then a member of the military school's Board of Visitors, was so distressed by the absence of the corps that he introduced a motion at the BOV meeting that same day.
The motion read, "THAT the Corps of Cadets be in uniform and be present at all scheduled home football games," and was seconded by Col. Dudley Saleeby Jr.
According to the minutes of the meeting, "Discussion on the motion included whether the matter is one that the Board should set policy or one that the Board should provide guidance. The President stated that he sensed the feeling of the Board and he favored a motion to ensure the Board’s direction is in the record. The motion was unanimously carried."
And for 82 straight home games since then, the Corps of Cadets has been at every Citadel home game — 2,000 strong, marching down Hagood Avenue before the game, forming a lane for the players to run through on the field, and waiting anxiously for word of overnight leave after the game.
That streak will end on Saturday, when the Bulldogs play host to rival Wofford at noon at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Thanksgiving furlough begins for the corps on Friday, and the cadets will not be required to attend the game, Citadel spokesman John Dorrian said this week.
How did this happen?
Since 2004, The Citadel has usually scheduled a road game around Thanksgiving, often one of the Bulldogs' big-money "guarantee" games at the likes of Clemson, South Carolina or Alabama. Thus, Thanksgiving furlough was not an issue.
But when the 2019 schedule was released last January, a home game with Wofford was slated for Nov. 23, the day after The Citadel's furlough was to begin. The Citadel's "money game" was early in the season — a Sept. 14 game at Georgia Tech that the Bulldogs won by 27-24.
Athletic director Mike Capaccio said he tried to work with the Southern Conference to get the game moved, but it was too late. Geoff Cabe, the SoCon senior associate commissioner, said the league was unaware at that time of any special requests The Citadel might have for scheduling.
Cabe said that now that the league is aware of The Citadel's BOV policy, it will work with the school in the future.
"When we discussed it with the conference office, they said they were not aware of any rule we had," said Capaccio, who took over for Jim Senter as The Citadel's AD in August 2018, about six months after Senter left for Texas-El Paso. "They were not aware that if we didn't have the corps there, we shouldn't be having a game.
"But the bottom line is, we signed off on it and approved it."
Requiring the corps to remain on campus until after the game would have been problematic, given travel plans and other arrangements made in advance.
"There was some discussion about it, but it was kind of a non-starter," Capaccio said. "Obviously, that's up to other folks on campus. It's just a bad situation, and the bottom line is that we approved it."
With the corps absent, The Citadel is working to get fans in the stands to make up the difference. Fans can donate canned goods to the Lowcountry Food Bank and get a discount. Plus, Clemson and South Carolina are off Saturday.
"We're running some specials and even working with the cadets to offer the opportunity to stay in housing for another day," Capaccio said. "We're reaching out to everybody in the community to draw up some interest."
The Citadel (6-5, 4-3) lost its shot at a SoCon title with last week's 34-33 loss at Chattanooga, but still has a chance at a winning season and an FCS playoff bid with a win over Wofford (7-3, 6-1).
"I do think it will affect the atmosphere, because it is one of the best in the SoCon," said Citadel coach Brent Thompson. "Especially down in the end zone where the corps is, it's very difficult to score down there.
"But I do think we'll have some fans turn out, and that some fans who don't normally come out will come and enjoy the final victory — hopefully."
Editor's Note: The original version of this story mistakenly had the 2004 game against Western Carolina on a Thursday night. It was on a Saturday.