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Why are we Gamecocks?

Remembering the Days: A UofSC Podcast – Episode 1

Of all the mascots the University of South Carolina might have chosen, how did the gamecock — a feisty bird that relishes a scuffle — get the nod? It all goes back to the aftermath of a football game in 1902 in which Carolina students nearly came to deadly blows with their in-state rival.

Show notes
It turns out that our mention of other athletics teams that play under the Gamecock monicker was incomplete. Astute listener Neil Baumgardner, '98, told us about the Bonn Gamecocks, a German team that plays American-style football, and a Puerto Rican soccer team known as the Piedras Gallitos. In Spanish,  'gallitos' means cocky — so, close enough! 



Why are we Gamecocks?

Hey, Let's give a cheer, Carolina is here,
The Fighting Gamecocks lead the way.

If you’re a fan of the University of South Carolina, you’ve probably heard the university fight song a million times. And you might even know all the words to that catchy tune.

Who gives a care, If the going gets tough,
And when it is rough, that's when the 'Cocks get going.

Hail to our colors of garnet and Black,  
In Carolina pride have we.

But, hit the rewind for a sec…

“The Fighting Gamecocks lead the way.”

The fighting gamecocks. Not fighting eagles or falcons or skyhawks, but fighting gamecocks — how did that bird become our university mascot? And for that matter —

“Hail to our colors of garnet and Black,
In Carolina pride have we.”

How did we end up being garnet and black? Not crimson and black, not red and black — but garnet and black.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, where we amble across the Horseshoe and take a stroll down more than 200 years of memory lane at the University of South Carolina.

(theme music)


So, yes, we’re Gamecocks and we wear garnet and black. It’s been that way for more than a hundred years.

But why? Let’s time travel back to the year 1902. Clemson was our chief rival — nothing has changed, right? — and we had been playing the Tigers in football since 1896. In 1902, Carolina was the underdog — which made victory … that much more sweet!

West: Well, after Carolina scored this upset victory over Clemson, our students celebrated in various ways including running around with a drawing of a gamecock crowing over a beaten tiger.

That’s Elizabeth West, the university archivist…

West: Now Clemson students and fans took offense to this – they sort of forgot things they had done in the past several years when they had won like wrapping garnet and black fabric around their feet and scuffing it through the mud — but they warned our students that they should not carry the drawing in the parade the next day.

So the Carolina-Clemson game was played on Thursday — Big Thursday, they called it — during the week of the State Fair. The day after the game was a big parade, and even though the Clemson students warned the Carolina students not to, you know, parade around with that drawing of a gamecock and a defeated tiger — of course they did.

West: So naturally the students carried the drawing in the parade the next day. Clemson was originally a military school and their cadet corps was marching in the parade so after it was done they decided to march on the campus and seize the drawing and destroy it.

The newspaper account says a couple hundred Clemson cadets marched on the Carolina campus, their cadet swords swinging from their belts.

West: ….and so about 40 Carolina students heard about it. They hastily armed themselves with knives and pistols and they hunkered down behind the wall to try to fend off the invading Clemson students.

Swords, knives and pistols. OK, this was 1902, things were different back then, but that’s still not a good combination when tempers are running hot. Police and professors came running to Sumter Street where this volatile student standoff was about to explode.

After a lot of talking, they defused the situation by coaxing the Carolina and Clemson students to burn the drawing of the gamecock and the tiger, which the students did while cheering each other on.

And they all lived happily ever after. Ok, not so much — the two schools cancelled their annual football clash for the next six years — but at least they didn’t actually come to blows in 1902. And the University of South Carolina got a mascot out of the deal.

West: And so after that incident, the newspapers started reporting on us as the Gamecocks, particularly in coverage of the incident and the name stuck. Why was there a Gamcock on the sign if we weren’t the gamecocks? Well, cockfighting was still very well known and probably very widespread in the early 1900s, and South Carolinians would have been very familiar with the aggressiveness of the birds and as cockfighting as a sport. We also have one of our Revolutionary War heroes, Thomas Sumter, whose nickname was the Gamecock. And so that one Carolina Clemson riot of 1902 gave us the two traditions associated with the university, the mascot and the tiger burn.

That’s the story of how we became Gamecocks — and why we burn paper tigers before every Carolina-Clemson football game. Oh, one quick aside, just in case you’re wondering. Cockfighting dates back at least 6,000 years, and it’s still legal in some parts of the world — but not in South Carolina. The legislature banned it here in 1887, 15 years before we became known as the Fighting Gamecocks.

We’re not the only Gamecocks, though. We share that distinction with Jacksonville State University in Alabama. And, technically, the University of Delaware is part of the family because their mascot, the Blue Hen, is named for a particular type of American gamecock.

Across the pond in London, the Tottenham Hotspurs, a professional soccer team, have a logo that features a gamecock perched on a soccer ball.


The story of how we ended up with garnet and black as our school colors isn’t so clearcut.

West: The colors garnet and black do precede us being gamecocks and there are no really defined documents as to how that came about. The different classes at the school, freshmen through seniors, tended to have class colors so this idea of having colors was very familiar and very common. So the garnet and black appeared in the 1890s I believe and just continued as our colors. Different reports could refer to our team as the College 9 for baseball or the garnet and black before the gamecocks really took off as the mascot.

The first Garnet and Black yearbook was published in 1899, so apparently the garnet-black color combination took hold pretty quickly.

OK, let’s go back to that fight song for a moment.

“Hey, Let's give a cheer, Carolina is here,
The Fighting Gamecocks lead the way.”

The tune of the song actually came from a 1967 Broadway musical called “How now, Dow Jones.” The original song from the play, entitled “Step to the Rear”, was immediately popular and USC’s band director had the marching band play the tune at a football game that year. Carolina’s football coach, Paul Dietzel, liked it and decided to write new words for it. Seems kind of weird — a head coach taking the time to do that — but, anyway, that’s how we ended up with “The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way,” which became our official fight song in 1968.


We decided to see how well today’s Carolina students know their fight song — spoiler alert: not very well — so we walked across campus and asked them.

Student 1 
Do you know the fight song?
Do you know the tune? (hums it)
Oh, yeah, I don’t know the words, though.
I’ve no idea.

Student 2
I don’t know some of the words off the top of my head. I know, ‘That’s when the Cocks get going.’ Buh, buh, buh — buh —buh, buh, buh and then, ‘Go Cocks’ (chuckles).

Student 3
I should! I’ve been to so many games, but I don’t. You guys are puttin’ me to shame, man, I don’t know anything.
I know the ‘Go Cocks,’ I know it beat for beat, but I might have to pass on singing it.


Oh, well. At least they know when to yell.


Now you know the story of how we became Gamecocks and why we’re garnet and black. And, hey, it’s never too late to work on learning the words to the fight song.

See you next time on Remembering the Days, a production of the University of South Carolina.


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