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Remembering the Days — 'Believe It or Not!'

Remembering the Days - episode 64

Decades ago, an illustrator named Robert L. Ripley presented tales of the strange, the bizarre and the unexpected — and challenged the public to 'believe it or not!' In that spirit, here are three such tales from the University of South Carolina's past.


The strange, the bizarre, the unexpected. These are the kinds of subjects that the man named Robert L. Ripley challenged us to — believe it or not! 

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and I’ve got three stories today from the history of the University of South Carolina that meet Ripley’s Believe It or Not qualifications — they are strange, bizarre and unexpected. Let’s jump right in.

"Thomas Clemson, the very namesake of Clemson University — USC’s athletics archrival — attended commencement ceremonies at the University of South Carolina two years before his death … and received an honorary degree from the university! Believe it or not!"

Before I tell you what brought Mr. Clemson to Carolina in 1886, here’s a little background.

The 1880s were a challenging time for Carolina. In that one decade, the institution changed its name three times — it began the 1880s as the S.C. College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, then reverted back to South Carolina College and then was the University of South Carolina. The reason for this identity crisis was straightforward.

Before the Civil War, Carolina had been a liberal arts school that was intended to teach young gentlemen how to think. After the Civil War, there were demands for the institution to offer more practical education, including subjects such as engineering, medicine, law — and agriculture.

To that end, an educator with a farming background named John McBryde served as president of Carolina from 1883 to 1891. McBryde’s credentials as an educator were impeccable, but there were skeptics on Carolina being an agricultural college.

One of them was a future governor and U.S. senator named Ben Tillman — also known as Pitchfork Ben. Tillman was disdainful of what he called Carolina’s elitist position in higher education, and he wanted the state of South Carolina to have a separate agriculture college.

Meanwhile, Thomas Clemson, a farmer in South Carolina who had previously served as the United States Superintendent of Agriculture and had conducted agricultural research in Europe, had a similar dream of establishing an agriculture college for the Palmetto State. It’s quite possible that administrators at Carolina were aware of Mr. Clemson’s plan. One of Carolina’s trustees was a lawyer who had helped draft the old gentleman’s will, which would bequeath his estate to the state of South Carolina for the explicit purpose of creating such a college.

Carolina invited Mr. Clemson to attend its commencement ceremonies in June 1886, hoping to show off their new agricultural annex and impress the aging agriculturalist. He was given an honorary degree, but, apparently, Mr. Clemson was not impressed with Carolina’s agricultural efforts. He died two years later and his estate and former home eventually became what is now Clemson University.

"The University of South Carolina began playing football in the early 1890s — and just two decades later the team was already caught up in a recruiting scandal that shocked the campus! Believe it or not!"

This story takes place at Carolina in 1915, more than a century ago, but, honestly, it’s one of those tales that has repeated itself over and over again at many universities in the decades since and is probably taking place somewhere even now.

The football scandal of 1915 had all the usual elements — a struggling football team and a group of overzealous alumni determined to have a winning team. Back then, Carolina didn’t have an athletics department per se. There was merely a committee of faculty, students and alumni — and the alumni dominated the committee.

They created a position of graduate manager and filled it with an individual who surreptitiously recruited a number of so-called student athletes to the football team in fall 1915. The university didn’t have a registrar in those days so it was relatively simple to sign almost anyone up for classes.

The team got off to a great start, beating the powerhouse N.C. State in its opening game. They went on to win more games, which aroused a lot of suspicion. After all, Carolina had fielded a number of, shall we say, anemic teams for several years, and now, all of a sudden, they were winning left and right.

Investigators took a closer look at the team roster and challenged the eligibility of a number of players. Turned out several of them had played at other colleges years before and were essentially ringers who were willing to play wherever they could. A few of them were disqualified before the game against archrival Clemson, which resulted in a 0-0 tie.

William Spenser Currell was president of the university back then, and he was shocked and embarrassed by the scandal. He cleaned up the program and abolished the graduate manager position. And I wish I could say that the team still racked up the wins when the university adopted its squeaky clean approach to managing athletics — but at least we had the satisfaction of knowing that we, at least, were following the rules.

"Before the Civil War, a student could obtain a master’s degree from South Carolina College without attending class for the princely sum of — $5. Believe it or not!"

This last ‘believe it or not’ anecdote really does sound incredible. Before the Civil War, a Carolina graduate could purchase a master of arts degree for $5 so long as the student had “sustained a good moral character” since graduation. The $5 fee was evidently too high because fewer than 30 master’s degrees were awarded in the 10 years before the Civil War. Let me hasten to add that Carolina was not an outlier in this diploma scheme. At the same time at none other than Harvard College, you could also buy a master’s degree for $5 without attending class. Harvard’s requirements were slightly higher. You had to have stayed out of jail for five years before you could walk away with that diploma.

After the Civil War, getting a master’s degree at Carolina involved actual academic work. Presumably, Harvard adopted the same rigorous approach.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little jaunt through USC history inspired by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. On the next episode and in time for Memorial Day, we’re going to look back at Carolina during wartime — what it was like on campus during the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. That’s next time on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.