Huge stadiums rule in the SEC

One of Langston Moore’s favorite memories of his playing days at South Carolina also doubles as a testament to the seriousness with which Southerners take their football.

It was November 1999, and Moore — a true freshman that year — was tired, both mentally and physically. The Gamecocks were enduring a miserable season, their first under legendary coach Lou Holtz, and had one last chance — a home game against in-state rival Clemson — to avoid a 0-11 season.

Rumors swirled around campus; Clemson fans, eager to bask in their rivals’ plight, were planning on coming to the game armed with ZERO candy bars, ready to throw them on the field when their team emerged victorious.

And while Clemson did, in fact, win the game, Moore — who was standing on the sidelines, the game out of reach — remembers something funny happening during the waning seconds: South Carolina fans, already ticked about the loss, surrounded Clemson’s cheering section at Williams-Brice Stadium, practically daring one of them to execute their plan.

“I’m sure that if some Clemson fan decided to throw one of those bars on the field, there was going to be some sort of altercation,” says Moore, who adds that not one candy bar landed on that field that day.

South Carolina fans had made their point — this was their house, win or lose. The moment made an impression on Moore, who suddenly realized why fans kept showing up that year, even though their team was in the middle of a putrid 1-21 stretch in which it went 0-18 against the Southeastern Conference.

“Football is just (instilled) in people there,” Moore said. “The moment you come out of the womb, you’re picking sides.”

Williams-Brice Stadium holds 80,250, and an average of 78,273 people came out to watch the Gamecocks that year. That number rose to 81,904 in Holtz’s second year — when South Carolina showed vast improvement and posted an 8-4 record — marking the first of five consecutive seasons the Gamecocks drew an average of over 80,000 fans per game.

All this for a program that, in spite of its passionate fan base, has been largely mediocre over the years. In 118 years of football, South Carolina has gone 554-543, won exactly one overall conference title (1969, in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and reached the nine-win mark four times.

No matter, says former South Carolina linebacker Corey Miller, who lettered at the school during 1988-1990 and now is host of a radio show in Columbia, S.C.

“You’re talking about a fan base that has been going to South Carolina games since way back when,” Miller says. “A lot of times, games are a family event. We could be bad on the field, but six or seven hours before the game you see fans out there, sitting in chairs, eating food and enjoying each other’s company. People really look forward to that.”

And when it comes to the SEC, South Carolina is hardly alone, in that regard. Seven of the 15 biggest college football stadiums in the country belong to schools in the conference, and all but two of the league’s venues were, on average, 92 percent full in last season. Eight of them surpassed the 98-percent barrier.

In comparison, Missouri’s Memorial Stadium was, on average, 87.5 percent full last season, which would have put the school ahead of only Vanderbilt. Now, that figure is expected to rise significantly this season, Missouri’s first in the SEC, because the school has sold out of season tickets (roughly 46,500 of them) for the first time in history.

In addition, athletic director Mike Alden has said numerous times that planned upgrades to Memorial Stadium could push Missouri’s capacity from 71,004 to 80,000 during the next eight years. Alden said Missouri’s plan to finance that construction, which involves using revenue from premium seating, is the same way other SEC schools have financed their stadium projects, even mentioning South Carolina by name.

Since 2001, Williams-Brice Stadium has undergone $30 million worth of upgrades, the latest being a massive $6.5 million scoreboard. Miller says the school has done a nice job of fund raising over that time period, though it has ultimately been the steady improvement of the team under legendary coach Steve Spurrier during the last eight years that has renewed fans’ enthusiasm about the program and helped the school keep up in the SEC arms race.

“Winning games opens wallets,” Miller says.

And now, Miller says Gamecocks fans are hopeful they will be rewarded for their loyalty. On the heels of an 11-2 season, South Carolina opens the season ranked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll, and it’s been years, he says, since Gamecock fans have been this excited about football.

It makes sense, really. If South Carolina plays to its preseason rankings, an SEC title will be a possibility. And if that’s the case, well, it must also be said that the last six SEC champions have gone on to win a national title — a thrill not one generation of South Carolina football fans has had the pleasure of experiencing.

“They are the best fans in the country. … This place is starving for a champion,” Miller says, adding that the team gave out rings for its 11-win season last year. “They’ve been ridiculed by their rival (Clemson), which has won a national championship, for years, and they endured the 1-21 streak, the 0-11 season, the history of mediocrity … and they kept coming.”

Moore, who still chuckles at the memory of that last game in 1999, knows this better than most.

“Every game is packed,” Moore says, “period.”

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