Battle of the Carolinas recalls once-fierce rivalry
Posted August 28, 2013
Updated August 29, 2013
I’ll never forget the epiphany I experienced watching the closing credits of “Remember the Titans,” the moving story of Rocky Mount native Coach Herman Boone and his players “Blue,” “Rev” and “Sunshine,” who used football to help integrate schools in Northern Virginia in 1971. The film closed with an epilogue documenting what coach and players did after their days at T.C. Williams High School.
One line hit me like a ton of bricks. “Ronnie Sunshine Bass played football at the University of South Carolina.” RONNIE SUNSHINE BASS PLAYED FOOTBALL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA! Who knew?
Veer surprises 70s squad
Long before Hollywood told the story of his high school days, Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass totally trashed the North Carolina Tar Heels one fall night in 1974.
I actually flew to Columbia to cover that game in a Learjet with my then-boss, longtime UNC broadcaster Jim Heavner, and Chapel Hill businessman Lee Shaffer.
Shaffer played basketball at UNC under Frank McGuire, and he showed on the trip down he knew something of football too.
“Holliday,” he said, “I’m concerned about South Carolina’s veer offense.”
I noted that the Tar Heels were favorites; that South Carolina’s starting quarterback was injured. Silly me.
Ron Bass, in his first collegiate game, lit up North Carolina for more than 200 yards on the ground. And when he wasn’t running, he was passing. Underdog South Carolina outscored a team that featured Chris Kupec and one of the best offenses in North Carolina school history, 31-23.
I can still hear Shaffer’s booming baritone on the flight home after I’d filed my postgame report: “What’d I tell ya Holliday – the veer, the veer. You can’t stop it. YOU CAN’T STOP IT!"
Long after I’d taken the Lear to see the veer, I found myself paired at a golf outing with the one-time coach of the Gamecocks, Paul Dietzel. Somewhere between the fourth and fifth holes at the Mount Mitchell Golf Club, Dietzel and I began to talk about Bass’ amazing night against the Tar Heels. In fact, coach and reporter were so fixated on Bass, neither could remember the name of the injured player Bass replaced.
“I’ll think of it,” Dietzel promised. Jeff Grantz was the guy. He gained more than 5,000 yards total offense in his South Carolina career. But it’s hard to imagine him being any better than Ronnie Bass was October 26, 1974.
Friendly skies for UNC foes
Of course, the veer and the Lear are not the only links to North Carolina’s diabolical past involving air travel. Back in the 70s, Bill Dooley’s pass defenses were so porous they became known as “The Friendly Skies” (a nod to a popular airline commercial in that era). So who was the first to “Fly the Friendly Skies" of Carolina? Why the other Carolina, of course.
Students in the late 60s often dressed in their Sunday best for football games, and I recall a sultry September day in 1968 when some among the faithful whipped out flasks from their suit coat pockets to toast the Tar Heels’ rolling to a 27-3 lead over the Gamecocks. Victories were rare in Bill Dooley’s second year, but this looked like a sure thing – until Tommy Suggs (now South Carolina’s radio analyst) and the Gamecock offense turned the big Chapel Hill celebration into a wake, with 29 unanswered points, most in the fourth quarter.
Two years later the Gamecocks again “flew the friendly skies.” A guy named Jackie Young passed over, around and through Dooley’s 4-4-3 defense, for a 35-21 victory over a North Carolina team which starred Don McCauley and later played in a bowl.
Conference realignment cut short Carolinas' rivalry
That 1970 trip marked South Carolina’s last visit to Kenan Stadium as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC, uniquely, required all prospective athletes to score at least 800 on the SAT college entrance exam. The braintrust in Columbia felt the ACC rule was too restrictive and voted to leave the conference.
At the same time, it is impossible to overstate the enmity between South Carolina and its ACC rivals on the basketball court in 1970 and 1971. When John Roche, Tom Owens and enforcer John Ribock entered the hall, there was a palpable feeling of hostility, unlike anything I’ve experienced covering ACC games since.
Frank McGuire would later try to engage in revisionist history and say the school’s departure from the ACC was all because of Dietzel and football. But make no mistake, in 1971, the basketball coach and his players also wanted out. I have it on tape.
South Carolina is now, of course, happily ensconced in the Southeastern Conference, and the ACC has gone its own way, becoming a league of 14, soon to be 15, teams. And so, the battle of the Carolinas, which 45 years ago was on its way to becoming one of the ACC’s fiercest rivalries, is now reduced to a mere non-conference tilt – the emotion of the past supplanted by the modern day preoccupation with qualifying for the national championship chase.
Thursday’s contest (UNC at South Carolina, 6 p.m. ESPN) is not so much a brawl to see who is the real Carolina, as it is a tactical match-up of trendy offensive and defensive philosophies.
Most focus on Jadeveon Clowney and the physical South Carolina defense going after Bryn Renner and the up-tempo North Carolina offense. But history suggests the other side of the equation will be even more important.
As we saw last year, the "friendly skies" have not yet been completely expunged from Tarheelia (almost 3,000 yards allowed passing and 15 touchdowns). To have a chance in Columbia, UNC’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment must contain the other Carolina. Put simply, North Carolina must force South Carolina to punt – much as South Carolina punted the ACC oh so many years ago.