When your state boasts a two-time National Champion (Clemson, 1981 and 2016), an NCAA FCS titlist (Furman, 1988) and multiple Black National Championships (SC State, 1976-77, 1981-82, 1994, 2008-09) - not to mention conference titles too numerous to mention - you know college football is a big deal here.
South Carolina has all that and more, with teams in the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southern Conference, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and others. That means fall is a special time for football - and its fan-friendly cousin, tailgating.
From the mammoth tailgating scenes outside South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium and Clemson's Memorial Stadium, to the smaller but no less enjoyable gatherings at the state's other football-playing schools, autumn months are all about the games ... and food, beverages and big-screen TVs. Where to experience the best of South Carolina tailgating? Glad you asked.
Johnny Cox comes from a Clemson family (he's Class of 1987) and has been tailgating with up to 150 other recreation vehicles in the family's parking spot next to Doug Kingsmore Stadium (the Tigers' baseball park for "as far back as I can remember." Each football weekend, his family drives four hours from Marion County, sets up shop and stays long after the final gun.
"Football season is the time of year you look forward to like a family reunion or Christmas," Cox says. "We probably entertain 20-60 on any given weekend, and our signature thing is our Bloody Mary Bar on game day, which we open at 9 a.m. - or 7 a.m. if (ESPN's) SportsCenter is coming."
In fact, ESPN personality Marty Smith has featured the Cox tailgate more than once on the all-sports network. Besides drinks, typical fare includes grilled shrimp, pickled vegetables and a smoker for preparing wings and other meats. "None of us are skinny," Cox says with a laugh.
Check out the Cox's Facebook page. Or visit the area outside Gate 13, where former Tigers coach Danny Ford tailgates, though he usually goes home afterward instead of to the game.
Most SC colleges have some form of pregame entertainment, such as teams walking through the crowds to their stadium, but no other school does this quite like The Citadel. The Military College of South Carolina puts on a full-fledged show at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturdays, featuring the entire Corps of Cadets.
"Ninety-nine percent of the tailgates close down when the regimental band comes down Hagood Avenue, exactly 25 minutes before kickoff," says Andy Solomon, the school's associate athletic director/special events and a member of the school's athletics staff more than a quarter-century. "The Corps of Cadets enters the stadium 20 minutes before kickoff, when the entire student body is on the field before the game."
That's also when two Civil War replica cannons are wheeled in, to be fired after Bulldogs' scores.
Nearby parking lots open at 7 a.m. and gatherings often feature candelabras and school-color blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. After eating, fans enter for the aforementioned parade and to see cadets at attention for the national anthem.
At game's end, fans stream back to their tailgate spots, but not before hearing the public-address announcement of curfew for the cadets. Victories often mean overnights; losses usually require 2 a.m. returns. In 2016, The Citadel finished 10-2, making for a lot of happy weekends.
Athletic director Matt Hogue is proud of his football team, which won 10 games in 2016 as it transitions to the Sun Belt Conference. He's equally proud of the Conway school's on-campus environment for home games.
Brooks Stadium seats 15,000 with plans for 20,000, and before games, fans gravitate to nearby Blanton Park, in the center of campus, with its live oaks and a lawn. "It's a hub for our alumni," Hogue says. The area between the baseball and football stadiums usually is filled with RVs and grills before and after kickoff.
And even though Coastal's mascot is a fighting Chanticleer, "(fans) can bring fried chicken," Hogue says, laughing.
"It's tailgating in the South, with all the flags waving and the activities, and the stadium is within walking distance of all our parking." For older/retired visitors, CCU offers a trolley system to deliver them from parking lots to the statue of team mascot Chauncey, at the front of the stadium.
"We'll even send golf carts to the handicap lot, to bring them to the stadium," Hogue says. "But if you walk, it's all pedestrian-friendly."
Mike Cheatham is a familiar face at Paladin home games, but not everyone knows his name; to many, he is simply Flagman, so dubbed for the giant purple flag he waves from his stadium seats whenever his team scores.
As for tailgating, "they opened (Paladin Stadium) in 1981, and I started coming shortly after that, but it's been really big-time the past 20 years," the 1973 graduate says. "We usually try to match our meals to our opponents, so if we're playing Coastal Carolina (the Chanticleers), we have chicken. If it's Wofford (Terriers), we'll have hot dogs."
Cheatham and wife Jennifer always arrive five hours before kickoff, setting up their tent and satellite TV near the school's rugby pitch and Paladin Plaza, close to the stadium's Pearce-Horton football complex.
"We've been there since 2012," he says. "It's closer to the stadium, and we're not getting any younger." To find the Cheathams, just ask for Flagman.
The "Gourmet Gents," a group of four men and their families, stand out even among the super-serious fans who cluster around Williams-Brice Stadium each fall. In 2013, the Gents won the national Home Depot Tailgate Challenge, and more recently were nominated by the My Carolina Alumni Association to represent the Gamecocks in a "Cookoff before Kickoff" competition.
Myrtle Beach's Chris Millar and Fort Mill's Don Iorio, Dan Weaver and Kyle Fadeley take pregame food to another level, saying that their idea of a tailgate "does not include a (fast-food) chicken box." Their families gather each football weekend around a table with a game-specific ice sculpture (provided by Artisan Ice of Charlotte), and the bill of fare has included such delicacies as jerk shrimp, crab legs, lobster, steaks and more.
The four met in 2010 when their randomly assigned parking spots were next to one another. "We just started chatting, realized we all had the same thoughts about tailgating, and took it from there," says Millar, the only USC graduate in the group. "The key to all this is our wives; I can man a grill, but all the flowers and such is them."
Their motto, Millar says, is that "it is almost as important what goes on with the tailgate before and after the games as what goes on in Williams-Brice." For more on the Gourmet Gents, check their Facebook page, or on Twitter at Gourmet_Gents.
When John Alford, a former Bulldogs and NFL lineman affectionately known as "Scrap Iron," shows up at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium for football, he's hauling a monster cooker that also has a nickname - "The Jumbo" - and plenty of capacity. "We can cook up to 500-600 pounds of meat at one time, which is pretty awesome," he says.
The cooker was custom-made by Alford's son for a welding class at Denmark TEC. "I designed it and he welded it," he says. A 450-gallon propane tank provides fuel for cooking, and there's a burner and deep fryer, a steamer and warmer on the twin six-foot trailer. It even has - yes - a kitchen sink.
Alford parks his rig behind Staley Hall, near SCSU's Smith-Hammond-Middleton basketball arena, and his crew of cooks goes to work. "A variety of fried fish, hot dogs, burgers - some weeks, the menu is more elaborate," he says. The area is mostly reserved for former athletes, "but we feed a lot of people back there," anywhere from 300-1,200 at home games, Alford says.
After games, the Alfords fill the tanks with soapy water and expel gas fumes "so it won't explode," he says. A lot of work, but for all those hungry fans, it's worth it.
Patrick Fant, Class of 1988, likens Wofford's 80-parking spot Veranda Lot, a grassy lot across from Gibbs Stadium, to Mississippi's famed Grove when it comes to tailgating. "It's where we raised our kids during football season," Fant says. "We're a small school, but they've created a tailgate experience that's unique."
"If we go to a game at, say, William & Mary, my kids ask, ‘Do they do that like we do?' It's sort of a recruiting mechanism," and not just for athletes; Fant's three children have all attended the alma mater.
Each Saturday, the Fants and three friends' families will fire up the "All-Protein Tailgate," an oversized rolling grill they found for sale "on the side of the road," he says. "We may have three slabs of ribs going, or pork tenderloins, or wings."
Fant says he once was told by Wofford athletic director Richard Johnson that when Noah Dahlman, later one of the Terriers' top basketball players, was at a game during his recruitment, "he and his dad stepped outside the Jerry Richardson Center, smelled our grill ... and that was that."
"It's a beautiful thing," Fant says. That's true all across the state, too.