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College Football

Cock-Up Over Gamecock Means South Carolina Must Rename Its Rooster

Sir Big Spur in 2008 with a BEAT GEORGIA sticker. He does NOT have a crown
South Carolina lost this game, 14-7.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I always thought that the University of South Carolina chose its nickname so it could sell white hats with “COCKS” written on them in the 1990s. Well, I was wrong. According to 1916’s A History of the University of South Carolina, apparently it dates all the way back to the early 1900s, when the varsity football and baseball teams got the moniker.

It was a different time. South Carolina’s big football games then were against Clemson and a Thanksgiving game against The Citadel. Edwin Green writes in his history that “the students and the town marshals were often in conflict. Whenever a student found that he was likely to be arrested, he had only to cry ‘College’, when the students came swarming. To put a student in the guard house meant a riot.”

Somehow “rioters” didn’t catch on as a nickname, and the Gamecocks name eventually became more formalized. Fighting Gamecocks was used for a long while (the women’s teams were the Lady Gamecocks). “A gamecock, of course, is a fighting rooster known for its spirit and courage,” the school’s website used to read. “A cock fight, which was a popular sport throughout the United States in the 19th century, would last until the death of one of the combatants. Cock fighting has been outlawed by most states for humanitarian reasons, but it is still held surreptitiously in many areas.”

Mascots at South Carolina came later. After a few stops-and-starts with other characters in the ’70s, Cocky became the team’s fur-suited mascot in 1980. “The Magic Box entrance is one of many things that Cocky does to get the crowd pumped up and cheering for the Gamecocks,” the school’s website once read.

A live mascot came later: Sir Big Spur, a name that I would stutter trying to say aloud. The chicken first appeared at a baseball game in 1999; the school says it is “the most involved mascot in sports,” which seems to mean it attends lots of different South Carolina sports, not just football games. “He did come to the barn for an equestrian match once,” a former SC staffer told me.

That will be last Spur to serve at South Carolina unless Steve comes out of retirement. According to The Post and Courier, Sir Big Spur will have a new name soon for legal reasons. The degradation of Sir Big Spur! The University of South Carolina does not own the name. That name is owned by the bird’s former owners, Mary Snelling and husband Ron Albertelli. They were happy to continue licensing the name until getting into a spat with the bird’s current owners, Beth and Van Clark.

Some backstory: The tradition was Snelling’s idea. She got a gamecock from her father in 1999. Per a story in The State, she and her dad also won an auction that year to have dinner with then-Gamecocks baseball coach Ray Tanner. (I tried, but could not find out how much this auction win possibly cost. If you know, please email dhm@defector.com.) She pitched the idea of the live bird at a game. Sir Big Spur started going to football games in 2006. Per an excellent recap of the drama by David Cloninger, as Snelling and Albertelli got older they wanted to pass the bird along to new owners. The Clarks, former educators and South Carolina alums, fit the bill.

The new, now unnamed, mascot is the first the Clarks have raised themselves. And unlike previous versions of the mascot formerly known as Sir Big Spur, this one has a comb—the red, fleshy growth on top of the head. Previously, Snelling and Albertelli would trim it. Cloninger writes:

Throughout Snelling and Albertelli’s ownership of the birds, they clipped the combs. They felt it made them look more like USC’s namesake, the Fightin’ Gamecock, i.e., fiercer than the average chicken.

“If they’re truly going to fight, they take off the combs because that’s one more part that can bleed,” Albertelli said. “The comb always stands out in a picture of a barnyard rooster, but Sir Big Spur is a Fighting Gamecock.”

Albertelli also told the paper this: “I don’t know what culture in our day and age means, but if it means making a gamecock look like a chicken, or not hurting him because it might make the chicken feel good, it’s not preserving what we’ve built. This is dumbing down our culture.”

The Clarks are, indeed, concerned for the birds’ feelings. Van Clark says the birds can better deal with the heat when they have a comb. The contract for the name Sir Big Spur expired on August 1 and it won’t be renewed. The school promises they will pick a name that they can own themselves this time.

What will it be? The State has a fan poll, and obviously “Cock Commander” is winning easily. Unfortunately, The Post and Courier reports USC will not be using a fan vote to name him. He will likely just be named “Spur.” At least that is easier to say.