[cb_profit_poster Travel1]Clinton, S.C., Sunday, November 24, 2013, 12:45 p.m.
You’ve read these words from me before. My days are seldom mediocre. I know it’s because I remember the glorious and the wretched more vividly, and the average, nothing-special days just fade into mist, but it’s still my story and I’m sticking to it.
Saturday was wonderful.
The Furman Paladins did not win a share of their 13th Southern Conference championship – and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA FCS (that’s Football Championship Subdivision, as opposed to Football Bowl Subdivision) – without the expected struggle with the Wofford Terriers, who visited from nearby Spartanburg. Having overcome that struggle, the Paladins will face South Carolina State in Orangeburg on Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Furman and Wofford were the first South Carolina colleges to play each other in football. That was in 1889.
I’ve never been a Wofford fan because of my background. I grew up here in Clinton, home of Presbyterian College, a longtime Terrier rival, and I graduated from Furman, another. There are, however, few coaches I respect more than Mike Ayers, who has been head coach at Wofford so long that I actually covered some of his games before I spent 20 years writing about NASCAR. In the first half, the Terriers’ option attack shredded the Furman defense. Wofford led 14-0 in the second quarter and 14-10 at the half.
Final score: Furman 27, Wofford 14. A share of the conference title resulted, but the Paladins had to wait for Samford to edge Elon, 33-32, in Birmingham, Ala., for a playoff spot to be secured.
This is the 16th time Furman (7-5, 6-2 SoCon) has participated in the FCS (once Division I-AA) playoffs but the first since 2006. The first was a 17-0 loss to South Carolina State (9-3, 7-1 MEAC) in 1982. Furman leads the series, 10-4.
This football season has a recurring theme for me. Clinton High started out 0-6 but then won five straight games and advanced into the second round of the Class 3A playoffs. Furman started 2-4 and wound up winning the conference and making the playoffs. The Paladins defeated both old rivals, The Citadel and Wofford, as well as Appalachian State, Georgia Southern (yes, the Eagles beat Florida on Saturday), Samford, Western Carolina and Presbyterian.
An old friend told me before the Wofford game that he had thought the current team was the worst he’d ever seen early in the season. I saw them lose the opener at Gardner-Webb and understand the sentiment. More than half the roster is made up of freshmen, red-shirt and regular. (I really hate the term “true freshman.”)
Things are looking up, and not just for Saturday.
The South sort of gets funneled into the Great White North after the first round. The Furman-S.C. State winner gets a trip to No. 1 North Dakota State, and the Bethune-Cookman/Coastal Carolina winner goes to Montana.
During all those years traveling across the country writing about stock car races, what I always missed the most was watching Clinton and Furman play. The Red Devil football program of the 1970s helped mold my entire life. I didn’t play football in college, but many of my friends were on the team, partly because I was a student manager who also worked in the sports information office and partly because the athletes were closer to my own background, which, of course, led me to work in the athletic department.
Furman is a private school, and my parents could never have afforded to send me there without considerable financial aid. This I also had in common with many of Furman’s athletes.
At a party after Homecoming, I had this conversation with a friend who was uniquely qualified to discuss it. Regarding the value of athletics at a school like Furman, I talked about the intangible value of athletics in terms of diversity. It gives people a chance to enjoy a Furman education who otherwise could barely imagine it.
Talking about intangibles was noteworthy to me, in part, because my latest novel, just published, is called The Intangibles. In the novel, the intangibles are the hand-lettered slogans on the Fairmont High School locker-room walls.
One of the points I made was that diversity is often discussed in terms of gender and race, but a substantive case can be made in terms of socio-economic diversity.
This is also true at Alabama and Florida State, but unlike Furman, those schools make millions from their football teams.
A Furman scholarship costs a lot, more than $50,000 a year. That’s more than 10 times what it was when I was a freshman in 1976-77. Not many of them get paid for by home crowds of 10,000.
It’s worth a lot to me, though, for others who do not come from affluent families to have the same opportunity I did.
I take considerable pride in Furman’s football program, which has won more Southern Conference championships (13) than any other school. In 1988, Furman was the first private school to win the national championship, and the Paladins have advanced to the finals on two other occasions.
The book signing went well. I left the game with Furman leading 24-14 and was walking behind the end zone when Ray Early added the final points with a 48-yard field goal. I listened to the final six minutes while driving to Fiction Addiction.
The best way to prepare for a book signing is to play it by ear. I had selected several short passages from The Intangibles to read, but there was never a crowd, just as the store was never empty, during the two hours I sat behind a table and signed books.
Old friends showed up. My longtime NASCAR colleague, Mike Hembree, whom I’ve known since college. Ernie Kastner, with whom I covered minor league baseball for several seasons. Johnny Patrick, once a Furman trainer, now a Spartanburg podiatrist. Ann Funderburk, whose late husband George and I often confided regarding the status of the Paladin athletic program. Mark Hamrick, who kept statistics at Furman basketball games while I was the sports information director. My cousin, Amanda Capps, and her boyfriend, Dan Fowler.
What I wound up doing was hold court, swapping old stories, almost all of the humorous variety, while I signed copies of the novel.
This signing was intimate because it was in Greenville, where I have many friends. I also sold several copies of The Intangibles before the game because I brought a handful of them in my backpack.
I sort of wanted to stop somewhere and have a steak in celebration of Furman’s glorious victory, but the lure of more college football on the tube made me a little frantic, and I wound up watching mostly the Vanderbilt-Tennessee game while grilling a couple hot dogs at the house.
Pretty soon you’ll hear all about my “blog tour,” which begins early next month, and I’ve got a book signing in Winston-Salem, N.C., at Barnhill’s on Dec. 13.