NFL

The Ballad of Sir Big Spur: The strange-but-true tale of a live mascot handler feud

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

COLUMBIA, S.C. — While the rest of the college sports world spent the summer of 2022 wrangling myriad issues that threatened to tear asunder the sports we love, those in, around and supporters of University of South Carolina athletics found themselves snatched up into the claws of a much different type of name, image and likeness debate. One with feathers.

Over the course of four fowl weeks, the Gamecocks’ live mascot, a regal red-winged, black-breasted Old English rooster, went from Sir Big Spur to Cock Commander (sort of) to a bunch of other names we’ve already forgotten to The General … to Sir Big Spur again, just in the beak of time for the college football season. When His Cockiness struts into Williams-Brice Stadium to take his place alongside Uga the bulldog for Saturday’s Week 3 home game against border rival Georgia, the poultry peevishness that led to so many nom de plumes for he of the plumage seems to finally have been put to roost. Or has it?

Join us for this special ESPN.com investigative report, as we follow the trail of feed and tell-tale tracks of three toes forward, one toe back. Let’s call it … Claw & Order.

DUN-DUN

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
COLUMBIA, S.C.
9 A.M. AUG. 2, 2022

When South Carolina athletic administrators arrived for work on Tuesday, Aug. 2, they were greeted by a story in the Charleston Post and Courier, written by longtime Gamecocks beat writer David Cloninger, titled “No more Sir Big Spur? Controversy over Gamecocks’ live mascot ruffles feathers.”

Those administrators were already aware of a standoff surrounding the symbolic bird that, as of the day before, was now preventing them from using the name bestowed upon that rooster for more than 20 years. Sir Big Spur had become a stable, er, staple at every Gamecocks sporting event, from the Men’s College World Series and NCAA Women’s Final Four to College GameDay alongside Lee Corso and getting held aloft by football coach Shane Beamer after last year’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl over North Carolina.

But legally speaking, that Gamecock was now nameless. Those in the building had known it for 24 hours. Now everyone else knew it, too.

“I have spent a career breaking news of coaching fires and hires and written a lot of real, in-depth stories that I am genuinely proud of,” Cloninger said. “But the story that everyone is going to remember was about a chicken.”

In that story, Cloninger detailed a feud between two South Carolina couples, the original Sir Big Spur handlers and the pair who took over two years ago, handpicked by the people with whom they were now battling.

DUN-DUN

SARGE FRYE FIELD
COLUMBIA, S.C.
SPRING 1999

At first, the sight of a rooster strutting atop a ballpark dugout caught Gamecocks baseball fans completely off guard. But as the innings and games and weeks went by, those fans not only embraced the high-stepping bird, they became downright ornery when he didn’t show up. It was head coach Ray Tanner’s third season in Columbia, and his squad made a run to the SEC East division title.

“When they started talking to me about a bird in the ballpark, I wasn’t so sure,” Tanner said back in 1999. “But it seems like whenever he’s here, we win. So, bring him on!”

It was a dinner with Tanner that led to the rooster landing the gig in the first place. South Carolina grad Mary Snelling and husband Ron Albertelli of Aiken, South Carolina, had won a private supper with the baseball coach as part of a fundraiser. During that meal, Snelling explained to Tanner she received a rooster by her father, who’d given her the bird on the recommendation of a friend who was known to have participated in some illegal cockfights, which at the time weren’t too difficult to find in Upstate South Carolina. As long as the rooster wasn’t allowed onto the field, Tanner was on board. So for seven springs, the rooster followed the baseball team, including three straight trips to the College World Series in Omaha.

Despite its dedication to hardball, the bird was bestowed a gridiron name, Cocky Doodle Lou, after then-head football coach Lou Holtz. But realizing football coaches don’t stick around forever, Snelling and Albertelli changed the moniker to Sir Big Spur. In 2006, at the request of the athletic department, Sir Big Spur made his football debut. He has been there ever since, the job handed over through the claws of six different Gamecocks, from Sir Big Spur I to Sir Big Spur VI, all raised and trained by the couple on their 28-acre farm outside of Aiken. The arrival of the rooster atop his remote-controlled Roost Roller, custom built by Albertelli, causes Williams-Brice to erupt as if Spencer Rattler has just tossed a touchdown pass.

The University of South Carolina has never owned or taken care of Sir Big Spur. They have also never paid Snelling and Albertelli for their efforts, aside from some help on travel expenses.

“This isn’t about the money,” Albertelli explained in a 2010 ESPN interview. “This is about our love for the Gamecocks and bringing some pride to a very proud fan base and very proud athletes.”

There were, however, agreements signed concerning certain copyrights and trademarks. Particularly the sharing of the bird’s nickname, a title created by the couple but used extensively by the university. For years, Sir Big Spur has retained significant legal counsel in Charleston’s Joe Rice, a Gamecocks superfan best known for negotiating massive settlements with Big Tobacco and after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest of the contracts drawn up between Albertelli, Snelling and South Carolina is the one that expired on Aug. 1, 2022.

DUN-DUN

WILLIAMS-BRICE STADIUM
COLUMBIA, S.C.
APRIL 16, 2022

The Gamecocks were on the field for their annual Garnet & Black Spring Game. The lower bowl of the stadium was packed, with more than 20,000 fans in attendance. Rattler, the high-profile transfer QB, had the place buzzing, as did the dozens of former Carolina players, from 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers to current NFL star Deebo Samuel.

But the most popular photo op was with Sir Big Spur VII, the latest in the history of South Carolina’s live mascots. His predecessor passed away earlier in the spring, at the estimated age of 12. Poor Big Spur VI had endured more than any of his ancestors. He was forced to stay home throughout the 2020 season because of COVID-19 protocols. What’s more, at the end of the 2019 season, he had changed homes and handlers.

Beth and Van Clark are South Carolina alums and retired educators. They live in Edgefield, South Carolina, located near the Georgia state line, about a half-hour from Augusta National and that same distance north of Aiken. It was during a visit to Aiken that Van Clark caught a glimpse of Sir Big Spur and met Albertelli. They hit it off. So did their wives. Snelling and Albertelli had been thinking about retiring as Spur’s handlers. At one point, they’d tried to get Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo to take over, but the zookeeper said no. He was a Clemson grad.

Instead, they recruited the Clarks and quickly pressed them into service at the season-ending Clemson game. The newbies held their own and landed the job.

After Spur VI’s death, the Clarks started bringing three roosters to Gamecocks sporting events. These birds hadn’t been raised by Snelling and Albertelli. These were the Clarks’ first homegrown candidates. Each appearance was an audition. How did each rooster react to crowds? To noise? To playing the part as Columbia’s literal cock of the walk? All three of the roosters were featured heavily on social media during baseball season. The Chosen One, the new Sir Spur VII, debuted at the spring game, live on SEC Network.

Every single image that was posted or broadcast made Snelling and Albertelli angrier and angrier. While the rest of Gamecock Nation saw a majestic bird ready for a fight, they saw something that made them ready for a tussle of their own. Sir Big Spur’s head wasn’t clean shaven. It had a bright red comb.

Snelling thought to herself, and then aloud to Cloninger in the Post and Courier, that the new Sir Big Spur didn’t look like a Sir Big Spur at all.

“He looks like Barney the Barnyard Rooster.”

DUN-DUN

ARCHIPELAGO OF SAINT LAZARUS
KINGDOM OF TAYTAY
THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
MARCH 22, 1521

During Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, the Portuguese explorer and his crew first witnessed a betting man’s sport that had been in existence for centuries at various corners of the globe, cockfighting.

As the sport evolved (a relative term at best), those who trained roosters for fighting adopted a practice now known as “dubbing,” the trimming or removal of the bird’s comb. According to Gail Damerow, modern poultry expert and author of “The Chicken Encyclopedia,” the comb is defined as: “A fleshy crownlike protrusion on top of a chicken’s head, usually more prominent in cocks than hens.” In other words, the big red floppy thing on top of a rooster’s head.

The comb does indeed serve an important purpose. Chickens don’t have the ability to sweat, so the comb acts as a type of radiator. The bird’s blood fills the fleshy organ — thus the bright red color — expelling heat into the air and then returning, refreshed and cooled, back into the body. Like any other organ, it can become infected, injured or diseased. In those cases, it can also be removed, partially or fully.

Many who participated in the sport — which is now illegal in all 50 U.S. states — practiced dubbing to prevent excessive bleeding. Due in no small part due to that stigma, to dub or not to dub is a source of intense debate throughout the livestock industry today.

Turns out, that debate extends to the world of live mascots.

DUN-DUN

A CHICKEN COOP
EDGEFIELD, S.C.
AUG. 1, 2022

The Clarks purposely chose to leave the comb atop the head of their Sir Big Spur candidates, explaining the decision not to dub as being in the best interests of their health. They pointed to the overheated environment of the notoriously sweltering streets of Columbia and sidelines of Williams-Brice Stadium, where daytime temperatures typically stay in the 80s nearly all the way through the college football season. Their supporters point to the plethora of rooster combs that clearly are visible wherever Carolina sports are played and celebrated, atop bird heads from the official athletics logo to the giant Gamecock statue outside the main Williams-Brice Stadium gate.

Their aviary ancestors, however, took issue. Why? Because, to them, it just didn’t look right. Albertelli has been particularly pointed. In August, he questioned the chicken’s toughness, bemoaned “making a gamecock into a chicken” and spoke of “dumbing down the Gamecocks.”

His demand was simple. Until he saw a rooster without a comb strutting around Columbia, he was holding on to the name Sir Big Spur, which was well within his legal rights as of Aug. 1, 2022.

The University of South Carolina opened the coop gate to new nickname ideas. Its list was an internal one, and after much debate, university officials believed they had a suitable replacement. The problem was, the people had other ideas.

DUN-DUN

NEWSROOM
THE STATE
COLUMBIA, S.C.
AUG. 24, 2022

Dwayne McLemore is a son of Myrtle Beach and a proud graduate of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. In college, he worked at The Daily Gamecock, one of America’s most respected student newspapers.

McLemore had read former coworker David Cloninger’s Aug. 2 Sir Big Spur story with great interest. Shortly after, he received a tip the school had decided not to fight Albertelli and was soon going to announce a new name for its combed live mascot.

So, he assigned a recap of the Sir Big Spur controversy to the newest member of The State’s sports department. Jeremiah Holloway had just graduated from the other Carolina, the University of North Carolina, and he dutifully knocked out a 300-word refresher on the name mess.

And then he added an online poll.

It seemed innocent enough. “What new name should USC give the live mascot rooster?”

“We threw it out in the newsroom for ideas, and some good ones came back,” McLemore said. “We’ve all been around South Carolina long enough to know that sometimes you’re going to get some inappropriate ideas with Gamecocks. That just comes with the territory. Always has.

Then Sarah Ellis suggested “Cock Commander.”

DUN-DUN

NEWSROOM
THE DAILY GAMECOCK
COLUMBIA, S.C.
NOV. 18, 2004

Sarah Ellis, now an enterprise editor and reporter at The State, was on the staff of The Daily Gamecock until she graduated from South Carolina in 2014. She, like McLemore and anyone else who had ever worked on the student paper, had heard the legend. Even a decade later it was still both a good laugh and a cautionary tale.

The story goes that it was Clemson week, so stress levels were high and the sleep hour count was low. The cover photo for the next morning’s paper was a dramatic shot of Cocky, the school’s non-live mascot, with its felt wing arms outstretched as a Clemson Tiger burned behind him.

For those who don’t know, when newspaper and magazine pages are initially designed, the first words placed into the spaces where stories and descriptions will live are typically dummy lines. They can be a bunch of Xs or nothing more than a random string of letters and words, anything to measure out and hold down the space until the real words are written and placed.

On this night, the layout editor felt inspired. Too inspired. So, he wrote out the following words beneath the apocalyptic pheasant:

“I am the Cock Commander. All other cocks must bow before the Cock Commander. Yo soy el Cock Commander.”

The editors realized they had sent their newspaper to the printer having forgotten to replace the dummy caption.

It was too late.

The next morning, the students of the University of South Carolina reached into newspaper boxes throughout Columbia for the Friday edition of The Daily Gamecock, and those three lines were still there, accompanying the photo.

DUN-DUN

THE INTERNET
AUG. 25, 2022

Just as it was too late to stop the Cock Commander in 2004, it was too late to stop him in 2022.

“Honestly, the first 24 hours or so, it was pretty tame,” Holloway said. “But then the poll was picked up by some national college football writers and they posted it because of Cock Commander. Because I had written the story with the poll, I was copied on Twitter. I knew just based on what I saw because of that, it was getting a lot of attention.”

A lot of attention, as in 18,869 votes. That’s a lot for an online newspaper sports poll. A whopping 78% of those votes — 14,760 in all — went for Cock Commander. The next closest was Cluck Norris with 7% , 1,408 votes. None of the other nine options (Marco Pollo, Cock-a-doodle-dude, Brooster, etc.) came close to a thousand votes.

“You spend your whole life around this school like I have and you get accustomed to the snickers about the nickname,” Cloninger said of the skyrocketing poll. “I mean, the campus bookstore has always had hats and shirts with ‘Go Cocks’ and always will. But when the nation gets hold of it and the jokes start, it’s going to take off.”

The phone started ringing in the athletic department. Some called to endorse the name. They had to be told that the poll was not affiliated with the university. Others, people of much more importance to the school, called to express their embarrassment and wanted to know what was being done to make it go away. They were told that a savior was on the way, arriving by way of a news release … and horseback.

DUN-DUN

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA
ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT OFFICES
COLUMBIA, S.C.
2 P.M. AUG. 29, 2022

When The State posted its poll, it included the nickname “The General,” and in retrospect, that wasn’t random.

Sources had indicated that was the name university officials had already chosen to fill the void left by Sir Big Spur. By the time that decision was made official on Monday, Aug. 29, the week of South Carolina football’s season opener, the newspaper’s poll had been closed and The General had finished a paltry sixth, with only 2% of the vote.

The next morning, the thud that followed the announcement was still reverberating. The name certainly gained no momentum when even Rattler was asked about the rooster’s new name and replied, “I thought it was Cock Commander, honestly.”

The reasoning for the new name (other than avoiding legal maneuvering around the bird’s previous owners) was explained by South Carolina Deputy Athletics Director Eric Nichols. “When we realized that we would have to change his name to keep that tradition alive, it seemed fitting to go back to where ‘Gamecocks’ got started.”

Patriot Brigadier General Thomas Sumter led a militia of 1,000 troops during the Revolutionary War. He became known as the “Fighting Gamecock,” a backhanded compliment bestowed upon him by the British, whom he terrorized throughout the South Carolina countryside. His greatest victory was earned while he also concealed gunshot wounds throughout his body. The point is, the OG General Gamecock was tough — just not tough enough to hold off Sir Big Spur.

DUN-DUN

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION
SOUTH CAROLINA
SEPT. 1, 2022

At some point, a meeting took place involving Mary Snelling and Ron Albertelli, Beth and Van Clark and South Carolina athletic administrators, mediated by the man who is beloved by all Gamecocks, Ray Tanner, the university’s athletic director since 2012.

The details have not and perhaps never will be revealed. But what we do know is the following:

On the afternoon of Sept. 1, barely 48 hours before the college football season kicked off, it was announced that The General was no more. Sir Big Spur was once again the name of the live mascot.

And when that Gamecock rode into Williams-Brice Stadium on that Saturday evening, he was without a comb.

Some believe Sir Big Spur VII might actually be VIII, the undubbed rooster raised by the Clarks having been replaced by a combless bird already groomed by Snelling and Albertelli before they knew they would be handing over their duties.

All parties involved are keeping their beaks closed for now, as the official terms of their truce are finalized.

But one thing is for sure. This is a weekend when everyone — from former to current handlers, from those in the student section wearing bootleg Cock Commander T-shirts to those in the suites who made sure that name never had a chance — will put their differences behind them. They will join forces and focus their energy on the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs coming to town.

They will bounce to “Sandstorm,” sing “We Hail Thee Carolina” and work to heal the wounds they’ve suffered over the summer that ran a-fowl.

Source: Read Full Article