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September 26, 2013

Sands, Taaffe remember 1990 win over USC

One of the greatest moments of Charlie Taaffe and Everette Sands' careers is one of the worst for South Carolina fans.

The year was 1990, and the Gamecocks under second-year coach Sparky Woods were 4-1 with wins over North Carolina, Duke and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, their only loss coming to No. 25 Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

In front of them was what looked like a breather on the schedule - The Citadel, coached by fourth-year coach Taaffe, which hadn't beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia since 1919 and which limped into Williams-Brice Stadium with a 3-3 record and coming off a 7-6 home loss to Chattanooga in front of 15,522 people at Johnson Hagood Stadium the week before.

Win here in front of a home crowd of 62,000, and the Gamecocks would be 5-1 heading into a key two-game stretch at N.C. State to face a mediocre Wolfpack team that would finish the year 7-5 before a showdown with No. 12 Florida State in Columbia and likely national ranking and television audience.

It was the kind of season fans had hoped could unfold under the energetic young coach from Appalachian State, led by captains Ike Harris, Corey Miller and Kurt Wilson and boasting the nation's fourth-ranked defense. For the better part of four quarters, The Citadel fought the gallant fight but found itself trailing 35-28 with 8:02 remaining.

That's when a field goal, improbable onside kick recovery and game-winning touchdown dive on fourth down from quarterback Jack Douglas with 22 seconds left earned the Bulldogs, Taaffe and fullback Everette Sands a 38-35 win that arguably is the highest-profile victory in recent Citadel history.

For South Carolina, the loss set the stage for a second-half collapse by the Gamecocks, who went on to lose to N.C. State, Florida State and Clemson and finished a disappointing 6-5. The next season the Gamecocks went 3-6-2, and Woods would never win six games again in Columbia before being fired in 1993 after three consecutive losing seasons.

The Bulldogs, led by Taaffe and Sands, would go on to finish 7-5 but the seeds were sown for a team that went 11-2 in 1992, Sands' senior year, defeating Arkansas in Fayetteville in the season opener, recording the most wins in school history and winning the Southern Conference championship for only the second time in school history. The only two losses that year for Bulldogs, who spent the final four weeks of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country in Division II, were to Marshall and Youngstown State, who played each other for the national championship that season.

For Sands and Taaffe, the memories are as fresh as ever, just as is the bond between the two men that continues to this day as they get set to rekindle their relationship across the sidelines from each other for the first time at noon Saturday in Orlando.

"I have great memories from that game," Taaffe told Gamecock Central earlier this week. "Our student-athletes at The Citadel, to begin with, were different kinds of people who loved challenges. You had to just to be a cadet. At a lot of places, football practice is the most stressful time of the day for kids. At The Citadel, it's just one of a number of events each day with stress involved, and for some, it's almost a break from it.

"So our guys really welcomed and embraced the underdog role and the challenge because they were challenged every day."

Taaffe said he also got a big motivational assist from the media in Columbia - specifically, The State newspaper.

"Our friends in the media there really helped us," Taaffe said. "Somebody for a gameday piece had written, 'What does South Carolina have to do to win?', and they wrote 'Show up.' That was all the motivation we needed. I had a copy of that made and put in front of each player before their pregame meal.

"I told our guys, 'Here's what they think of you.' They really took it to heart and were ready to go play those guys that day."

Sands, who rushed for more than 100 yards that day, remembers those comments as well.

"One of the first things (I remember) was that morning in the paper, it said all USC had to do to win was show up and the only way The Citadel could win was if Jack Douglas was Jamelle Holieway and if The Citadel's wishbone was Oklahoma's wishbone," Sands said.

"He got us going off of that. Coach Taaffe is a great motivator. Throughout that game, probably the next big thing I remember is the last play, we called a triple option and it was a give read, and our quarterback, if it was inside the five, he was going to follow the fullback (Sands) into the end zone. That last drive was huge."

The memories of that locker room still remain as one of the happiest either has been around.

"Without a doubt," Taaffe said. "It was a great football game."

Even though both rank the win over Furman two years later that clinched the school's Southern Conference championship as their career highlights together, the South Carolina game has remained a talking point and common bond for both men, especially since Sands now coaches running backs on the same field where he once punished Gamecock defenders.

"He was a battering ram," Taaffe said of Sands, who never lost a yard in his three-year playing career at The Citadel in which he estimates he carried the ball some 400 or so times. "And all of those carries were inside the tackles. He always went straight ahead.

"For as nice a person and as quiet and humble as he is, on the football field he was a tremendous competitor. He got that nickname of 'The Sandman' because he'd knock linebackers out from time to time, he'd absolutely knock them out on the field. So his teammates started calling him 'Sandman.'

"He's just a great young man and it's been wonderful to watch his career blossom. He's such a classy person, a tremendous human being and I'm really excited to see him have the success in the career field he chose. We talk a lot. He recruits this part of Florida, and when he comes down we get together to talk. We have a great relationship and I just absolutely think the world of him. I'm happy he's back in South Carolina in his home state, and I'm sure he's doing a great job for Coach (Steve) Spurrier. He has a bright future in coaching."

The admiration is mutual.

"The thing that makes Coach Taaffe so special is that he's won everywhere he's been," Sands said. "You're a wishbone guy, then you go to Canadian football and you win there, then you come back to college and win there - he can adjust. He's a great coach. I'd love one day to have a career like his."

Gamecock fans certainly hope that's the case - only without any new memories like the one he and Taaffe gave USC fans on a chilly afternoon in October of 1990.

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