CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson's Dabo Swinney can't ever forget his final few, horrified on-field moments with South Carolina coach Lou Holtz at Death Valley 10 years ago.
Swinney, the head coach who was then a Tigers assistant, had rushed the field to break up an ugly brawl that erupted near the end of Clemson's 29-7 rivalry win in 2004. When he looked left, Swinney spied Holtz on the ground clinging to a players' leg.
"Oh my," Swinney recalled thinking, "This guy's fixing to get killed. It was total chaos."
A decade later, the frightening scene still brings chills for those who witnessed it. The schools renew that rivalry on Saturday when South Carolina (6-5) travels to No. 23 Clemson (8-3).
In a state without pro teams, fans' focus has long been on the annual matchup between its two Football Bowl Subdivision powers — and fault line cuts straight through the heart of the Palmetto State.
In 2004, the rivalry was stained forever by the fight.
"It was an embarrassing chapter for both schools," Tommy Bowden, the Tigers head coach at the time, said this week.
Bowden said the seeds of a potential problem were all around, even before kickoff.
The famed "Malice at the Palace" brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers took place the night before the football game and dominated sports' highlight shows. Holtz was coaching his final game and the Gamecocks were eager to get the sixth victory necessary to prolong his career at a bowl game. Then the Southeastern Conference officiating crew at the game allowed some Gamecock players to gather at the bottom of the hill for Clemson's traditional entrance — and there were some pre-game shoves between the sides.
"With time to reflect, you could see it was a perfect storm that was building," Bowden said.
The bad blood finally boiled over with 5:48 to go in the game when Clemson defensive lineman Williamson threw down Gamecocks quarterback Syvelle Newton.
Gamecock offensive lineman Chris White then pushed Williamson, and players rushed in from both sidelines as mobs of white-shirted Gamecocks and purple-jerseyed Tigers stretched nearly 60 yards along the center of the field. Local and state authorities came on field to separate players in the five-minute altercation.
Clemson runner Yusef Kelly was photographed kicking a South Carolina who was on the ground, then throwing a Gamecocks helmet into the stands. South Carolina tailback Daccus Turman punched Clemson's Duane Cole near the end zone as fans shouted and strained near the small fence.
Afterward, Holtz angrily chided his players.
"This is the first time that this has ever happened to me in a football game," Holtz said. "There is no excuse, I take responsibility."
Both teams declined bowl games as punishment. The SEC suspended six South Carolina players for one game while the Atlantic Coast Conference did the same for six Clemson participants.
"It was a pretty strict punishment," Bowden said, calculating that players lost about $2,000 in bowl stipends and gifts. "But it helped us educate our players."
Former Tigers defensive end Charles Bennett said he didn't fully understand how wrong the players were until he helped at a Special Olympics event several months later and one of the competitors told him, "You shouldn't do that" referring to the fight.
A year later, the teams organized a pre-game handshake where each side walked out from the sidelines in a line that stretched almost the entire field that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said put the melee to rest once and for all.
"That was a bad day for our state and I don't think either team has come close to anybody throwing a punch since then," said Spurrier, who in 2004 was only days away from starting his tenure as Gamecocks coach when fight occurred.
Bowden, now a college football TV analyst, said he doesn't hear much about the fight since leaving Clemson in the middle of 2008. He believes both sides have used the incident to teach players about what they can lose by letting their emotions and anger surface.
Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams was a 12-year-old Clemson fan from Central, a five-minute drive from campus. Williams watched the fight unfold and couldn't imagine that taking place again.
"I don't want anything like that to happen," he said. "We don't want to lose a bowl game like happened that year. We have respect for them."