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No, Sandstorm did not start during the 2009 upset of Ole Miss
How we came to share a false memory of Sandstorm's introduction to Gamecock culture.
Last month I put out a call for mailbag questions, which elicited this provocative reader observation: the popular understanding of Sandstorm’s origins at Williams-Brice Stadium is plagued by a significant factual error. Contrary to what you might have thought, Sandstorm was not first played during the 2009 game against Ole Miss. In fact, aspointed out, the Ole Miss narrative misses Sandstorm’s actual introduction by almost an entire year.
As the author of a USC sports history newsletter, it’s basically my job to know these sorts of things. And I take particular pride in knowing historical details that run against the grain of conventional wisdom. So when I realized that this detail about Sandstorm’s origins was new information to me, it completely knocked me on my ass.
My first impulse was to fact-check the claim. And sure enough, there’s USC marketing chief Eric Nichols in The State in 2010, placing the first Sandstorm game as 2008 vs. LSU. And there’s the YouTube clip of fans jumping up and down to Sandstorm after USC punches it into the end zone right before halftime, two plays after Stephen Garcia was infamously tackled by the umpire.
My second impulse was to verify that this really is a widespread myth, and not just me having a blind spot for this particular fact. Though I don’t quite have the polling resources or methodological prowess of Pew Research or the New York Times, I did contact dozens of South Carolina football fans and confirmed to my satisfaction that the Ole Miss-centric version of the Sandstorm origin story is indeed widespread.
I also verified that online information sources overwhelmingly date the beginning of Sandstorm at USC in 2009. If you Google, “How did Sandstorm start at South Carolina?” the first thing you are shown is a featured snippet pulled from no lesser authority than the USC athletics department, which says Sandstorm “was played during the South Carolina-Ole Miss game in 2009 and was instantly embraced by the student body.”
Depending on how charitably you wish to read this passage, there’s an argument to be made that there’s nothing here that’s exactly untrue. The piece was played during the South Carolina-Ole Miss game in 2009. The piece was embraced by the student body.
But instantly embraced? The adverb is in danger of throwing out its back if it keeps doing this much heavy lifting.
The error is replicated in news outlets far and wide, including in a 2021 ESPN story charting Sandstorm’s unlikely journey from obscure, late-90s EDM track to ubiquitous college sports anthem.
For Beamer, who worked under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina from 2007-2010, "Sandstorm" has been a soundtrack for his rise in the coaching ranks, from the time he was a defensive assistant in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2009, when No. 4 Ole Miss came to Columbia.
With 1:39 left in the fourth quarter, and South Carolina leading 16-10, the Rebels faced a key third-and-12. "Sandstorm" played over the stadium speakers and whipped the crowd into a lather. "A rave breaks out in Columbia," ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said as fans and players jumped up and down.
The Gamecocks' defense sacked Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Before fourth down, "Sandstorm" blared again. Amid the chaos, Ole Miss got a substitution penalty. Now facing fourth-and-19, Snead threw an incompletion and the upset was sealed. The Gamecocks had beaten a top-5 team at home. A new legend was born.
Again, all of these things did indeed happen exactly as described. But the way these sentences stack on top of one another creates the distinct impression that the song started playing — as if, somehow, by mere happenstance or accident — and the fans spontaneously went nuts.1
The inaccuracies in other outlets are less subtle.
Here’s Bleacher Report:
An SEO-bait article from Fansided titled “Why does South Carolina play Sandstorm at football games?” claims “it all began with the Ole Miss game in 2009.”
Wikipedia comes surprisingly close to getting it right. Its page on Williams-Brice Stadium incorrectly states that the Ole Miss game “marked the debut of Sandstorm at Gamecock Athletic Events.” Its page on Gamecock football does better: it gets the date right but mistakenly suggests that the LSU game was when USC started playing it before each Carolina kickoff.
The real story is, to me at least, much more interesting.
When Eric Nichols worked at Vanderbilt, he tried to get Commodores fans into the song; it didn’t work, but the chilly reception might have been unrelated to the merits or demerits of Sandstorm as a crowd-pleaser, as anyone who’s been to a game at [googles “name of vanderbilt football stadium,” a place I used to live five miles from and have been to several times] world-famous FirstBank Stadium could tell you. When Nichols switched teams in 2008, he resolved to test it out again, this time with a much rowdier group of fans.2
On Oct. 18, 2008, the Gamecocks were returning from a two-game road trip and riding a four-game winning streak. Defending national champions LSU were in town for a nighttime kickoff on ESPN. It was exactly the kind of spot that the inconsistency-plagued teams during Steve Spurrier’s early years tended to overperform in.
Nichols told me that Sandstorm had been added to a list of 10-12 “momentum songs” that they would use in key moments to spark a reaction from the fans; they’d note the momentum songs that elicited a strong reaction from the fans and scrap the ones that didn’t. And at the end of the first half, South Carolina suddenly found itself in possession of a whole lot of momentum. Within two minutes of game time, the Gamecocks turned a 10-3 deficit into a 17-10 lead heading into halftime.
When Mike Davis (the older one) punched it in from the one on fourth down, the crowd went wild. The marching band struck up the fight song. Shortly thereafter, Sandstorm made its debut in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Part of my theory of why Sandstorm didn’t explode into the public consciousness until a year later is that, like a virus, it needed time to incubate. Once an infected fan began displaying symptoms of Sandstorm fever (jumping up and down, waving a towel, shouting “bih bih bih-duh”), she could infect her neighbors — who could then infect their neighbors, and so on. Until Sept. 2009, this chain of infection was a closed system — it spread entirely within Williams-Brice Stadium, through fans’ repeated exposure to the song and observing how the people near them reacted to it.
Then on Sept. 25, 2009, during the Ole Miss game, it reached out through the TV screen, Poltergeist-style. That’s when we saw the very first tweets about Sandstorm being played at USC sporting events.
But for this social contagion to start spreading in the first place, it needed a patient zero. And for the past 15 years, there’s been a handful of South Carolina fans convinced they were Sandstorm’s Typhoid Mary.
Contact-tracing my way back to patient zero
Last month, I put out a call on Twitter for students who attended games during the 2008 and 2009 seasons to send me a direct message. I told one of the respondents, Jake Broom, that I was looking for “memories of Sandstorm pre-Ole Miss ‘09.”
“I have been waiting years for someone to ask me this,” Jake told me. “I contend, and I am 100% serious, that my friends and I ‘invented’ sandstorm.”
For most South Carolina fans, Sandstorm has been something of an acquired taste. Especially in 2008, electronic dance music wasn’t exactly inside the comfort zone of the Under-Armour-polos-tucked-into-khakis crowd. I myself graduated in May 2008 and moved too far away to attend home games regularly; it took me several in-context exposures to the song across several years to understand why exactly everyone was so excited about Sandstorm.
But it was a different story for Jake’s roommate, Jordan Stallings. Jordan grew up in Camden, South Carolina, and the music genre of choice for a plurality of his peers was pop country. But Jordan says that the internet — and particularly YouTube — opened a whole new world of musical possibility to him.
“I dove in head-first,” Jordan told me, “and was able to hear what I refer to as EDM but people at the time called techno or trance or whatever you want to call it.”
Jordan’s obscure music tastes (you might even say he marched to the beat of his own drum machine) earned the light-hearted mockery of his roommates, who would hear the high-BPM dance tracks coming from his bedroom in their apartment complex on Bluff Road.
“We thought it was bizarre and ridiculous,” Jake said, “and we used to make fun of him for listening to techno.”
The ribbing carried over into the stadium.
Whenever South Carolina would play a techno song over the speakers, the 15 or so friends Jordan sat in the student section with would turn to him in mock-excitement.
Jordan’s memory of his first time hearing Sandstorm in Williams-Brice is that “Jake, from what I remember, looked at me and did this sort of bouncing-on-your-toes where you're just going straight up-and-down like a bobber in the water, making fun of me because I liked this song.
“But what he failed to realize was that ‘Oh I'm into it. We're dancing. We're doing this.’”
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Like many of us, their enjoyment of Sandstorm started out as at least somewhat ironic. But after a while, it became harder and harder to tell where the irony ended and the sincere enjoyment began.
“The group of friends that were with us there all just got into it,” Jordan said. “I remember the rest of the people in the student section just sort of heard us and look back like, ‘What are these guys doing? Did they just win something? Why are they going so crazy right now?’”
Many of these claims are quite difficult to verify. Fifteen-year-old memories are not especially reliable evidence, and 2008 is a couple years too early for these moments to have been meticulously documented by smartphones. But Jake and Jordan’s theory, at the very least, presents a plausible case for why the reaction to Sandstorm was strong enough on its very first spin for Eric Nichols and his team to give it another chance.
“We used to sit on the very top row of the end zone student section,” Jake said. “In those seats, since everyone in the section is below you, you feel invisible. You forget, however, that the rest of the stadium outside of the student section can see you.”
After LSU, South Carolina had two more home games in 2008 — both SEC games, both wins. During the next several home games, Jordan and his friends would bang on the tinted windows of the Kay and Eddie Floyd building beneath the video board and demand “Play sandstorm!” of its occupants — knowing full well that the building’s occupants, if there were any, had nothing to do with the playing or not playing of Sandstorm.
After a fourth-quarter Chris Smelley-to-Kenny McKinley touchdown against Arkansas, Sandstorm comes on before the Ryan Succop kickoff and the camera catches Mike Davis down on the sideline, jumping up and down, as if riding an invisible pogo stick.
Clearly by now, this was a song that was eliciting a sustained, positive reaction. And the gameday operations team intended to keep the energy going into 2009. Nichols told me that it was “always the goal” to maintain continuity in the music programming across sports.
A few USC fans I spoke to told me that Sandstorm first imprinted on their psyche during the 2008-09 basketball season. The specific game that seems to have left an impression was the last-second win over Florida, featuring a Zam Frederick game-winning layup at the buzzer — miraculously overturning a Gators lead that stood at five points with 27 seconds left in the game.
The fans are losing their minds. The announcers and referees are scrambling to make sure the bucket is going to count. Seconds later, the strobing synths of Sandstorm join the pandemonium inside Colonial Life Arena.
Sometime later, a student at the time, Kyle Baker, made Sandstorm his phone’s ringtone. Kyle recalls a friend chiding him, “Oh, you frequent European techno clubs now?”
As with Ole Miss, there was a confluence of factors in the Florida win that amplified Sandstorm’s impact. It was the buzzer-beater — one of four SEC games South Carolina won that year in the final five seconds. It was the 20-win season under a first-year coach. It was the debut of the Garnet Army student section.
It was a time of hope and a time of renewal. (I recall several friends changing their Facebook profile avatars to images of Darrin Horn with the word “HOPE” across the bottom, in the style of Shepard Fairey’s then-ubiquitous illustration of Barack Obama.) And here was a high-BPM dance track that triggered euphoric sense memories of a moment in time when South Carolina basketball felt truly ascendant.
So how did we end up with the Ole Miss myth?
Part of what’s fascinating to me is that it’s not as if Sandstorm started in, say, the 1960s — when historical evidence of how exactly Sandstorm started would have been hard to come by. It’s not as if the people involved have been dead for decades and the games in question were not televised. All of this information is easily accessible, in news articles archived on the internet and in full-length replays of the relevant games, just waiting for you to watch them on YouTube.
Here’s my educated guess about why the Ole Miss myth has overtaken the narrative.
For one thing, South Carolina lost to LSU. For another, the Gamecocks ended the 2008 season 7-6 after getting outscored 30-118 in consecutive losses to Florida, Clemson, and Iowa. If Sandstorm triggered sense memories of the 2008 football season, they probably weren’t happy ones.
But Ole Miss offered a moment like the Jan. 2009 basketball win over Florida, where Sandstorm could ride the coattails of the enthusiasm building around an ascendant football program. There were frustrating elements of the 2009 football season, sure. But it was the beginning of the five-year winning streak over Clemson and the debut season for stars like Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore — players who would become indelible symbols of Steve Spurrier’s best years at USC.
When reporters began writing the first drafts of history, it became so much cleaner to smooth out the extra details and place the beginning of Sandstorm in 2009, the season Spurrier’s program finally started rising the way most people thought it would when he came to Columbia in 2005. By now, the overly simplified version of events is so widespread that even the university itself repeats it, helping to reinforce a set of alternate facts.
Make no mistake — Ole Miss really was a defining moment in Sandstorm’s journey. Without the final seconds of that TV broadcast and Chris Fowler’s now-famous “rave” observation, maybe the closed system would have stayed closed forever. Maybe Sandstorm would only be known to the students and the diehards who never missed a home game. Ole Miss was, without doubt, the catalyst Sandstorm needed to jump into the mainstream of USC fan culture.
But saying that Sandstorm started with Ole Miss functionally erases the memories of fans like Jordan Stallings and Kyle Baker. It erases the hard work and strategic planning of people like Eric Nichols. And it diminishes our understanding of how one of South Carolina’s most cherished traditions actually came to life. It’s one thing for national outlets like ESPN and Bleacher Report to play fast and loose with the details of our traditions. But there is no reason that we, South Carolina fans, shouldn’t be more vigilant stewards of our own history.
Have an observation, tip, or a story idea like the one that led to the creation of this article? Drop me a line: email@example.com
The ESPN story eventually does go on to paint a more complete picture, but the overwhelming impression the reader is left with after reading this anecdote near the top of the article is that Ole Miss was the point of origin.
Nichols told me he doesn’t recall how Sandstorm first came on his radar or why he was undeterred by his experience at Vandy.