USC's jersey retirement criteria exclude some of the football program's all-time greats
Duce Staley, DJ Swearinger, and Kenny McKinley are just some of the Gamecock football greats who don't meet the criteria to be considered.
Before South Carolina retired Jadeveon Clowney’s jersey in Sept. 2022, the Gamecocks had not retired a single football jersey in 34 years. Until 2001, the school lacked any codified eligibility criteria for jersey retirements. The retirement of Clowney’s No. 7 uniform was part of a concerted effort, begun in 2019, to make up for lost time in jersey retirements across all USC sports.
But once Carolina clears the decks of the un-retired no-brainers (Connor Shaw, Marcus Lattimore), it might run into a serious problem: the current jersey retirement criteria exclude some of the football program’s best players from 1989 to 2022.
Here’s a list of players who would not even be eligible for consideration:
I’m not necessarily saying that any one of these players should definitely have their jersey retired. But their achievements and impact were such that it seems to me they should at least be eligible for consideration.
In order to be nominated by the jersey retirement committee, a former player must be five years removed from his or her final season of competition and satisfy one or more of the following criteria:
University record holder
A consensus All-American
A consensus National Player of the Year (Naismith, Wooden, Heisman, Outland, Golden Spikes)
An Olympic medalist while a student at USC
An All SEC 1st or 2nd team for 3 years1
Bullet points four through five are exceptionally high bars to clear, and any player with those items on their resume is a slam-dunk to have their jersey retired. The only unretired football jerseys that meet those requirements belong to Del Wilkes and Melvin Ingram. But I don’t think many South Carolina fans would be satisfied if those were the only modern-era USC players to stand alongside Clowney, George Rogers, and Sterling Sharpe.
And that’s why the criterion of “university record holder” will end up having to do so much work. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t the flimsiest criterion of the bunch.
For one thing, university record-holders change over time.
Steve Wadiak was South Carolina’s all-time leading rusher for 28 years, but that stopped being the case during George Rogers’ junior season. If, by happenstance, USC had not opted to retire Wadiak’s jersey upon his death in 1952, he would not be eligible under the current guidelines. The same goes for Sterling Sharpe.
In fact, under the current rules, three of the five retired football jerseys would not even be eligible for consideration. That is, unless you were to take an exceedingly broad interpretation of “university record holder.”
Not all university records are created equal.
One could make a case that Sharpe and Wadiak would actually still qualify. After all, “average yards per carry (min. 40 attempts)” and “longest kickoff return” are, technically speaking, records kept by the university. But they do not have broad acceptance, to put it mildly, as the sort of stat that, on its own, qualifies you to have your jersey hang from the walls of Williams-Brice Stadium in perpetuity. Similarly obscure — not to mention dubious — stats would qualify Chris Culliver (most kickoff returns in a game) and Todd Ellis (most single-season and career interceptions).
The good news is there’s an easy way to fix this.
I’m not necessarily opposed to having a catch-all criterion that allows the committee the flexibility to shoehorn a player in to the committee process under unusual circumstances. But if that’s what you’re going to do, then why not adopt a criterion like this one already being used for coaches:
Iconic status within the University of South Carolina community and with the general public
This criterion would solve the problems like the one posed by AJ Cann, who played a position that lacks easily quantified output. It would allow the committee to account for special cases like Gilmore, who was so good that opposing offenses simply gave up trying to throw to his side of the field. The committee could consider Ryan Brewer, who played in an offensive environment completely unrecognizable to the denizens of 2023. It would allow the committee to consider DJ Swearinger, who — despite not quite hitting the heights of first-team All-SEC or All-America — was one of the best defensive backs in program history and author of many fans’ favorite moment in the history of the Carolina-Clemson rivalry.
I understand the concern of opening the gates too wide. But let’s not forget that the athletic director and current head coach are potential veto points in this process. And while the coaches, ex-players, and university administrators that make up the jersey committee might not necessarily be dialed in to the sentiments of “the general public,” there’s always the possibility of adding someone to the committee who is.
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Another issue with these criteria: South Carolina has only been in the SEC since 1992 and competes in several sports not sponsored by the SEC.