Presbyterian College, a school of 1,200 students in a remote corner of South Carolina, once earned a spot on SportsCenter. The date was Sept. 2, 2010, and the event was a season-opening road game against Wake Forest.
The Blue Hose — yep, that’s Presby’s nickname — line up on their own 32-yard line in a single-back spread. The team from Clinton is down 28-0 just 27 minutes into the season and, at this point, there isn’t a whole lot left to lose.
The quarterback throws a screen to his left that bounces off the turf and into the hands of a receiver, who holds the ball and slaps it in frustration. Three defenders rush toward him, but stop short on the dead play.
Except the ball, which traveled on a perfectly executed lateral, is still very much live. And downfield, a second receiver suddenly has miles and miles of space. It’s an easy toss. Touchdown.
“We wanted to have a little something up our sleeve,” says Brandon Miley, the quarterback who first bounced the ball. “One of our coaches decided to throw in this play. We practiced it all week, and either we couldn’t get the skip down, or we couldn’t catch the ball by the wide receiver, or we couldn’t throw it out there.
“I can honestly say that, leading up to Wake Forest, that play never actually worked 100 percent.”
Presbyterian, as a program, isn’t exactly at 100 percent either.
In 2007, the school began a transition process from Division II into Division I, becoming the last to do so before the NCAA instituted a four-year moratorium on applications. A year later, the Blue Hose played their first FCS football season in the Big South, scheduling opponents such as Coastal Carolina and Liberty.
As part of the transitional period, Presbyterian won’t be eligible for the postseason until 2012.
“It’s almost like an (academic) accreditation that colleges and universities have to go through,” says head coach Harold Nichols, a 1989 alum who was hired in 2009. “It’s been quite an ordeal.”
Nichols’ debut at his alma mater was not an auspicious one. The Blue Hose fielded a young squad and lost every single game that fall. The following campaign was marginally better as the team notched two wins, including a 42-6 blowout of Davidson.
This year, the squad split its first two games, and heads to San Francisco on the heels of a 17-point victory.
But how exactly did a program like this, which had never traveled west of Tennessee, end up scheduling a Pac-12 team?
A year ago, the Pac-10 suddenly added two new members. Meanwhile, Cal was sorting out a new home venue due to the renovation of Memorial Stadium.
By the time the dust settled, it was already November and the Bears didn’t have too many options for an open slot on Sept. 17. They referred to a list of teams still looking for matches, and hooked up with Presbyterian.
For nonconference scheduling, Cal essentially follows a sort of A-B-C formula, with A) another BCS team, such as Michigan State, B) a competitive FBS team, such as Nevada or Fresno State and C) an FCS team.
Usually, the Bears find cupcakes closer to home, like UC Davis or Eastern Washington; the late scramble forced them to look much farther east. So this Friday, the Blue Hose boarded a plane and flew west.
CeeJay Harris is one of three Californians on the Presbyterian roster. He didn’t dream of playing football as a Blue Hose because that’s not a dream that anyone has, but Saturday will be a homecoming of sorts for him.
The inside linebacker from Long Beach grew up a UCLA and Green Bay Packers fan, and yearned for offers from the Bruins or Texas. Neither materialized, so he spent two years at nearby Cerritos College, amassing 145 tackles and a first-team all-state mention. He’d hoped those numbers would speak for themselves, but big-time schools didn’t look his way.
Harris was walking into McDonald’s — ready for his standard order of two Big Macs and a Hi-C — when he got the call from Presby. It was already January 2010 and, just out of junior college eligibility, he was ecstatic to finally have somewhere to play.
That’s the way a lot of Presbyterian stories go: Borderline player waits out a dream a size or two too big, and find that the only place that will let them grow is a town of 8,000 in Laurens County. Maybe they had tepid offers to walk on at NC State or East Carolina. Maybe they were deemed too short for Eastern Michigan.
But for generations — or at least stretching back to the Blue Hose’s own head coach — these players have found their way to Clinton.
“I thought Coach Bowden needed me to play quarterback at Florida State in the worst way,” says Nichols, who grew up just south of Daytona Beach. “Didn’t quite work out for me.”
What has worked out for him and countless other young men is a place where games are attended by a small but faithful group, a few thousand strong. So what if the hottest spot in town is Walmart? It was the game that drew them here.
And heading into a game no one expects him to win, Nichols rejects the idea of moral victories.
He refers to Appalachian State, the school three hours north that once felled mighty Michigan.
He believes in this program, maybe because it once believed in him.