South Carolina President Robert Caslen has seen some magic on a football field.
Three years ago, then the U.S. Military Academy superintendent, he was in Baltimore, Maryland in near-freezing temperatures to watch Army finally bring an end to a 14-game losing streak against Navy. It was a cathartic moment for that school, a payoff that ended with cadets spilling onto the field in celebration.
Six games into his time in Columbia, he saw a different sort of win. Not a stewing rivalry with an overdue outcome, but a tense upset at a pace that reflected any service academy showdown. Speaking on the Carolina Calls radio show Thursday, he reflected on that moment.
“To be out there on the field to watch this incredible epic victory, to see the celebration of this team, they had the potential all along and then now they had come through and beat the No. 3 team in the nation,” Caslen told radio host Todd Ellis. “And the belief that they have in each other this particular point is just magic. So it was exciting to be there with the team as they were celebrating.”
Caslen hasn’t made himself scarce at South Carolina events. The man who said early in his time at Army that he aimed to build a winning culture has been a fixture on USC sidelines this season, spoke to the football team before the start of training camp and was in the locker room to accept a game ball at one point this year.
He shared a few of his beliefs on sports and their value to a school.
“The athletic side, you know, the athletics up at West Point were very important because we believe that every single student was an athlete to start off with,” Caslen said. “But you know, what really inspires me — and I saw this not only at West Point but also here at the University of South Carolina — is these students, these young men and women that want to use higher education as a means to better themselves, when they go back into the communities that they came from, to be able to contribute to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Caslen’s own athletic history is well-documented. Hailing from a small town in New England, he went to West Point as a 210-pound center and middle linebacker. He’s joked the first crowd he saw at Michie Stadium was larger than his hometown.
He went on to a military career that spanned more than 40 years, reaching the rank of three-star general. He had tours in the Gulf and Iraq wars, as well as in Afghanistan.
He explained the impact sports had on his life.
“Athletics gives you life lessons,” Caslen said. “You learn about grit, you learn about tenacity, you learn about adversity and how to persevere in adversity, you learn about believing in yourself and laying it on the line for your team. And those are attributes that I think will make you successful no matter what form of future life that you take.”
One thing he’s done is “PT with the President,” inviting students and staff to join him for early morning workouts twice a week. He said he had a crowd of about 30 on Thursday, and joked if the intense regimen is too much for anyone to come, he’d just be there getting his own workout in.
He’s also adapted the standard “Go Army, beat Navy” mantra into, “Go Cocks, beat Clemson.”
As the superintendent when the streak finally ended, he had a few thoughts about how the Gamecocks might end up breaking their own skid against the Tigers, which stands at five game. It’s an outlook that reflects the tight-fought battles he’s seen in one of college football’s great games.
“It takes, first of all, discipline,” Caslen said. “So you don’t make the mistakes. It takes mental and physical toughness so that you persevere through three quarters, that you just pound your opponent again and again and again. So when the fourth quarter arrives, it doesn’t matter if they were bigger or stronger. You just have pounded them for the first three quarters that the fourth quarter becomes a great equalizer.
“The statistics say that in most cases, who wins the fourth quarter is going to win the football game. So that’s what it takes to beat your rival. It takes belief in yourself and laying on the line that takes the belief that you’re going to lay on the line for each other.”