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The Rise of Clemson Football and How Notre Dame Fits In

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This is a look back at the rise of Clemson Football and the part that Notre Dame played in that ascension.

#15 Clemson played #5 Notre dame in 1977.
#15 Clemson played #5 Notre dame in 1977.

I was just a kid, but things were so different the last time we played Notre Dame.  In the 70s, the balance of power was not located in the southeast like today. That power resided predominately in the North and Midwest.  The Big 10 was King and a select group of other schools around the country were considered on par. Clemson was not one of them.

Undisputedly, the biggest program in college football was Notre Dame. The other elite programs at the time were Alabama, USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan St., Pittsburgh, and Penn State.

Entering 1977, Clemson posted losing seasons in 8 of the last 9 years. Can you imagine?  Imagine a world in which we were thought so poorly of that Georgia Tech refused to play at Clemson, and Duke vs. North Carolina was a bigger game than Clemson vs. South Carolina.

That wasn't the biggest problem for most people, though. The economy in the area was slowly crumbling.  Farming was on the decline for years, and the region once considered the "Textile Capital of the World," found its textile mills shutting down and relocating overseas. The threat of more closings remained on the horizon, and generations of mill employees were left trying to figure out what to do next.  Making matters worse, these were low-wage jobs and South Carolina's educational system was already perceived negatively. The perception of Upstate South Carolina was that they were a bunch of uneducated hicks wallowing in their own hopelessness. Unlike Detroit, there would be no bailout for us.

Despite the increased poverty and poor product on the field, attendance drastically increased in the 1970s.  Maybe people were looking for hope, but one thing is certain, a lot of the people gravitating to the stadium on Saturday afternoons were not Clemson alumni.  This is when Clemson's crowd became legendary for their decibel level and raucous enthusiasm.  Plans were put in place to build the Upper Deck over the South Stands, and Red Parker was fired and replaced by DC Charley Pell.

1977 was Pell's first year and it would be an eventful one.  We told Georgia Tech to stick it and that if they wouldn't travel to Clemson, we wouldn't travel to Atlanta. The Paw Stamped $2 bill tradition was created for that last game against GT to show them that the financial impact was greater than they thought.  The momentum behind the administrative changes carried over to the field. Clemson defeated #17 Georgia behind record attendance in week 2 of the season. Then, in week 3 we went down to GT and gave them a proper blowout sendoff. Entering the 2nd Saturday in November, Clemson was a shocking 7-1-1 and ranked #15 in the nation.

The signature moment would take place on November 12th against #5 Notre Dame in Death Valley.  The crowd noise developed quite the reputation and Notre Dame Head Coach Dan Devine contacted the ACC Commissioner that week to ask him what he was going to do about it.  The eventual National Champions got all they could handle that day.  Devine was visibly angry throughout the game and even ran out on the field, picked up a penalty flag, and threw it back at a referee. Notre Dame won 21-17, but the feeling around Clemson was that Clemson out-played Notre Dame that day.  A late turnover allowed ND to get the come-from-behind win. In his postgame comments, Devine called Clemson a "Cow Pasture" and said "we are never coming back here."

The momentum carried over into 1978 as Steve Fuller and Company would finish 11-1 that season and as ACC Champions for the first time in 11 years. Charley Pell would leave Clemson for Florida  before the bowl game, with his reasoning being that "Clemson could never win a National Championship." Danny Ford came in and Clemson beat Ohio State in the bowl game, ending Woody Hayes' career after he became angry and struck a Clemson player. In 1979, we traveled to South Bend and found our revenge against Notre Dame by defeating them at their place.  It was a great win for us but, it didn't resonate nationally.

By the turn of the decade, we felt like we were just as good as the big boy Northern teams but nobody knew who we were. The cloud of disrespect over the program, and really over the entire state, was still there like it was in 1977. The more we cared, the more they hated us for it. They were the elitist north and we were the dumb hicks that need to pipe down because football isn't that important and you're not really any good anyway, yada yada.

If you think the SEC-ESPN thing is bad now, it was so much worse back then. ABC absolutely hated us...and it was palpable. In 2015, you have to look for the bias and read into things, but back then it was in your face. Jim Lampley can still f-off as far as I'm concerned. He would sneak in derogatory remarks and tones about Clemson into halftime updates every week. They basically put reporters in Clemson just to dig up dirt. Can you imagine ESPN doing that now?

I remember when we went to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and they went around and asked Nebraska fans if they knew where Clemson was and then showed their fans making fun of us for an entire segment. You would never see anything like that today. Even winning the National Championship in 1981 only seemed to validate us to ourselves, but not to the nation. A really weak excuse for NCAA probation took care of that.

Our saving grace came later in the 80s when the CBS team of Brent Musberger and Ara Parsegian, called us the best college football atmosphere in the nation. They loved us and gushed about us...and we loved them back. They would hang out all week and ride in parades and knock a few back at the Esso Club. They got it.  "The most exciting 25 seconds in college football" is Musberger's line. They broadcasted us in a positive light and just let the atmosphere and pageantry speak for itself. They showed that stadium for what it was, a release of joy. It was an escape for three hours of fun into this utopian community where all types of people from all backgrounds gave and received inspiration from this local football team.

By 1989, we sat atop the mountain. The football team would get their national respect from CBS and the upstate economy would come back with an influx of businesses relocating here. What began against Notre Dame in 1977 didn't exist anymore.  Most people associated Clemson with the Football program, and laughable as it seems today, thought South Carolina was the better academic institution in the state. The administration decided football was too big and they fired Danny. We were spoiled. People didn't seem to care enough to fight anymore (some did but, not enough). I guarantee that if they knew we were bound for 20 years of mediocrity, they would have fought.

Don't expect the program to be successful. Help make it successful. Be a part of it. Enjoy the hell out of it. It's not written on the Oculus that we have to be a top 15 team every year...and for Oculus' sake, get in that stadium and yell your ass off (rain or shine). Do it for yourself and for this year's team, but also for the dedicated Clemson fans and players in the generation before me that went through a lot of BS to put us on the map.