The Clemson Tigers and Boston College Eagles have a long gridiron history that dates all the way back to the 1940 Cotton Bowl Classic, when Banks McFadden and the twelfth-ranked Tigers upset Charley O’Rourke and the tenth-ranked Eagles 6-3 to put the finishing touches on a stellar 9-1-0 1939 campaign.
The two teams played sporadically from that 1940 meeting until 1960 (11 games), but did not play again until 1982-1983 (with quarterback Doug Flutie leading BC to a 17-17 tie at Clemson in 1982, then orchestrating a 31-16 victory in Chestnut Hill the following year). The two programs had another hiatus until 2005, when they began to meet every year as ACC Atlantic Division rivals. The Tigers hold a 14-9-2 overall record against the Eagles, 6-3-1 in Death Valley, 7-6-1 in Boston, Massachusetts, and 1-0-0 in Dallas, Texas. Following’ BC’s entry into the ACC in 2005, and three nail-biters between the two new ACC rivals (the Matt Ryan years when the Tigers lost 16-13 in 2005, 34-33 in 2006, and 20-17 in 2007), the Boston College Gridiron Club decided in 2008 to fan the rivalry’s flames and tout its illustrious history by awarding the winning team of the Clemson-Boston College game the O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy and rewarding the MVP of the game a replica leather helmet. Since that time, which also happened to coincide with Dabo Swinney’s ascension to the head coach’s seat, Clemson has dominated the series and taken home the hardware and the helmet with a 7-1 mark, and the first of Swnney’s now eighty (and counting) victories took place in that 2008 matchup in Chestnut Hill.
But it is that first matchup in Dallas, Texas on New Year’s Day 1940 that draws the extended gaze of the Historical Eye in anticipation of this 2016 meeting between the Tigers and Eagles. Seventy-six years ago, the landscape of the college football world, not to mention the nation at large, looked very different. Despite prodding progress toward racial desegregation in sports since the 1910s, highlighted by the national celebration of Jesse Owens’s and Joe Louis’s exploits at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, wholesale acceptance of black athletes in athletics remained a long way off. But it was during the late 1930s and 1940s that tangible progress towards that ultimate goal began in earnest, as black athletes become more and more common on collegiate rosters outside the South. Southern athletic programs, however, remained defiantly defensive of Jim Crow segregation well into the 1960s, and despite the increasingly frequent and conspicuous successes of black athletes at Northern and Western schools, all-white teams remained the standard and the ideal in the Solid South. This movement toward desegregation at the collegiate level in the 1930s presaged the later desegregation of professional athletics by the likes of Kenny Washington and Woody Strode (NFL 1946), Jackie Robinson (MLB 1947), Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd (NBA 1950), Willie O’Ree (NHL 1958). But it was college athletics that first confronted the tempest of racial desegregation, and the football gridiron especially became a focal point of this intersectional struggle over the race line. (Spivey, 116-125)
That first meeting between Clemson College and Boston College in 1940 fits squarely into this larger narrative, a controversial moment that signaled a changing of the guard regarding segregation in collegiate athletics while simultaneously exhibiting the dogged defiance with which Jim Crow would be defended. The 1940 Cotton Bowl Classic was the first bowl invitation for both the Clemson College and Boston College football programs. The Eagles had enjoyed an unprecedented run of success under head coach Frank Leahy, who compiled a remarkable 20-2-0 (91%) record in two seasons (1939 and 1940) before accepting the head coaching position at Notre Dame before the 1941 season. Leahy’s 1940 BC squad would build on the success of the 1939 team to run the table (11-0) and claim the program’s only national championship with a Sugar Bowl victory over Tennessee. Clemson, meanwhile, was led by head coach Jess Neely, who along with assistant coach Frank Howard and Dr. Rupert H. Fike had turned the Clemson program around thanks in large part to the formation of the nation’s first collegiate booster club, IPTAY (“I Pay Ten A Year”) five years prior. This commitment to intercollegiate athletics by the college and its alumni paid immediate dividends as the 1934 Tigers enjoyed their first winning football season since 1930, and the returns continued through the end of the decade, when Neely would guide the Tigers to a 7-1-1 record in 1938 and 9-1-0 record in 1939. Thus both the Tigers and Eagles were eager to exhibit their talents and display their progress on a national stage, accepting a bid to square off against one another in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Controversy soon engulfed the impending game. Eagles running back Lou Montgomery had played a pivotal role in the Eagles’ run of success under Frank Leahy, leading the 1939 Eagles in rushing and averaging over ten yards per carry. But Montgomery also had become the focal point of racial controversy during the season, as BC had played both the Florida Gators and Auburn Tigers during the regular season, and had agreed to bench Montgomery in those games to comply with the prevailing “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Southern schools who refused to play against teams fielding black players. The 1940 Cotton Bowl resurrected the controversy. Though one prominent African-American newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World, ran the headline “Boston College’s Colored Players Barred by Cotton Bowl Game Chiefs,” before asserting in the subtitle that “Clemson Had Planned Playing Against Sepia Athlete but Sponsors Launched Jim-Crow Ban Without Their Plea,” there is no further evidence that the Clemson coaches or administrative brass put up much resistance when Boston College willingly agreed to abide by the ban. After all, this had been the prevailing protocol whenever southern schools squared off against integrated teams ever since teams outside the South had begun desegregating.
But 1939 proved to be a pivotal moment in initiating change. That year, the UCLA Bruins had shocked the establishment by fielding a trio of black football players—Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, and Woody Strode—en route to a 6-0-4 campaign capped by a much-ballyhooed rivalry game with the USC Trojans that ended in a scoreless tie. The nation had been captivated by this prominent exhibition of African American athletic prowess in a clash of two national powers, and the winds of change began to blow. That BC’s decision to bench Montgomery in compliance with the Cotton Bowl committee’s Jim Crow policy elicited any controversy whatsoever emphasizes the significance of the moment, however fledgling it would prove to be. Boston College would accept a Sugar Bowl bid after the 1940 season to play Tennessee, and would again bench Montgomery amid similar discord, though they prevailed 19-13 to complete a perfect 11-0 season.
The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to enforce Jim Crow would not dissolve overnight, as Southern teams continued to demand that black players on Northern and Western squads be barred from participation well into the 1960s. But it was on the backs of black athletes like Fritz Pollard (the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl in 1916), Robinson, Washington, and Strode at UCLA in the late 1930s, and Chester Pierce, (the first black football player to suit up against a Southern team in the South when he and his Harvard Crimson teammates met the University of Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1947) that such a dissolution was slowly but surely achieved.
By 1955, in the wake of the momentous Brown v. Board (1954) Supreme Court decision declaring “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional, the tide of white resistance began to ever-so-slowly recede. At the conclusion of that year’s regular season, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets agreed to play the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on January 1, 1956, despite Pittsburgh’s refusal to abide by the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that would have benched their star LB/FB Bobby Grier. Then-Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin denounced the game and Tech’s decision to play in it in vehemently white supremacist vitriol, but Tech fans rejected his stance and the game commenced, with Tech prevailing 7-0. But such change did not come forth without a prolonged fight, as evidenced by the long Civil Rights Movement and persistent racial tensions into the present day. Sports, however, especially collegiate football, played an integral role in prompting integration initiatives, and the 1940 Cotton Bowl between Clemson and BC figured prominently in the transition. (Martin, 532-562)
Clemson football would not desegregate until 1971 with the signing of Irmo, SC cornerback Marion Reeves, joining many other Deep South teams who also did so during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, most of them following the example of Bear Bryant and his Alabama Crimson Tide, who officially desegregated in 1970 by signing and playing defensive back Wilbur Jackson, prompting a broader shift away from reactionary defiance toward at least tacit acceptance of integration in the region’s athletics.
Perhaps no issue better illustrates the immense strides as well as the continued struggles regarding race and football than that of African American quarterbacks. Prior to the 1970s, with Jim Crow refusing to go down quietly in the South and widespread black athletic participation just gaining traction in the rest of the nation, black quarterbacks were an aberration in major college and professional football. But as integration became the rule de jure and de facto in the 1960s and 1970s, the acceptance of African American signal callers increased as well, albeit slowly and with considerable white resistance and reservation. Luminaries like Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway (1972-1974), Texas’s Donnie Little (1978-1981), and Oklahoma’s Thomas Lott (1975-1978) and JC Watts (1978-1980) blazed a trail that others would increasingly follow. By the 1980s the sight of a black quarterback had ceased to be rare but remained far from common, especially in the South, as the likes of Jamelle Hollieway (Okalahoma, 1985-1988), Major Harris (West Virginia, 1987-1989), Andre Ware (Houston, 1987-1989), and Charlie Ward (Florida State, 1989-1993) revolutionized the position and racial perceptions of it.
Danny Ford and the Clemson Tigers counted themselves among the early adherents to this emerging reality in the sport in their recruitment of Homer Jordan from Athens, GA in 1979. Jordan backed up senior starter Billy Lott during his freshman season in 1979, but had ascended to the top of the depth chart entering his sophomore campaign in 1980. Despite just a 6-5 record and considerable dissent over his position as starting quarterback, much of it blatantly racist in tone, Jordan persisted, won the confidence of his teammates, coaches, and fans, and guided the Tigers to a perfect 12-0 season and a national title during his 1981 junior season. Hailed by many as the greatest Clemson quarterback largely on the strength of this as-of-yet unparalleled accomplishment, Jordan paved the way for future Clemson signal callers who achieved great success under center and who just happened to be black: DeChane Cameron (1988-1991), Nealon Greene (1994-1997), Woodrow Dantzler (1998-2001), Tajh Boyd (2010-2013), and of course, Deshaun Watson (2014-present). The current “Golden Age of the African American QB” symbolized by the recent exploits of Cam Newton, RG3, Jameis Winston and countless others thus reflects this orange-tinted past. As the latest legacy in this distinguished pantheon of great Tiger quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson continues his bid to sit atop the mountain at year’s end by leading his fellow Tigers northward to victory over the Boston College Eagles once more.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Charles H. Martin, “Racial Change and “Big Time” College Football in Georgia: The Age of Segregation, 1892-1957,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Fall, 1996), 532-562.
______, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, Champaigne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.