In a stark departure from previous weeks this season, a long gridiron history draws the gaze of the Historical Eye of the Tiger this week as the Clemson Tigers and Wake Forest Demon Deacons renew acquaintances for the eighty-second time all-time. For Clemson fans, the Tigers’ 63-17-1 overall record against the Deacs bodes well for claiming their second consecutive and fourth overall ACC Atlantic Division title under Dabo Swinney (not counting the tie with FSU in 2012). The only team Clemson has beaten more than the lowly Demon Deacons? The South Carolina Gamecocks (67-42-4). Most of the matchups between the Tigers and Decaons have resembled that epic beat-down of Granny Lou’s lamecocks in 2003, especially since 1953 when both Clemson and Wake became charter members of the newly formed Atlantic Coast Conference. Since that time, Clemson has compiled a 53-9-1 record over its ACC “rivals” from the Old North State.
The most competitive and entertaining era in the Tigers-Deacons “rivalry” predated both schools’ entry into the ACC, however. From 1937 to 1950, Douglas Clyde “Peahead” Walker presided over the Wake Forest football program, while at Clemson a young coach named Frank Howard assumed control of the Tigers program in 1940 and remained in charge until his retirement following the 1969 season. Peahead hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, just over three hours north of Howard’s native Barlow Bend, Alabama. The two gregarious coaches formed a lasting friendship off the field and a friendly rivalry on it between 1940 and 1950, with Peahead’s Deacons besting Howard’s Tigers to the tune of 7-4 in their eleven head-to-head meetings. Four of Walker’s wins against Howard actually came in Death Valley, and he’s the only coach ever with at least four wins and no losses in the history of that august facility. Walker’s Demon Deacons went 7-7 overall against the Tigers during his tenure, which included three losses before Howard’s promotion to head coach in 1940 following Jess Neely’s departure for Rice University.
This brief eleven-year period in the series provided some of its most meaningful and memorable moments, on and off the field. On the field, Walker’s squad’s finished in the AP top-20 twice, while Howard’s Tigers bested that mark by one, finishing with three final AP top-20 rankings. Two of Howard’s best teams ever, the 11-0 Gator Bowl Champion 1948 squad and the 9-0-1 Orange Bowl Champion 1950 team both had to defeat top-20 Wake Forest teams to maintain their unbeaten records. That 1948 Demon Deacons team joined the 1945 squad as Walker’s two finest. His 1945 team accounted for Wake Forest’s first win (and still one of just six), a 26-14 defeat of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the inaugural Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida on January 2, 1946. Since 1946, when Clemson and Wake Forest have squared off in November, the Tigers have gone 22-1-0 (with the 45-17 loss in 2003 that belied that year’s epic finish, including the aforementioned demolition of the shamecocks, being the only setback).
Off the field the era produced even more memories, many of which Frank Howard himself recalled for legendary Clemson Sports Information Director Bob Bradley back in 1990. Below is an account of Howard and Walker’s relationship as only Frank Howard could tell it:
When I think of the kind of relationship coaches had with one another back in my day, Douglas Clyde “Peahead” Walker is a good coach to use as an example. Peahead, who was one of my best buddies, coached at Wake Forest…When Peahead died, the pallbearers were Alabama’s Bear Bryant; Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma coach; Maryland coach Jim Tatum, a couple other coaches I can’t remember, and me. If a coach in the league died tomorrow, I doubt if you’d find the other coaches being his pallbearers…I never will forget the time Peahead was coming over here to play a game. We didn’t have a hotel in Clemson then, so he had his team stay in Greenville on Friday night. They came up here Saturday morning and parked the bus by the old fieldhouse. I told some of the highway patrolmen that Peahead was a good buddy of mine, but that they should pretend he resembled a fugitive that was on the loose, get him off the bus and handcuff him to a telephone pole. And they did it! After they let him loose and his team got dressed, he took the players over to the stadium. He stood by the gate to identify the players as they passed through. Then the officer at the gate wasn’t going to let Peahead in because he didn’t have a sideline pass. I suppose he had misplaced his in the confusion when he go “arrested.” Peahead was beside himself. He got someone to go down on the field and get his captain to come over to the gate. His captain’s name was Pat Preston. Peahead said, “Pat, tell this officer who I am.” Preston looked at him and said, “Officer, I’ve never seen that fellow before in my life.” Peahead told me later that after he got Preston back to Wake Forest, “I ran him around that field until he knew who I was.”
There is a sequel to that story. It happened the first time I went up to Canada to help Peahead with his pro team…Peahead was supposed to meet me at the airport. I didn’t know it until later, but he was hiding behind a curtain. This fellow with the immigration authority started to question me.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Frank Howard.”
“Do you speak French?”
“No sir, I don’t speak French.”
“Well, if you don’t speak French, we can’t let you into Canada.” Then he paused and asked, “What’s your occupation?”
“I’m a football coach.”
“You don’t look like a football coach to me.”
About that time, Peahead came out from behind the curtain laughing like crazy. Well, Peahead told his buddies all over Montreal about that conversation. Finally, I said, “Peahead, why don’t you tell your buddies the truth about that conversation. When that fellow asked me what my occupation was and I told him I was a football coach, the man said, “Welcome to Canada. That fella we got up here sure ain’t one.” (Howard, Bradley & Parker, eds., 85-89)
With so much at stake in the 2016 bout between the Tigers and Deacons, will the promising numerical omens disparaging our “fowl-weather” rivals to the south presage “Another Clemson Championship”-game appearance for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers, or will Dave Clawson and his Demon Deacons evoke the ghost of Peahead Walker and upset the #4 Tigers’ conference and national title hopes with some antics of their own?
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Alma Bennett, Thomas Green Clemson, (Clemson University Digital Press, 2009)
Frank Howard, Bob Bradley & Virgil Parker, eds., Howard: The Clemson Legend, (Howard Publishing, 1990)
Ernest M. Lander Jr., The Calhoun Family & Thomas Green Clemson: Decline of a Southern Patriarchy, (University of South Carolina Press, 1983)
Jerome Reel, The High Seminary: A History of the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, Volume I, 1889-1964, (Clemson University Digital Press, 2011)