The Historical Eye of the Tiger is just now waking from a euphoric, tryptophan-induced slumber brought on by all the chicken and turkey we Tigers have gorged ourselves upon since Thanksgiving Day. Having sleep-walked through the final week of November in a dreamlike state, content that the world has been restored to its proper order with our Tigers at the top of the food chain and the chickens rightfully confined to their pen, not even the anticipation of a second consecutive ACC championship as the calendar turned to December could rouse the Historical Eye for more than the three hours and thirty-six minutes of the actual game. That veritable speed-eating buffet closed the Historical Eye in gluttonous exhaustion almost as soon as the trophies for conference champion and title-game M.V.P. had been awarded. Only now emerging from this somnambulant state, the Historical Eye is afforded the opportunity to cast its gaze backwards upon the vanquished opponent and the manner in which they were defeated to reveal the historical meaning of it all.
The Clemson Tigers and Virginia Tech Hokies have done gridiron battle thirty-four times now after including this year’s title game, with the Tigers compiling a decisive 21-12-1 advantage in those contests that date to the first, a 12-5 Clemson win in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1900. The series has been a streaky one historically, with both sides putting together impressive runs of consecutive success over the years. After their inaugural victory, the Tigers went winless against the Hokies (0-5-1) in the next six meetings between 1901 and 1924. Then the Tigers mounted a comeback, winning four straight, two apiece in back-to-back years in 1935-36 and 1945-46 before dropping the following meeting in 1954. But from 1955 to 1985, Clemson won nine straight, lost in 1986, then rebounded with a three-peat in 1987, 1988, and 1989. Virginia Tech then turned the tables on the Tigers, winning five straight between 1998 and 2007, before Clemson regained control with a four-game winning streak that began with the regular season 23-3 victory over the Hokies in 2011 and continued through last Saturday’s conference championship win. All but three of these games have been regular season affairs, the only exceptions being the 2001 Gator Bowl (41-20 VT), the 2011 ACC Championship (38-10 CU), and the 2016 ACC Championship (42-35 CU).
Overall Clemson has outscored Virginia Tech 639-510, or by an average score of 19-15, But that stat is deceiving, for during Clemson’s winning streaks (1935-1946; 1955-1985; 1987-1989; 2011-2016) the Tigers have prevailed over the Hokies by an average score of 39-10. And the two programs have very different historical pedigrees. Though both have relatively equitable all-time records (CU 715-457-45, VT 728-461-46) and winning-percentages (CU .606, VT .608), Clemson dominates in nearly every other measurable statistic, with a national championship, twenty-two conference championships, thirty-nine bowl games, twenty bowl wins, as well as ranking in the top thirty all-time nationally in number of consensus All-Americans, NFL draft picks, number of weeks ranked in the AP poll, and number of weeks spent ranked #1 in the nation. Tech ranks in the top thirty in just one of these categories, coming in at #30 with 281 weeks ranked in the AP poll.
These football disparities belie a very similar institutional heritage and history, however. Both schools were founded in the late nineteenth century on lands ceded by Native American peoples to white settlers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Clemson founded in 1889 on lands ceded by the Cherokees to South Carolina in the 1780s, while Tech was founded in 1872 on lands ceded by the Cherokees, Shawnees, and Iroquois peoples in a series of treaties with Virginia from 1718 to 1774). The western location of both institutions in these states also lent a geographical tension to their founding histories, especially between their “backcountry” locations and the SC Lowcountry/VA Tidewater regions, that continue to shape their institutional cultures in relation to other state schools. The “Great Wagon Road,” so integral to the families connected with Clemson’s founding, had a similar if even more direct influence on the founding of Virginia Tech. Both schools took advantage of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act to become the official agricultural and mechanical colleges in their respective states.
Both also even underwent similar curricular evolution as well, beginning as all-male, all-white military institutions before transitioning to racially integrated coeducational universities in the mid-twentieth century. Both also have long, proud military traditions due to the mandated service in the campus corps of cadets included in their early histories. They also underwent similar name changes. The original Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College founded in 1872 became the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute in 1896, then just the Virginia Polytechnic Institute after 1944, then the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1970. The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina founded in 1889 similarly became Clemson University in 1964, though during the interim years it was variously known unofficially as simply “Clemson College” or (erroneously) as “Clemson A&M.”
Even their football programs chose their team colors for very similar reasons. Both saw “burnt orange” as a natural color befitting schools nestled in the foothills of the Great Blue Ridge, where every fall many of the leaves turn a brilliant shade of orange. They very consciously sought to pair this very natural choice in a “unique” combination. Seeking to separate themselves from other “Tigers” squads generally wearing orange and blue, orange and black, or purple and gold, Walter Riggs and his early Clemson teams chose “Northwestern” or “Regalia” purple, while VPI dignitaries chose “Chicago maroon” as their complementary color primarily because no other school utilized it in combination with burnt orange. The two athletic programs even began playing football in the same year of 1896.
Having thwarted the Hokies’ attempt to return to national prominence by defeating them for a second time with the ACC title at stake, Dabo Swinney and his Tigers have continued many of these historical trends as well as some more recent ones. Since besting Frank Beamer’s VT squad in 2011, Swinney’s Clemson program has risen to unprecedented heights, compiling six consecutive 10+ win seasons, winning three conference championships, making the national championship playoff in two of its three years of existence, and finishing each season at or higher in the final polls from where they began. The back-to-back conference crowns in 2015 and 2016 mark just the fourth time ever that the Tigers have won at least two in a row. Frank Howard did so twice, in 1958 and 1959, then besting that mark with a three-peat in 1965, 1966, and 1967. Danny Ford earned his own three-peat in 1986, 1987, and 1988. In short, Swinney’s program is in the midst of a historic run almost without equal. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, suffered through several years of mediocrity to close out Beamer’s Hall of Fame tenure in Blacksburg, but made a homerun hire with Justin Fuente, who in year one claimed a division title, a la one William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney at Clemson in his first full season in 2009. The future continues to look bright for both programs, and it is far from far-fetched to imagine a similar ending to the conference slate for many years to come.
Merry Christmas everyone, and here’s to bringing in the New Year with another historic Clemson victory!
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Alma Bennett, Thomas Green Clemson, (Clemson University Digital Press, 2009)
Roger L. Geiger & Nathan M. Sorber, The Land-Grant Colleges and the Reshaping of American Higher Education, (Transaction Publishers, 2013)
Nelson Harris, Virginia Tech, (Arcadia Publishing, 2004)
Duncan L. Kinnear, The First 100 Years: A History of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, (VPI Educational Foundation, Inc., 1972)
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)
Richard A. Straw, Blacksburg, (Arcadia Publishing, 2003)
Warren H. Strother & Peter Wallenstein, From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962-1974, (Mercer University Press, 2004)