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Historical Eye of the Tiger: Clemson v. Louisville

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Tigers & Cardinals share a historic “French Connection” in addition to their current quest to be crowned champions

Clemson v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Clemson Tigers and Louisville Cardinals have only very recently begun running in the same circles, so to speak, on the gridiron. Louisville’s football history dates to 1912, when the Cardinals began competing as part of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Association before joining the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association two years later (1914-1941), the same league that also counted the Clemson College Tigers as members for a time (1896-1921). The two programs never met during this era, however, due in large part to financial difficulties that precluded Louisville from traveling widely beyond the borders of the Bluegrass State, and actually prohibited the institution from fielding a football team between 1917 and 1921. Clemson would move on to the Southern Conference (1921-1952) before becoming a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953.

Louisville, meanwhile, would not field a team during the Second World War (1941-1945), but would return to gridiron action in 1946 as an independent, then would join the Missouri Valley Conference (1962-1974) for slightly more than a decade before returning to independent status in 1975 and continuing as such for the next twenty years, when they joined Conference USA (1996-2004). Current Cardinal head coach Bobby Petrino’s first stop in Louisville (2003-2006) straddled the program’s ascension from Conference USA to the Big East (2005-2012), which then became the American Athletic Conference (2013). Current Texas Longhorn head coach Charlie Strong (2010-2013) resurrected a Cardinal program floundering in mediocrity after Petrino had bolted for the NFL in 2007 (then promptly defected from the Atlanta Falcons to the University of Arkansas in 2008, where he slaughtered the Hogs’ reputation and his own by wrecking his “hog” with yet another one on his back). When Strong left for Texas, the prodigal son returned to preside over the Cardinal program’s entry into the expanded ACC, where they’ve squared off against their fellow Atlantic Division rival Clemson Tigers the past two years. Clemson holds a 2-0 advantage in the short series, having prevailed 23-17 in the inaugural 2014 meeting in Death Valley, and again 20-17 last year in the giant pizza box.

The only person higher on the “Creep” scale than Bobby Petrino you ask? “Papa John” himself.

Despite this seeming disparity in football prestige and pedigree—Clemson somewhere below blue-blood but above blue-collar, Louisville something resembling “nouveau riche”—the Cardinals can point to their share of football royalty. None other than Johnny Unitas suited up for the Cardinals between 1951 and 1954 before moving on to a Hall-of-Fame professional career. ESPN Gameday’s Lee Corso coached the Cardinals from 1969-1972, and one of his marquee players was linebacker Tom Jackson (1970-1972), who went on to a Hall-of-Fame NFL career and subsequent position as an NFL analyst on ESPN.

Corso’s a homer this weekend...thankfully; Cardinal heads will roll at night if Corso dons one in the morning.

The historical connections between Louisville and Clemson, however, can be traced much further back than the founding of either football program or academic institution. The Historical Eye last year documented the nineteenth-century rail connection between Upstate South Carolina and Central Kentucky via the Blue Ridge Railroad. But the ties that bind stretch back even further in time, and involve some of the most recognizable names in the colonial and revolutionary eras of American history.

American naturalist John Bartram of Pennsylvania

Famed American naturalist John Bartram (b. 1699, d. 1777) was one of the first to fully document the diverse flora and fauna of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Carolinas. John Bartram’s son William surpassed his father in fame as a naturalist, and embarked on even more extensive expeditions into the Southeast, many of which traversed the foothills of the Great Blue Ridge where Clemson University now sits. William Bartram established the inroads through the region that countless others would later follow, all the way to the present day, utilizing the trail that bears his name.

American naturalist William Bartram of Pennsylvania, son of John Bartram

But it’s a related and especially conspicuous “French connection” that most directly links the Tigers roaring in upstate South Carolina to the Cardinals soaring over central Kentucky. One of the naturalists who quite literally followed in William Bartram’s footsteps was the Frenchman Andre Michaux, who having been appointed Royal botanist under the General Director of the Bâtiments du Roi by France’s King Louis XVI in 1785, was sent to America to undertake the first organized investigation of plants with potential utility in French building and carpentry, medicine and agriculture.

French botanist and naturalist Andre Michaux

Towards this end, from July to September of 1787 and again from November to December of 1788, Michaux traveled along Bartram’s route from Charleston to Augusta through the upstate of South Carolina to the North Carolina mountains. It was during these travels that he is credited with naming, among many other accomplishments, one of the most ubiquitous flowers in the Carolina Piedmont, the “Carolina Lily.”

The “Carolina Lily” as identified and named by French botanist Andre Michaux in his travels through the Carolinas in the late 1780s

Andre Michaux, however, did not confine himself to the Southeast. In 1793 Thomas Jefferson requested that Michaux explore the “Louisiana Territory” that stretched northward from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border and westward from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains; a mission very similar to the one that Jefferson would later contract Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to undertake after making the “Louisiana Purchase” in 1803.

American Colonel George Rogers Clark, founder of Louisville, Kentucky (1778)

In preparing for this expedition, Michaux made the acquaintance of American Colonel George Rogers Clark, who earlier in 1778 had established the first Anglo-American settlement at the “fall line” of the Ohio River, naming it “Louisville” in honor of France’s King Louis XVI, who had recently promised military aid to the ongoing American fight for independence against the British Empire. Through France’s King Louis XVI, his royal botanist Andre Michaux, and the American Col. George Rogers Clark, the lands that would one day be home to Clemson University and the University of Louisville thus share an intimate history, one predicated on probing natural discoveries and powerful military alliances.

The execution of King Louis XVI of France, for whom Louisville, Kentucky was named, and from whom Andre Michaux received his commission to explore the Americas

In some ways the “friendly rivalry” that has developed between Clemson and Louisville in recent years resembles these historical antecedents. But appearances aren’t always what they seem. Historically, the good will between the United States and France was wearing thin by the 1790s, due in large part to American fears of the heedless (headless?) “Reign of Terror” that engulfed France during the latter stages of the “French Revolution.” Louisville’s namesake himself would lose his head to a guillotine blade, setting the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France. But Bonaparte’s European conquests proved expensive, and he sold the vast “Louisiana Territory” to then-President Thomas Jefferson and the United States for a song to fund these interminable conflicts that ultimately ended with Bonaparte in exile on Elba Island.

The “Louisiana Purchase” (1803)

Can the Tigers elicit a similar result this Saturday, behead Louisville’s monarch (Bobby Petrino), stymie their offensive juggernaut, and exile the Cardinal field general (Lamar Jackson) from the Heisman race to achieve a princely victory (in offensive yardage gained) for a pittance (of defensive yards allowed)? Or will the Cardinals soar to historic heights on the wings of their anointed one (“Action” Jackson) to conquer the college football world? Here’s hoping a “Napoleonic Code” prevails among those in Cardinal red, one that allows the Tigers to live in Louisville territory all night and stake an early claim to an Atlantic Division, ACC, and National Championship crown while banishing the Cardinals from the ACC title and College Football Playoff picture.

With one quarter of the season in the books, the pursuit of the crown begins in earnest

GO TIGERS!