With mid-season MLB offering the only sport to watch, we are mired in the “Dark Territory” of the sports calendar. It is long and full of terrors, so I thought I’d share some historical stuff from the 1980s up until the beginning of the Dabo run in 2011. The Clemson brand has never been bigger nor the fanbase larger than right now, and I’m acutely aware many newcomers probably aren’t fully up to speed on what “little ol’ Clemson” was doing before Coach Swinney constructed the current empire we are all enjoying. I’m hoping some folks will like a little walk down memory lane from one man’s perspective and offer up their own in the comments.
This first entry will cover the decade of the 1980s when I was just a young boy growing up. I was fortunate to have a Clemson graduate for a father who kindly attached an IV bag of orange blood to my system from the start. My first game in person was the infamous tie with the hated UGA Bulldogs in 1983. I grew up with a Gator Bowl promo poster with Steve Fuller on it, the famous DEFENSE poster featuring the 81 defense stuffing Hershel Walker, and the 1981 season recap poster on my wall (among others). While my experience doesn’t quite equal what my kids are growing up on now, it was pretty close in the way of going into every season expecting a shot at championships.
#10: Puntrooskie Game: Now, I know many are wondering how such a painful loss could make a top 10 list, but a portion of these lists include the overall experience of the game itself. I factor in the tailgate, the atmosphere, the stakes, etc, as much as anything. I was just a first grader when the team won the national title in 81, so I have spotty memories of that moment in real time, but I was in middle school and fully aware of everything when this game took place in 1988. Florida State had emerged under Bobby Bowden as a major national power by the late 1980s, and it was a very different vibe when the Seminoles came to Death Valley in the schedule spot usually occupied by the aforementioned UGA.
My best friend and his father joined me and my father and we traveled together in the rain up to see #3 Clemson take on what I felt should be its only true obstacle to an undefeated season that year. The trip up was highlighted by my friend and I being entertained by old Clemson stories from our alumnus` fathers. We had already decided to wear orange pom poms under our hats to make it look like we had orange hair (poor decision, I know, but middle school...). I had a pretty ugly Clemson hat I was rocking that day which had the added feature of playing a ridiculous version of Tiger Rag when you pressed a little button under the bill. It poured rain much of that game and we got a huge kick in the effects it had on the playing of Tiger Rag as it got progressively more soaked and pitiful.
The game itself was incredibly intense and featured huge swings of momentum. The Tigers hit first on a reverse pass (which I felt something was up because little used Chip Davis was in for that play and threw the pass, we usually only saw him in to run block). I got a glimpse of the greatness (and unabashed cockiness) of Deion Sanders on a crazy punt return TD. Just when it seemed FSU would escape, the physical Tiger run game found some traction and the Tigers tied the game at 21. Death Valley was in full throat for the ensuing defensive stand which pinned the Noles deep in their own territory. We had our own dynamic defensive back/punt returner in Donnell Woolford waiting to provide what should have been outstanding field position for a game winning drive. We were sitting in the West Stands that day and, as usual, the opposing band and most of the FSU fans were taking up the left side. I saw the punter leap as if the ball had been snapped over his head and began to wildly cheer what I thought was a disaster for the Noles, but I noticed the FSU band and fans to my left had begun to wildly cheer. That is when I looked out to see Leroy Butler racing down the sideline right at us. Woolford got him before he could score, but the shock and confusion that play generated will live with me forever. I still think it is probably the most ballsy call I have ever witnessed considering the time, score, venue, stakes, and situation. Had it failed, FSU was all but giving the win to Clemson considering the momentum and the fact Clemson had Chris Gardocki kicking if it came to that.
Clemson would not reach that lofty #3 ranking or better again until Dabo Swinney. The next game I could say reached that kind of atmosphere wouldn’t come until 11 years later at Bowden Bowl 1.
#9: The Balloon Game: Ok, we are only talking wins from this point on. The year was 1983, and believe it or not, the Maryland Terrapins represented the biggest threat to Clemson’s ACC dominance at that time. The Terps entered that game having beaten top 20 Pitt and top 5 UNC earlier that year and were undefeated in the ACC. Clemson was on probation and ineligible for the ACC championship, but that didn’t stop the Tiger faithful and the team from viewing this game as the true ACC championship. To add spice to the already riveting “most exciting 25 seconds in college football,” the University had prepared a record balloon release. The sky literally turned orange for a few moments as the team ran down the hill. Clemson would go on to utterly destroy the Terps 52-27, who history deems ACC champs that year, but we all know better. The game was a blowout, but the balloon release was epic (though not environmentally sound). I grew up in Cheraw, South Carolina, around a 4 hour drive from Clemson, and about three days after the game, I found a bundle of orange balloons stuck in the tree outside my bedroom window. I was amazed at how far those balloons had traveled and that some would find my yard after I’d been to that very game. I hung the deflated balloons up in my room as a reminder of that game and that moment.
#8: Rodney’s Revenge: The current dominance over our feathered friends in Columbia has been oh so sweet. It’s always great to beat up on little brother, but I think most would agree that it is even better when they have found a high horse to sit on from a win or two (or even five). The Tigers mostly dominated the U of SC, as per usual, during the 1980s, but the chickens put together two of their best teams ever during that stretch in 1984 and again in 1987. Both of those seasons saw the Tigers lose the Palmetto Bowl in very painful fashion and the Cocks crowed relentlessly as you would expect.
The ‘87 game in Columbia is infamous for the crowd razzing Tiger QB Rodney Williams with the chants of “Rooodney” as he struggled all night to throw the ball or generate much offense. The Gamecocks had Mr. “trending up” Todd Ellis at quarterback for this stretch, and he returned for the 1988 game in Death Valley in Rodney Williams’ final home game. The Gamecocks had risen as high as #8 that year before suffering blowout defeats to Georgia Tech and that puntrooskie FSU squad, but that hadn’t stopped Ellis and the Gamecock faithful from brashly believing they would beat the Tigers for a second year in a row.
Rodney put together one of his best games (when Clemson’s passing numbers were always meager) and led the team to a 29-10 victory. I will never forget joining the Clemson crowd in chanting “Rooodney” as a mocking tribute to what the U of SC folks had done a year prior, only this time in admiration for a great four year run. The Tigers would go on to win the Citrus Bowl while Ellis and the Cocks added another bowl loss to their resume. Another fun fact: Todd Ellis finished his career with 49 touchdown passes...and 73 interceptions.
#7: 1988 Citrus Bowl: Today’s Clemson sits atop the college football world, and the playoff format has allowed the Tigers to get more high profile games in a year than ever before. Coach Swinney’s aggressive scheduling has also generated some big time regular season tilts with various SEC teams. The 1980s was a very different time and the Tigers usually faced UGA as that one marquis out of conference opponent. FSU had not yet joined the league and the ACC champion usually ended up in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The Tigers had faced what I deemed as college football royalty just once in a bowl game (the ‘82 Orange Bowl vs. Nebraska) since facing Ohio State in Woody Hayes’s infamous last game in the late 1970s. Probation had robbed the ‘82 and ‘83 teams from what surely would have been big time bowl games. Finally, following the 1987 regular season, Clemson drew Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Citrus Bowl. This was the team that took out Jimmy Johnson’s camo-wearing Miami team to win the National Title just the year before.
While Coach Ford’s era was marked with some very head scratching losses (like the 3 year losing streak to NCSU), you could always count on Ford having Clemson ready for big names in big games. The Tigers limped into this one after getting beat by the U of SC 20-7 where Rodney Williams (as mentioned before) had a hapless night of just 91 yards passing. However, Williams went for over 200 yards (a huge number in those days) and the Tigers broke open a 7-7 game to throttle PSU 35-10. Old Beano Cook had a lot of crow to chew on after that one after he had felt Clemson wasn’t ready for Penn State’s style of football. Such was the narrative in those days.
#6: 1987 UGA game (the kick 2): The late 1970s into the 1980s featured some incredibly physical football due to the prevalence of the wishbone and the I-formation run-heavy teams across the land. No two programs exemplified this more than the Ford era Tigers and the Vince Dooley era UGA Bulldogs. There has always been a very slim margin in the hierarchy of hate from the U of SC to #2, the UGA Bulldogs, for anyone who grew up in this era as I did. This was Terry Allen and company vs. Lars Tate and the hated leg humpers. I mentioned earlier the atmosphere of the 88 FSU game as being the most intense I can recall, but this game comes close, and the deafening roars of the crowd as the defense put up a stand that led to a safety probably wasn’t matched in my memory until the 2005 Miami game. David Treadwell cemented his name in the history books as an all time Dawg slayer when he beat them on a field goal for the second year in a row. It should have paved the way to a national title opportunity, but the hiccup to NCSU a few weeks later derailed it.
#5: Death to the Sheridan Streak: The Ford era rarely saw the Tigers drop consecutive games to common opponents from one year to the next. The one exception to this rule was Danny Sheridan’s NCSU Wolfpack program which had put together 3 straight wins over the Tigers, two of those against teams who had legitimate national championship aspirations. None of those Sheridan teams were able to secure ACC titles despite taking down the undisputed king of the conference during the late 80s. I would probably rank this game just behind the 2003 FSU win and the 2014 U of SC win in terms of pure catharsis moments in my fandom. The Wolfpack came into this game undefeated and ranked 12th in the land, while the Tigers had just inexplicably gotten smoked by an unranked Georgia Tech squad on Homecoming (one of those head scratching Ford era moments). However, the Tigers had clearly prepared to maximum effect for this one and left zero doubt in throttling the Pack 30-10, starting a scorched earth run to the Gator Bowl in Ford’s final season as head coach (which included the ultra satisfying 45-0 destruction of the Gamecocks in Columbia). I passed by one tailgate on the way out of the stadium dancing around their tent and singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”
#4: Bye Bye Barry Switzer Game: Clemson has had the unique honor of closing the door on several coaching legends of college football. Woody Hayes was the first, then came Barry Switzer of Oklahoma after the 1989 Citrus Bowl (followed by Lou Holtz in 2004). This was the second year in a row the Tigers got to face some college football royalty with at least one national title in recent history. Oklahoma and Nebraska’s annual tilt was always much see TV for me in those days as usually the winner was headed for a national championship opportunity.
Trevor Lawrence’s magical freshman season hearkened back to the electric Jamelle Holieway’s freshman season for OU when they won it all. Holieway was probably the most amazing option QB I’d ever seen until a torn ACL derailed his career. He was backing up Charles Thompson in 88, but Thompson broke his leg in the Nebraska game, and I was going to get to see Clemson face this guy in his final college game. Even though Holieway wasn’t quite the same guy he was before the injury, the extra time before the bowl allowed him to get as close to 100% as he had been in a long time. It was a defensive struggle all game, but Holieway escaped what seemed like six to ten major tackles for loss or sacks beyond the ones he actually suffered. It was one of those games that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time knowing he might make some crazy play to win it. Thankfully it was the Tigers who found just enough offense to win the game and again prove that Clemson could really play with anyone in that era.
#3: The Kick 1: Beating UGA has been pretty rare over the history of the two schools, unfortunately. Beating them in Athens, even during the Ford era, has been even more rare. The one victory between the hedges in my memory, as I was only 2 when the Tigers won in 1977, was the 86 game. Clemson was also starting to rebound from the probation that led to disappointing campaigns in 84 and 85, but not many out there thought this was a game the Tigers could win. Clemson was ready, though, and only turnovers helped keep UGA in the game for a while (and driving us fans crazy thinking the missed chances would cost us). Cost us it did, as the Dawgs hit on a long pass TD to tie the game up. This game was looking like another tie like the 83 contest until sophomore Rodney Williams got the Tigers into the edge of Treadwell’s range with one second to go. I probably speak for most fans when I say the most fun wins are the ones where you didn’t really think you could win or would win, when you go through the entire game waiting for the other shoe to drop and the loss to come in some way only to be euphorically surprised when it doesn’t. The image of that kick going through and Treadwell joyfully kicking his legs in the air while being carried off was the epitome of that euphoria.
#2: “They Killin’ my Baby aka Ford’s Last Stand” While the 1989 Gator Bowl might not have been of the same magnitude as the Orange or the two Citrus Bowls of the decade, as the Tigers were not ACC champions that year, the fact that it would be Danny Ford’s final game as the head coach gives it extra importance. I am forever grateful that my father took me to this game, not just because going to Clemson games hasn’t always been possible for me, especially bowl games, but I was able to enjoy the end of a great era in person. Of course, none of us even suspected such a thing was possible after three straight 10 win seasons and what was looking like an incredibly loaded roster coming back for 1990, but Max Lennon and his cronies had different ideas.
Although the Gator was not the Citrus in magnitude that year, Clemson was getting to play West Virginia who played for the national title the year before and returned its star quarterback Major Harris. As I mentioned in the notes for #5 on this list, the 1989 Clemson team, when focused, was perhaps the best of Ford’s teams in my opinion. The defense was nasty, as was the expectation of those days, but the offense had more punch than most of the units of the 80s (especially when Terry Allen was healthy). After the ugly loss to GT, the Tigers would go on to win four straight by an average score of 38.5 to 5.75 before facing the Mountaineers. Major Harris, and his mother, got a full taste of how destructive that Tiger defense could be. My favorite moment from sitting in the stands (which didn’t allow me to see the TV broadcast until YouTube came along to hear Major’s mother’s famous line) was when Chester McGlockton sacked Harris and recovered the fumble for a touchdown. After the PAT and the break for commercials, the announcer in the stadium said, “That sack and recovery was made by Chester McGlockton. He’s 6’5” 320 pounds (crowd gasps)...He’s a freshman (crowd really gasps).” Before the Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence types got to Clemson, you had the two legendary physical freaks up front of William Perry and Chester.
#1; Natty #1: No Ford era list would be legit without this game at the top. Admittedly my memories of this in real time are sparse as I was just in first grade. Most of my childhood was spent looking at the memorabilia from this magical season in my room, from the aforementioned DEFENSE poster and season schedule poster to the cans of Orange Soda. My first Clemson jersey as a kid was an orange mesh Homer Jordan #3 very similar to the one he wore in the Orange Bowl. It was the game that made everything possible for Clemson University in football. It was the team that set the standard that only recently has been matched (and even surpassed).
I had a chance to ask a former player from that team a few years ago who he felt the best guy on that team was. He answered “Terry Kinard,” who I’d probably still rank as the best safety in Clemson history (even though Brian Dawkins had the better pro career). I guess the next challenge is fielding a National Championship team without Jeff Davis or one of his kids on it. Knocking UGA off its perch (which they still haven’t been able to get back on) along the way to this title was great. My first knowledge of Wofford College, where I would eventually go for undergrad, came from seeing it as game 1 on the schedule that year.
So there you have it, all 3,300 words of history and memories of a great decade. Fire away with your own observations and recollections! Part 2 will dive into the 1990s, aka the ABYSS.