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.
In Part 1, we look at my top 10 moments of the 80s. Part 2 of the series goes back to the 1990s, when Clemson began their own (self-imposed) version of 40 years wandering in the desert. The administration and Coach Danny Ford reached an impasse regarding whether or not Clemson University could be great at football AND great academically, and Ford was forced out after the 1989 season. This began a decade of serious penny pinching in regards to the football facilities and staffing, with the powers that be believing all that made Clemson great in 1983 would make it great in 1993 and beyond without much change. Worries about the NCAA would be the party line marched out with Ford’s ouster and the hiring of Ken Hatfield (who didn’t even visit campus before taking the job), but the real truth was a power struggle between university president Max Lennon and Coach Ford. A minor NCAA inquiry was a convenient scapegoat.
The 90s were particularly tough for my generation who had grown up only knowing the success of the 1980s. My expectations had always been that Clemson should win the ACC and, if things broke right, compete for the National Championship. I had seen Clemson whip Penn State, Florida State, and take down a 10-win Oklahoma team in recent memory (is this before the 12-game schedule, conference title games, and CFP semi finals), so there was little reason to think that shouldn’t continue into perpetuity.
Unfortunately, the loaded 1990 Clemson team faced incredible outside adversity from a fanbase torn in half by the Ford decision. Recruiting almost immediately suffered, and the 1993 trip to Florida State, for me, officially ended Clemson’s presence as a true player on the national level. They wouldn’t return to that level until taking down LSU in the Peach Bowl almost 20 years later (2012 season). As expectations tempered, what was considered a “big win” and a “great moment” looked different from the previous decade. Therefore, this list is almost entirely comprised of upset moments when Clemson managed to win games that most everyone didn’t think possible.
#10: 1994 win in Chapel Hill: The ‘94 Tigers were not very good. The Hatfield marriage, which was doomed from the start, ended after the win over U of SC in Columbia the year before. Clemson’s penny pinching was never more evident than when it went with largely unproven and unknown Tommy West as the new head coach. It was an attempt to reconnect some with the Ford era as West had been a Ford assistant, but in my mind (and many others’ minds), it was like saying you love Kate Upton but you married her third cousin twice removed who really doesn’t look anything like her. West came in to what was an almost entirely depleted roster, especially on offense, and the Tigers were rolling out true freshmen at quarterback, running back, full back, and wide receiver...and these guys were not Trevor Lawrence or Justyn Ross. West worked to get the program tougher, and that was evident whenever the team was totally outclassed but kept things from getting ugly (like 93 down in Tallahassee when they only lost 17-0).
Florida State’s entry in the ACC created some scheduling quirks which forced Clemson to play the two teams who beat the brakes off of them on the road in 1993, Florida State and North Carolina, on the road back-to-back years. Thanks ACC! Clemson faced Mack Brown’s now relevant North Carolina team which had emerged as the second best program in the conference behind the Seminoles. Clemson came into this game 2-5, with the two wins coming over Furman and a very bad Maryland team who would finish 4-7 that year. The Tarheels were ranked 19th and there was little to no hope that the Tigers could go in and win, however, an offense that hadn’t topped 27 points all season put up four touchdowns behind a big game from running back Lamont Pegues and took out the ‘Heels 28-17, breathing a little life into the season that reached the brink of bowl eligibility before a loss to Brad Scott’s Gamecocks ended the season. So, if you need an introduction to the 1990s, an unexpected win over UNC made a top 10 list!
#9: 1995 U of SC game (featuring the chicken drag): The Palmetto Bowl had a strange stretch in the 90s when both programs were equally mediocre and neither team could win at home. The ‘94 Tigers lost miserably in Death Valley 33-7 to the Chickens. The Cocks had Steve Tanneyhill and his mullet back in 1995, but they didn’t have a good defense, and the Tigers enjoyed multiple big plays in route to a 38-17 win. The two biggest featured WR Antwan Wyatt doing a Hunter Renfrow-esque clowning of the U of SC secondary for a score, and Emory Smith’s legendary dragging of the chicken secondary for about 25 of a 50+ yard run.
While Tanneyhill might have signed the paw and beaten Clemson twice, his career ended that day with a beating. He was an all-time great villain in the rivalry which made this one extra sweet. It was also the fifth straight win that season which provided a good bit of false hope that Tommy West might actually get the job done. Donovan McNabb and Syracuse emphatically ended that pipe dream in the Gator Bowl, however.
#8: Close Loss in Bowden Bowl I (1999): Another indictment of this decade is a loss isn’t #10, it is #8, but this game was epic on so many levels, including holding the single game attendance record for Death Valley which will probably never be broken after the stadium renovations which have happened since. My best friend and I watched this one from the West Stands. Extra bleachers had been brought in and placed in front of them for this game. Clemson had exactly one truly competitive game with the Noles between their first ACC meeting in 1992 and this game featuring legendary father Bobby Bowden against his son Tommy. FSU was #1 and on the way to a second national title under Bowden, but there was new life in Clemson thanks to the hiring of Tommy Bowden and a serious update on the playing style of the Tigers on offense.
Talent wise, Clemson was still a long way from matching up with FSU, but there was enough hope that Rich Rod would conjure a way to offset things with his innovative (especially at that time) HUNH offense and the attacking Tiger defense, led by the “Termite” Keith Adams, could keep it close enough. In all honesty, this was the first time Clemson had truly been in the national spotlight since probably 1991.
For most of the night, things went to script. The Tigers came out running plays at a furious clip and the FSU defense got tired enough for Woody Dantzler and company to build a 14-3 lead at the half. FSU would shut the Tiger offense down after halftime, allowing their offense to eventually wear on a Tiger defense who had been playing at an unbelievable level. Everyone was waiting for some kind of trickery with the history of the Bowdens, and late in the fourth quarter, we got it with a reverse/throw back play from Rod Gardner to Woody which was extremely well designed (Woody even fell down to sell he wasn’t going out). FSU safety Chris Hope stayed at home just enough to stop Woody from taking it to the house, and the very poor Clemson field goal kicking situation at the time made the game tying field goal attempt not much of a realistic expectation. Clemson lost, of course, but the Tiger faithful began to start believing the program might finally crawl out of the desert as the decade came to a close.
#7: 1999 UVA win: Speaking of the Tommy Bowden optimism, it started in earnest for me when I witnessed (at the time) the most devastating passing attack I’d seen as a Clemson fan in my lifetime. Clemson had already lost to Chad Pennington and Marshall to start the season before a ranked UVA squad came to town to start the ACC schedule. While we had seen some of the HUNH formations and approaches in that Marshall game, there wasn’t anything to really make us think the offense had finally moved into the modern day for real.
The Clemson teams of the 90s often had pretty good defenses which at times could be very good. Any NFL talent those teams had was almost always found on that side of the ball. But the bowl failures during the West regime had all featured horrific offensive showings which cemented that the old ground and pound approach for Clemson football was just not viable to win on the big stage.
QB Brandon Streeter, now Clemson’s QB Coach and Recruiting Coordinate, had endured a brutal 1998 season behind a porous offensive line. In the 1999 matchup with UVA though, he ran the HUNH to perfection, scorching the Cavaliers for over 300 yards passing which had previously never been done at Clemson.
Although that 33-14 win did not lead to 10 wins or an ACC title, it finally showed that Clemson would use the forward pass as a weapon rather than a mere change-up, paving the way to the high powered attacks we have seen in the years that followed.
#6: 1997 “can’t flip his hips” game against U of SC: The Palmetto Bowl had seen the road team win every game from 1991 to this tilt, which would again be won by the road team as Clemson overcame an early 14-3 deficit to win 47-21. Whipping the Gamecocks is always a great highlight, and I have to say pounding them in their own stadium is often sweeter than the wins in Death Valley.
The lore around this game had to do with Clemson corner Antwan Edwards, who had converted from safety, and the talk from U of SC that they didn’t think he could flip his hips effectively in man coverage and could be exploited. Edwards then proceeded to make not one, but two pick six plays that helped turn the game into a laugher by the fourth quarter. The future first rounder proved he was up to the task.
This was probably the final highlight of Tommy West’s tenure as his senior laden 1997 squad was unable to secure major wins in close games with Florida State and North Carolina, while also dropping games to GT and UVA. What should have been his best team went just 4-4 in the conference and lost another bowl game. The wheels came off in 1998, as we know, and West was fired.
#5: 1990 Hall of Fame Bowl Massacre: Thankfully, Coach Swinney has delivered two National Championships to Clemson so fans like me don’t lament seasons like 1990 like we used to. If the stars ever aligned for the Tigers to win another title, 1990 should have been that year. The fact that the co-champions (yes, there was such a thing then) were freaking Colorado and Georgia Tech tells you everything about how open it was for a roster as loaded as Clemson’s to win it all. But, the friction around Ford’s firing and Hatfield’s hiring cast a shadow that led to a lot of underachieving by that team, even as it went on to win 10 games.
That defense was arguably the greatest in Clemson history, leading the nation in total defense and featured stars Levon Kirkland, Ed McDaniel, Ashley Sheppard, Wayne Simmons, John Johnson, Chester McGlockton, Brenston Buckner, Vance Hammond, Robert O’Neal, and Arlington Nunn, among others. The offense had an electric running back in Ronald Williams, a dangerous speed on the outside with Doug Thomas and Terry Smith, and a dual threat triggerman in DeChane Cameron. Instead of winning it all, that team was the first to ever lose to UVA (albeit one of the best UVA teams ever) and lost to GT in a game where it outgained the Jackets by over 200 yards.
There were two games where that team showed what it could do and both of those are on this list. The first was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of big time Clemson football for a long time. The Tigers drew Illinois, who at the time was actually pretty decent at football and had just produced Jeff George who was the #1 pick in the NFL draft the year before. They had the type of pro-style passing attack which was coming into vogue and beginning to replace the wishbone/I formation approaches. They ran into an absolute buzzsaw that day in Tampa as the Tiger defense pitched a dominant shutout, winning 30-0 to finish the season 10-2, the fourth straight 10 win season and the last until 2011. At the time I took it as business as usual, but now I wish I would have soaked it in more than I did. Just goes to show you never really know when the good times can go bad so enjoy them!
#4: Clemson flexes on UVA (1993): The 1993 season was an enigma. Clemson was long criticized from outside for firing Ken Hatfield after an 8-win regular season (9 after the bowl that Tommy West coached). The wins were usually ugly and against poor competition though. The Tigers had just been stuffed by UNC the week before 18th ranked UVA came to town.
Most of the ‘93 season had featured a revolving door at QB between Sapp, Richard Moncrief, and Louis Solomon. The team hadn’t broken 30 points in any game and had been held under 20 four times. The wins that year reminded me a little of the stretch in 2014 when a banged up Cole Stoudt was leading the offense after Watson got hurt, only uglier.
In one of the craziest things I can remember seeing in my life as a football fan, Ken Hatfield and his staff decided to take starting corner Dexter McCleon, who was a high school quarterback, and put him at QB to run what was deemed the “flexbone” for the UVA game. I can’t recall a team making a position move like that during a season that wasn’t injury related. For one crazy Saturday afternoon, the flexbone worked and Clemson “upset” UVA 23-14. McCleon and the Tigers were able to squeak by U of SC the next week, but by the time the bowl game came, the flexbone was figured out and McCleon went back to corner for the rest of his career.
#3: Ridiculous Comeback in Charlottesville: 1992 was mostly a very forgettable year that had lowlights such as getting blown out by Maryland, losing in Winston-Salem, and making Steve Tanneyhill’s top career moment possible. As a fan, I hadn’t seen Clemson miss a bowl since probation, but the 92 crew went 5-6. Ken Hatfield had played with using dropback passing with Patrick Sapp after Richard Moncrief’s quarterbacking left much to be desired.
In the middle of all of this was a crazy occurrence against UVA, who had won their first game against Clemson in 1990 and managed a tie in 1991. The underrated George Welsh had UVA at their peak, and the Tigers were no longer favorites. At the time, UVA was ranked 10th in the nation and still had star Terry Kirby at running back.
I will never forget watching this game at my best friend’s house. We were decked out in Clemson gear, as usual, but as the team was getting trounced in the first half, we started taking off our Clemson stuff piece by piece. 7-0 UVA, off went the jacket. 14-0, off went the hat, 21-0, off went the shirt, by the time 28-0 happened, we only had our pants on as we went to throw on something non-Clemson in our disgust. By this time, Hatfield had benched Moncrief and put in the diminutive Louis Solomon, who neither of us knew much if anything about. The team then went straight option football and Solomon broke one for a long TD to make it 28-7 at the half. I think I might have put my Clemson shirt back on at that point, but we weren’t optimistic.
But, after the Tigers got a fumble to start the third quarter and scored, we began to see hope. The Tiger run game started ripping UVA apart while the defense finally got a grip on Kirby and the Cavs offense. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing any more than the TV crew could that day, and we had put all our Clemson gear back on by the time Nelson Welch came out for the game winning kick. 29-28, and one of the very, very few tombstones secured by the teams of the 1990s. Still the greatest comeback for a Clemson team in my memory.
#2: 1991 GT “Missin’ Sisson’” game: Clemson’s last ACC championship until 2011 was largely made possible by this huge matchup with Georgia Tech, who was coming off their share of the National Championship. GT still had Bobby Ross coaching, Ralph Friedgen at OC, George O’Leary at DC, and Shawn Jones at QB. Theywere ranked 19th at the time of the game. Dynamic running back Ronald Williams was injured in pregame for the Tigers, and he was very limited most of the day and it was felt as the Tiger offense struggled to do anything.
With the Tigers down 7-3 in the second half, Williams fought through his injury to lead the one TD drive of the day for Clemson. To add serious drama, however, the extra point was blocked, giving GT a chance to win the game with a FG down 9-7. The Jackets drove into FG range, and Scott Sisson came on to try to win the game. In what I had hoped would happen against Pitt in 2016, Sisson missed the kick and the Tigers escaped. The Tigers were ranked in the top 10 at the time, and it would be 2000 before the Tigers would be ranked that high again at any point in a season. The Tigers would get upset in Athens the next week and finished the season with an embarrassing effort in the Citrus Bowl against California.
#1: Drubbing the Dawgs (1990): Clemson has precious few wins over UGA. John Heisman kicked their tails many, many moons ago, but the few wins since that period were almost always closely contested ballgames. The one clear blowout of the hated Bulldogs in my lifetime came at the hands of the 1990 team. I mentioned before how that loaded team played to its potential, in my estimation, twice that season. The bowl game and this game, and when it was playing at this level, everyone could see that it was a team who could have won it all. The defense was lights out, keeping UGA out of Clemson territory nearly the entire game, and the offense eventually wore down the Bulldog defense and pulled away to win 34-3, the most decisive victory in the series for Clemson since 1955. Most of 1990 was spent squeaking out wins over Maryland, NCSU, and UNC and even the Gamecocks made the Tigers sweat some that year, but not that UGA game.
So we made it through the Abyss that was the 1990s. Ten years, one ACC title, 2 bowl wins, and not a whole lot else to write home about. Ultimately, it should serve as a cautionary tale about not taking things for granted, not cutting off your nose to spite your face, and being great at football and academics can happen at the same time, Max Lennon. For you young folks who were born after this period, be thankful you didn’t have to experience crowds of under 70K in the Valley (and even 60K that one Wake game), be thankful you didn’t cross your fingers that you could find a way to beat UNC or UVA or GT. Soak that 2018 destruction of Florida State ALL the way up because it probably means to them what that 1993 game meant to us: that they are bound for the wilderness.