One afternoon in the spring of 1966, Frank Howard was cleaning up his Clemson office when he came across this big rock an alumnus picked up in Death Valley, California. The alumnus was S.C. Jones, a 1919 graduate of Clemson College. He gave the rock to Howard some years before as a gift, thinking it was pretty cool for Clemson to have a rock from the real Death Valley in Clemson’s Death Valley.
For years, Howard used the rock as a doorstop in his office over at Fike, until that faithful day in 1966.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” Howard said in his 1990 book Howard: The Clemson Legend. “It sat around my office for about three years. I got tired of looking at it and I told Gene Willimon, who was the executive secretary of IPTAY from 1950 to 1977, ‘Take this rock out there and throw it over in the valley.’
“I thought he was going to pitch it over the fence. Instead he made a stand and put the rock up on the top of it.”
Willimon placed the rock on a pedestal at the top of the hill on the east side of the stadium. Ever since it opened in 1942, the players used the hill as a short cut to enter Clemson Memorial Stadium after dressing at the old Fike Field House.
“Howard’s Rock,” as it affectionately became known as, made its debut at the top of the hill on Sept. 24, 1966. The Tigers were playing Virginia in the season-opener that afternoon and trailed the Cavaliers by 18 points, 35-17, late in the third quarter. But behind the arm of Jimmy Addison, the Legend of Howard’s Rock was born.
The Tigers rallied in what is still the largest come-from-behind victory by a Clemson team in Memorial Stadium history as Addison completed 12 of 19 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns, including a 74-yard pass to Jackie Jackson with 3:49 to play that proved to the game winner in a 40-35 victory.
Clemson went on to win all four home games that year, but it did not rub the rock. The following season, when the Tigers hosted Wake Forest in the season opener on Sept. 23, 1967, the legend of Howard’s Rock and its “mystical powers” was born.
“Before the game, I told the players that ‘all of you who are going to give me one hundred percent, when you get in the valley today you can rub my rock. It will give you good luck,’” Howard said. “‘Any of you who does not give me hundred percent, keep your filthy hands off my rock. Don’t touch it.’”
Clemson won that game 23-6 and the next day on his television show, Howard told that story. A few days later, Howard received a letter in the mail from a fan who had watched the show. She said in the letter, “Dear Coach, if you’d believe more in God and less in that rock, you’d be a lot better football coach.”
However, despite that one fan’s plea, Clemson has been rubbing Howard’s Rock and charging down the hill before every game since, except for the three seasons when Hootie Ingram was the head coach from 1970-’72.
“It’s not like playing anywhere else,” Clemson safety Jadar Johnson said. “Just hearing 85,000 people screaming, it is an unreal feeling. I have never felt anything like it before. None of the other places we have played at feel like this.”
Johnson and the Tigers will celebrate, along with all of Clemson, 50 years of Howard’s Rock on Saturday when they take on Troy at 12:30 p.m. in the home opener.
Howard’s Rock has become one of the more iconic symbols in college football and when the Tigers rub his rock and charge down the hill, it has become known as “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football.”
Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence says he can’t wait to experience one of college football’s grandest traditions.
“I can wait to look out when I’m standing at the rock and looking at all the fans just going crazy that are waiting on us to run down the hill,” he said. “I’m ready for the (cannon) to shoot and just everybody just to take off, rub the rock, kiss it, whatever you want to do to it.
“I’m just embracing everything I’m given right now because not everyone can experience this moment, but a lot of people want to.”
For Saturday’s game, members of the S.C. Jones family and the family of Gene Willimon, will be honored as part of Clemson’s 50th anniversary of Howard’s Rock.
“Now I’m a part of it. That is the crazy part to me. I’m actually here. I’m going to be able to run down that hill and touch the rock and be a part of this (tradition),” Lawrence said.