Though most of the 54,129 fans that walked through the gates an hour before kickoff on November 21, 1976, were hoping to see their Clemson Tigers warm up prior to their 28-9 victory over arch rival South Carolina, all they saw was an empty half of the field, while the Gamecocks went through their pregame warm-ups.
“We did know where they were,” said Clemson Senior Associate Sports Information Director Sam Blackman, who was 14 years old at the time. “We were sitting on the hill, and I kept wondering, ‘Are they going to show?’”
It was easy to see why someone might think the Tigers were going to be a no show. Clemson was 2-6-2 coming into the Palmetto State’s annual battle, while the Gamecocks were 6-4. The only thing that stood between South Carolina and a Peach Bowl invitation was a victory over Clemson.
But the Tigers weren’t warming up in Death Valley because they were scared to play South Carolina. Instead, they were at an adjacent field to Memorial Stadium that was used as a practice field for the soccer team. The lot is now known as Lot 2 for game day parking and is used as an intramural field the rest of the year by the university.
“We were very relaxed for the pregame,” former Clemson head coach Red Parker said during a 2012 interview with The Clemson Insider. “We did not want to waste any emotion until we got to the top of the hill. It was a very casual warm up. If someone thought he had enough, he went over and sat down.
“You could not have done that down at the stadium. We were well prepared. We had to eat it for a year and I know we were ready to play.”
What the Tigers had to eat for a whole year was a 56-20 thumping by South Carolina in Columbia in the 1975 game. The 36-point victory is still the Gamecocks largest margin of victory in the series. So whatever happened on that soccer practice field that morning, it worked.
Clemson held the Gamecocks’ powerful offense to 124 rushing yards and forced five turnovers, including three interceptions. The Tigers rushed for 280 yards and got 127 from Warren Ratchford and 98 from fullback Tracy Perry.
“We did not know what they were doing, but we heard afterwards that they had a pretty spirited practice,” Blackman said. “Whatever it was, obviously it worked. We had not seen them play like that all year.”
The Tigers did not touch the playing surface in Death Valley that cold and rainy afternoon until they came storming down the Hill just before kickoff. Their entrance energized what was at the time the largest crowd to see a football game at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
The emotion in the stadium sparked the Tigers as sophomore quarterback Steve Fuller led an 81-yard drive that was capped by Perry’s three-yard run. South Carolina tried to answer the Tigers’ score, but Ron Bass’s pass to the end zone was picked off by Clemson’s Brian Kier.
Ratchford, who had 92 yards rushing on five carries in the first quarter, broke off a 54-yard run on the ensuing possession and then Perry scored his second touchdown, this time from 12 yards out for a 14-0 lead.
“After the first drive, I thought we were in pretty good shape to have them come to us and try to beat us,” said Parker, who passed away last January at 84 years old. “There were a lot of things we could have done and did not do.”
But they did do a lot of them. One was capitalizing on South Carolina’s mistakes. Leading 14-3 in the third quarter, Clemson recovered a bad snap that sailed over the punters head at the South Carolina 16. Four plays later Fuller capitalized on the gift with a 5-yard run for a 21-3 lead.
Later in the third quarter, O.J. Tyler intercepted another Bass aerial at the Clemson 29. Forty four yards later, Fuller made the Gamecocks pay again, with a 27-yard scamper that electrified the sellout crowd and put the Tigers on top 28-3.
“Steve Fuller played a gutsy ballgame,” Parker said.
After a South Carolina score, Clemson was going in for another touchdown when reserve quarterback Mike O’Cain fumbled near the goal line. None of that mattered, though, as the Tigers beat South Carolina and ended their season in Death Valley.
“This is the greatest experience of my life to be around a group of kids like this,” said Parker to reporters after the game. “Our seniors have taken the position that they are willing to do anything to prepare this team for the future and I just want to thank them.
“I hated we fumbled on that last drive. I thought Mike O’Cain would get one in. We made only one change this week and that was to put Joe Bostic at center. He is only a sophomore and he is going to be a great one.”
And he was, as were a lot of other guys. Parker, who was 17-25-2 in four seasons at Clemson, was not allowed to stick around to find out. He was fired the following Monday and a few weeks later a guy by the name of Charlie Pell, who was Clemson’s defensive coordinator in 1976, was hired to be the head coach. Pell brought in a 29-year old coach by the name of Danny Ford to coach the offensive line.
But Parker was right. The future was bright at Clemson. The victory over South Carolina propelled the Clemson program into the future as the next season the Tigers began a streak of 15 straight winning seasons in which the program won 133 games, a national championship, seven ACC titles, seven bowl victories, 11 bowl appearances and 11 Top 20 seasons.
It is still considered the greatest era in Clemson football history.