By Will Vandervort / Photo courtesy Clemson University.
As they sat in a parked car outside old Florence Memorial Stadium in Florence, S.C., following a 6-0 loss to the Citadel on October 16, 1931, Jess Neely, assistant coach Joe Davis, Captain Frank Jervey and Captain Pete Heffner talked quietly about the future of its Clemson football program.
Jervey, who the Jervey Athletic Center is named for today, was working in Washington, D.C. at the time as a liaison between the military and the college, while Heffner was a member of the military staff at Clemson and had a strong interest in athletics. He also assisted with coaching in his spare time.
“What we ought to do is get the alumni to give Jess some backing by helping him finance the football team,” said Heffner in the book The Clemson Tigers from 1896 to Glory.
The Tigers were in the midst of a 1-6-2 season with the only win coming a few weeks earlier against NC State. This was the first year of what is commonly known in Clemson lore as the “Seven Lean Years.” Neely, who went go on to become one of the nation’s most successful coaches at Rice, knew he was going to need something more if Clemson was going to stay competitive on the gridiron.
In hearing Heffner’s suggestion, Jervey asked Neely how much the school should ask its alumni for. The Clemson coach responded by suggesting the idea of a $50 Club.
“If I could get $10,000 a year to build the football program, I could give Clemson fans a winning team,” Neely said.
And thus the concept of the first booster club organization in college athletics was born.
Through the help of Rupert H. Fike, the idea of $50 a year was scaled down to $10 under the slogan “I Pay Ten A Year.”
On August 21, 1934, Fike informed Neely that the IPTAY Club had been organized and that a constitution was formulated. The constitution stated the purpose of the Clemson Order of IPTAY “shall be to provide annual financial support to the athletic department at Clemson and to assist in every other way possible to regain for Clemson the high athletic standing which rightfully belongs to her.”
After three consecutive losing seasons from 1931-’33, the 1934 season slowly started a trend which saw Clemson’s fortunes on the football field turn around. That year, the Tigers beat archrival South Carolina for the first time in four years, 19-0, on their way to a 5-4 record. In 1935, Clemson improved to 6-3 under Neely and again beat the hated Gamecocks, this time 44-0.
The Tigers beat USC in 1936 and 1937, and though they did not have great years as a whole, they also did not have a losing record, setting the stage for one of the best four-year runs in Clemson history.
In 1938, Clemson produced a 7-1-1 team, which included a 34-12 win over the Gamecocks. In 1939, the Tigers pounded South Carolina, 27-0, on their way to an 8-1 record. At season’s end, Clemson was extended an invitation to its first bowl game—the Cotton Bowl, and of course accepted.
The Tigers were scheduled to play the Eagles of Boston College on January 1, 1940 in Dallas, TX. It was dubbed the “farmer boys” against “the city slickers” and the farmer boys won, 6-3.
“If I didn’t look in the mirror every day, I wouldn’t know how old I am,” Neely once said. “Working with the boys makes you feel young. I feel that in athletics the boys learn a sense of loyalty and sacrifice and values they don’t learn anywhere else.
“They learn to compete and that is what life is all about – it’s competition. If they make good in football, chances are they’ll be successful elsewhere. I like to see that those boys make something of themselves. That is my reward. The boys go to college to study and get that degree. Playing football is a side activity. When fellows go to a school first to play football they get an entirely wrong sense of values.
“And when you start them off with the wrong sense, it isn’t difficult for them to go astray.”
Neely died at the age of 85 in 1983, but his landmark accomplishments in the 1930s at Clemson contributed significantly to Clemson’s outstanding football tradition.
His 1939 Clemson team was perhaps one of the most significant in Clemson football history because so much of the history and heritage of Clemson football documents 1939 as a cornerstone year. Not only was it Clemson’s first bowl team, it was Clemson’s first team to be ranked and the first to end a season in the top 20.
The Tigers finished 12th in the final Associated Press Poll.
Clemson opened the year with its annual victory over Presbyterian, then suffered its only loss, a 7-6 squeaker, to Tulane in New Orleans. The Tigers then went on to win their last seven regular season games.
Oddly enough, the loss to the GreenWave saw Banks McFadden, also known as “Bonnie Banks,” first rise to national prominence. Many observers say that is where McFadden made the All-America team on his punting exhibition, especially on his quick-kicks from the single-wing tailback position.
McFadden averaged over 43 yards a kick on 12 punts that afternoon and had six punts of at least 50 yards, still a single-game record at Clemson.
Neely always fought adversity at Clemson with slow and well thought out solutions. How many coaches today could win 36 games in six seasons with only 14 of those 56 games played at home?
Only once did Clemson play as many as four games at home in a year during Neely’s stay, and only twice were there three home games in a year. Thirteen of the 56 games were played on neutral sites. Even his 1939 team—his best at Clemson—only played two games at home, opening the season with an 18-0 win over Presbyterian and then in the seventh game, a 20-7 victory over Wake Forest.
The 1939 team was called “Road Clemson” because of this.
But despite the tough road schedule, the Tigers stayed strong. With the exception of the Tulane loss, they were only behind twice in their nine wins. And though players went both ways in those days, Clemson only gave up 45 points in 10 games.
The Tigers suddenly found themselves—a group of players from small town environments—playing big-time football. Neely rewarded the team for its efforts by taking all 51 players to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl game.
While in Dallas for the bowl game, talk was rampant that Neely might leave Clemson for the head coaching job at Rice. Bill Sullivan was the publicity man for Frank Leahy and Boston College, and he said he was in the hotel room in Dallas when Neely told a small group that he would definitely take the Rice offer.
Frank Howard, who was Neely’s line coach, spoke up and said: “Well, I’m not going with you.” And according to Sullivan, Neely said: “I hadn’t planned to ask you.”
When Howard was confronted with this, he denied it and said that J.C. Littlejohn, Clemson’s business manager, had promised him the Clemson head coaching job if Neely left.
Neely is still known today as one Clemson’s most beloved coaches. His influence and inspiration is still present thanks to the IPTAY Scholarship Club as it is the lifeblood of the Clemson Athletic Department.
From 1931-’39, Clemson had a 43-35-7 record during Neely’s tenure. After the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl win over Boston College, Neely spent the next 26 years at Rice University in Houston.
During 40 years of college coaching he compiled a record of 207-99-14. For his accomplishments, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Editor’s note: This story was an insert from the book I co-authored last summer called Clemson: Where the Tigers Play, which you can buy on amazon.com. This is the third story in a series of stories that chronicles how these coaches turned Clemson into the football power it has come to be over the years.