By Will Vandervort / Photo courtesy Clemson University.
Experiencing a game day at Clemson on football Saturdays is unlike any other place in college football. Few places are as rich in traditions and pageantry as much as this small college town located in the foothills of western South Carolina.
Clemson is a place where fans not only come to watch their Tigers play, but they come for everything else. Fans have told me in the past that it’s like going to a family reunion seven times a year.
So what makes Clemson Saturdays in the fall so special? The Clemson Insider has put together a list of the 10 things you love about Clemson football.
1. Memorial Stadium, a.k.a. “Death Valley”: When you walk in, you can’t help but see the big purple letters that say, “Clemson Welcomes You to Death Valley” protruding out the faces of both the upper decks of Memorial Stadium. The stadium, which can hold more than 84,000 on game day, is as intimidating as it appears. The Clemson fans make Death Valley an intimidating environment for opposing teams. Clemson has ranked in the top 15 nationally in attendance in each of the last 15 years and is the 16th largest on campus stadium in the country. The Tigers have won more than 72 percent of their games in Death Valley, including a 32-6 (.842) mark under Dabo Swinney. Memorial Stadium was built in 1942 and it is named in memory for the thousands of Clemson students and alumni that have given their lives defending our country. Memorial Stadium took on the moniker Death Valley when the late Lonnie McMillian, who coached for years at nearby Presbyterian College, told his players in 1946 they had to go back to “Death Valley” after the Tigers beat PC, 76-0, the year before.
2. Running down the Hill: It started off as an easy way for the Clemson players to get into Memorial Stadium, now it is known as “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football.” After Memorial Stadium was built in 1942, the Clemson players walked down Williamson Road from old Fike Fieldhouse, where they got dressed for practice, to get to the stadium. Instead of going all the way around and entering the stadium from the west end, head coach Frank Howard instructed his players to cut through the fence on the east side of the stadium and run down the hill there. The Tigers even used this path to go into the stadium on game days as well. Ultimately, it started to gain fan fair. When the Tigers went down the hill prior to warm ups, they were greeted by a couple of hundred fans. This turned into a tradition that stuck through the remaining 28 years of Howard’s career. When he retired in 1970, new coach Hootie Ingram ended the tradition. In 1973, in his second game as head coach, Red Parker resurrected the tradition, which Clemson fans now observe today. Ten minutes prior to kickoff, the Tigers leave the locker room and board three buses on the west end of the stadium. The buses drive them around the stadium to the east side where they get off and charge down the Hill to take on their opponents.
3. Howard’s Rock: Sometimes the national media and college football fans think Howard’s Rock is only a part of the running down the Hill tradition, but it actually is its own thing. Players did not start rubbing Howard’s Rock for good luck until the Wake Forest game in 1967. Prior to the 1966 season, Howard and Gene Willimon, the Executive Director of IPTAY at the time, were cleaning out his office at Fike when Howard asked Willimon to take the rock he used as a doorstop and go throw it in the Valley with the rest of them. Without telling Howard, Willimon decided to do something else with it. The rock was given to Howard as a gift a few years back from Clemson graduate S.C. Jones, who brought it back to Clemson after visiting the real Death Valley in California. Willimon did not want to see Jones’ gesture go unnoticed so he put the rock on a pedestal and placed it at the top of the hill. Clemson opened the 1966 season with the rock on top of the hill, but the players did not touch it that year. In its debut, the Tigers rallied from a 35-17 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Virginia, 40-35. It is still the largest fourth-quarter comeback in Clemson history. The Tigers went on to win their next three home games that year to finish the season undefeated at home. When they opened the 1967 season at home against Wake Forest, Howard decided to have a little fun with his players and used the rock as motivation. He told them the rock has mystical powers and was the reason why they came back to beat Virginia and went undefeated at home in 1966. He said it would bring them good luck on the field and if they wanted to rub it for good luck, they could. He had one request, though. “If you can give me 110 percent, you can touch my rock,” Howard said. “If not, then keep your filthy hands off my rock.”
4. The Paw: In 1970, Clemson President R.C Edwards decided he wanted to upgrade the image of the university so he hired the Henderson Advertising Company out of Greenville. They did not want to replace the tiger as the Clemson mascot, but compliment it instead. After contacting several schools that used a tiger as their mascot, the group concluded that a tiger is a tiger regardless if it was a Persian, Bengal or Sumatra. That’s when Henderson’s group presented what was first called a “tiger track” as a possible new logo. But they weren’t sure how it was going to look so they contacted the museum of Natural History in Chicago, asking for a plaster of Paris cast of the imprint of the tiger’s paw. The imprint was changed to a print, tilted about 10 degrees to the right and presented to the Clemson committee. The Clemson Tiger Paw was born. Since then, the Paw and Clemson go hand-and-hand. It can be seen on the football helmet, athletic fields and arenas, athletic uniforms, clothes, stickers, roads and stationary among other things. No matter where you go in Clemson, you are bound to run into the Paw.
5. Tailgating and pageantry: Nearly 100,000 people migrate to Clemson on fall Saturday’s, not only enjoy the football game, but to participate in all that Clemson has to offer. Fans tailgate and host large parties in the lawns and parking lots that surround Memorial Stadium, while Tiger Band marches to its own beat as it goes down Fort Hill Street before turning down Williamson Rd, then down the Avenue of Champions before turning right on Centennial Boulevard where they enter the stadium.
6. A Championship Tradition: No school has won more Atlantic Coast Conference Championships than Clemson since the league was formed in 1953. The Tigers have won 14 overall and has won three ACC Atlantic Division titles since the league broke in to two divisions in 2005. In all, the Tigers have won 21 conference championships since it began football in 1896. The Tigers also own a national championship as well, which they won in 1981.
7. Bowl History: Clemson has played in 36 bowl games, dating back to its first bowl game – the 1940 Cotton Bowl. The Tigers beat Boston College, 6-3, that day. Since then Clemson has posted 17 more victories in bowl games, which ranks 18th nationally. The Tigers’ 36 bowl appearances also rank 18th in the country all-time. The Tigers have been bowl eligible for 15 straight seasons, the sixth longest streak in college football. During its bowl history Clemson has played in the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl as well as other traditional bowls such as the Gator Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Outback Bowl (Hall of Fame Bowl) and the Capital One Bowl (Citrus Bowl). Included in their 18 bowl wins, the Tigers have beaten traditional national powers Miami, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and LSU. They have also beaten legendary coaches such as Frank Leahy, Wood Hayes, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, Barry Switzer, Don Nehlen, Phil Fulmer, Les Miles and Urban Myer. In all, Clemson has won nine bowl games over coaches who are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
8. First Friday Parade: Each year since 1974 students from fraternities and sororities as well as other student governments has held the parade the Friday afternoon before the first home football game to celebrate the new football season. Thousands of Clemson fans roll into town that afternoon to see the parade.
9. Homecoming: Homecoming has historically been a celebration that has included a Clemson victory 76 percent of the time since its first celebration in 1922. Clemson has an overall record of 67-20-3 for its previous 90 Homecoming games, a .760 winning percentage. That includes a 37-4-2 record (.904) on Homecoming games since the 1971 season. During the week preceding the game, student organizations build homecoming displays on Bowman Field. Beginning in 1957, Tigerama — one of the nation’s largest student-run pep rallies — incorporated skits by student groups, fireworks and the crowning of the homecoming queen on the Friday night of homecoming.
10. Tigerwalk: This is a relatively new tradition, which current head coach Dabo Swinney started in 2008 when he first took over as the interim head coach the week before the Georgia Tech game. With all that went on during the first six weeks of the season, which led to Tommy Bowden’s dismissal as head coach, Swinney felt Tiger Walk was a way to bring both the players and the fans back together. Since that day, two hours before kickoff, the Tigers get off the buses at the Lot 5 parking lot in front of the WestZone and parade through a tunnel of fans – mostly in the thousands – as they slap high-fives and shake hands on their way into the stadium.