Clemson is 11-2 since Swinney went back to wearing orange pants for only meaningful or championship games
Kelly Bryant does not know the history behind Clemson’s famous orange pants, but he knows that they are special for a reason.
“It means we are playing for a championship,” the Tigers’ quarterback said. “This is championship time. This is the championship phase of our journey. So when we bring the orange pants out, a championship is on the line.”
A championship will be on the line Saturday as the fourth-ranked Tigers host Florida State with a chance to clinch the ACC’s Atlantic Division title and secure a spot in next month’s conference championship game in Charlotte.
“It’s special to wear the (orange pants). They have a special meaning to it,” Bryant said. “Like I said, we are playing for something. We are playing for hardware. It’s part of that championship phase.”
The Orange Pants first debuted at Clemson in 1980, when the Tigers hosted then No. 14 South Carolina and soon to be Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. Then Clemson head coach Danny Ford wanted to find a way to motivate his team.
To that point in the season, the Tigers were just 5-5 and they knew they weren’t going to a bowl game. The week before they were blown out by Maryland and many fans feared Ford had lost his team.
Several weeks before, equipment manager Len Gough presented the idea of wearing the orange pants he had made to Ford, suggesting they use them as motivation for the players. So the morning of the game during the team breakfast, Ford got the team’s attention, held up the orange pants and told them they were going to wear them in the game.
“When he did that, the room went crazy,” said former All-American linebacker Jeff Davis, now Swinney’s director for player relations at Clemson. “That’s all the guys could talk about was wearing those orange pants with the orange jersey and the orange helmet and how the fans were going to love it. Coach Ford was a master motivator. He knew how to push the right buttons.
“That moment relaxed us. All of sudden, we weren’t thinking about having to win this game to save his job or about how we were going to stop George Rogers or any of that. We were just looking forward to playing the game.”
Ford also instructed his players that they were going to wear their traditional white pants during warmups because they wanted to surprise the fans when they got to the top of the hill wearing their all-orange uniforms. So players were instructed to put their thigh, hip and knee pads in the orange pants so when they came back in after warmups they could slip the orange pants on quickly before loading the buses and riding over to the east side of the stadium to run down the hill.
The plan worked. Clemson fooled the fans and when the Tigers got to the top of the hill wearing their all-orange uniforms, the sellout crowd went crazy. The Tigers went on to beat South Carolina 27-6 that afternoon as safety Willie Underwood, who had not had an interception in his 47-game career prior to the Carolina game, record two interceptions, one to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and another he returned for a score in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
The win catapulted Clemson’s national championship season of 1981. The Tigers wore the orange pants three times that season, first beating defending national champion Georgia, then Maryland to clinch the ACC Championship and then again in the 1982 Orange Bowl win over Nebraska to win the national championship.
During his time at Clemson, Ford’s teams went 16-2 when wearing the orange pants, giving even more meaning behind the tradition of the orange britches.
However, overtime, the orange pants started to lose its luster, especially during the Tommy Bowden era. It seemed as if Bowden did not care about the tradition of the orange pants as he allowed his team to wear a different color combination it seemed like every week.
What uniform Clemson was wearing each week seemed to be more important to the fans and the players than who they were playing. It became a distraction. And when it came to wearing the orange pants, the Tigers wore them against anyone. It did not matter if it was a big game or not.
The mystique of the orange pants, and supposedly the mystical powers the fans and the players loved so much, was gone. No one cared about the tradition anymore.
Then Dabo Swinney came along. A guy known for his love and respect for history and traditions, Swinney simplified Clemson’s uniforms again, and even said in a press conference he was sick how fans and the players worried too much about what they were wearing.
He wanted his players to focus on the important things, like beating their opponent. So Swinney brought back Clemson’s traditional look. At home, with the exception of Military Appreciation Day when they wear all-purple uniforms to honor Clemson’s Military History, the Tigers wear their traditional orange jerseys with their white pants.
When the Tigers play on the road, they wear the traditional white jerseys with the white pants.
Then there are the orange pants. Swinney went back to the way Ford used to do it. The Tigers wear them against South Carolina or in a big game, such as when a championship is at stake like on Saturday against Florida State.
“There is a trophy on the line,” Swinney said. “You are either going to win or you are not.”
The last time Clemson wore its orange pants – it beat Alabama in the national championship game. The Tigers are 11-2 when wearing the orange pants since Swinney went back to its traditional ways and restored its mystique.