When Jess Neely left Clemson for Rice in 1940, he left the job to Frank Howard, who accompanied him to Clemson from Alabama in 1931.
Neely thought a lot of Howard, and he wanted to see him succeed as a head coach. Neely gave Howard one piece of advice before heading to Houston.
“Don’t ever let them talk you into building a big stadium,” Neely said to Howard. “Put about 10,000 seats behind the YMCA. That’s all you’ll ever need.”
As we all know, Howard did not listen to Neely’s advice. Soon after Neely left, Howard began drawing up plans for a 20,000-seat stadium located in a natural Valley a little west of Historic Riggs Field, now the soccer stadium at Clemson. By the end of the 1940 season, trees were already being cleared in the valley. Howard was right there, cutting them down and clearing the path.
In fact, much of the building of the football stadium was built by scholarship athletes, including football players. The first staking out of the stadium was done by A.N. Cameron and Hugh Webb, who returned to Clemson years later to be an architecture professor.
However, this new stadium was not built without a few problems. One player told Howard during the clearing of the land that he was not allergic to poison oak. So, as the story goes, Howard put him to work slinging down all the poison oak, which of course he threw all over him. The next day, the player was swollen twice his size and was hospitalized.
When the concreate was later poured, Howard, known for chewing his tobacco, placed a little bit of chew in each corner of the stadium, permanently leaving a part of him in the stadium he built.
Howard said the seeding of the grass was the biggest issue. They had about 40 people helping lay the sod. About three weeks into the project, they had gotten just about halfway through.
“I told them it had taken us three weeks to get that far and I would give them three more weeks’ pay for however long it took to finish,” Howard said. “I also told them we would have fifty gallons of ice cream when we got through.
“After that, it took them about three days to do the rest of the field. Then we sat down in the middle of the field and ate up that whole fifty gallons.”
It was a no-brainer what Clemson was going to name its new football stadium.
Clemson, which opened its doors for the first time in 1893, was originally a military school, reflecting the belief at the time that a military atmosphere produced the highest academic excellence.
In 1916, ROTC was first instituted at the college under the National Defense Act, which established ROTC in many land-grant colleges across the nation. There were 1,549 Clemson men who served during World War I and 32 paid the ultimate sacrifice.
There were more than 6,500 Clemson men in World War II, 90 percent of whom were officers commissioned as a result of ROTC training at Clemson. Of these men, 376 gave their lives.
So, Clemson named the new home of the football team, Memorial Stadium, in honor of the former Clemson students and alumni who sacrificed their lives in the great World Wars.
Memorial Stadium opened its gates for the first time on September 19, 1942.
“The gates were hung at 1 p.m., and we played at 2 p.m.,” Howard later said.
Neely thought Howard was nuts for building a new stadium. He felt all the program needed was at Riggs Field, which sat about 9,000 fans at the time. During Neely’s tenure, the Tigers did not have very many home games. Clemson never played more than four games in any season during his nine years in Clemson, and it only did that one time.
In six of his seasons, the Tigers played only two home games. It is easy to see why Neely figured Clemson did not need a big stadium.
But Howard, 31 years old at the time, was a visionary and he always looked towards the future. He knew something good was brewing at Clemson. He saw the passion in the fan base and how much they loved their Clemson football.
Clemson beat Presbyterian, 32-13, in front of an estimated crowd of 5,000 fans in that first game
“The way I see it, Memorial Stadium is Coach Howard. He designed it. He cut down the trees. He poured the concrete and he laid down the grass. He about did it all,” said former head coach Danny Ford.
Though Howard built Memorial Stadium, he is not the person responsible for its nickname. And, just in case an LSU fan is reading this, Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is not college football’s real Death Valley. That distinction belongs to Clemson.
Cally Gault remembers his first trip to Clemson quite well. A freshman at Presbyterian at the time, he and his Blue Hose teammates came to Clemson and were thrashed, 76-0.
The Tigers netted 516 yards on the ground as 14 different players carried the ball on September 22, 1945. Clemson freshman Bobby Gage, who went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, led the Tigers with 144 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown run.
All 11 of Clemson’s touchdowns came on the ground that afternoon, which is a record that still stands today.
Soon after being beat so bad by the Tigers, Presbyterian head coach Lonnie McMillian gave Memorial Stadium a nickname.
“After we were beaten so badly in 1945, Coach McMillian and us players referred to the Clemson trip as going ‘to Death Valley,’” said Gault. “I’m not sure when the press picked up on it, but I’m sure it was real soon.”
The press picked up on it because McMillian would tell them, “I’m taking my boys to Death Valley,” when he spoke about the Clemson trip. Presbyterian and Clemson opened the season every year from 1930-1957.
Gault was a player and coach during most of those years and none of the PC teams he was on came close to beating Clemson, which became relevant on the national scene in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“I was 16-years-old as a freshman when I came to PC, and playing in Death Valley was special,” said Gault, who was also the head coach at Presbyterian from 1962-’84. “I do remember this more than anything – it was hot, and I mean real hot at Clemson. You haven’t felt hot until you played in Death Valley in early September.”
Howard soon picked up on the moniker “Death Valley” and started referring to Memorial Stadium as such when he went to IPTAY meetings or when speaking to the press. The earliest accounts of Howard using the nickname came in the late 1940s and early ’50s when the Tigers were making regular trips to bowl games like the Gator Bowl, the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl.
“When Coach Howard picked up on the nickname and started using it to the media, it became really popular,” Gault said.
In 1957, a young athlete by the name of Billy Cannon made his way to LSU. A local kid from Baton Rouge, Cannon was one of the more sought-after players in the country. He scored 39 touchdowns his senior year of high school, allowing him to earn All-American honors.
Cannon was also a track star and was clocked running 100-yards in 9.4 seconds and 4.12 seconds in the 40.
At LSU, Cannon lived up to the hype. As a three-year starter in 1957, ’58 and ’59 he set all sorts of records, while leading the Tigers to their first national championship in 1958 and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1959.
But his most memorable moment and the one that started the controversy on who owns the rights of being called the original “Death Valley” came on Halloween night in 1959. Trailing No. 3 Ole Miss, 3-0, late in the game, Cannon had his Heisman moment when he took a punt at his own 11-yard line, broke seven tackles before he got to his own 40, and then ran away from everyone the final 60 yards for the game-winning score.
In Marty Mule’s 1993 book called the Eye of the Tiger, One Hundred Years of LSU Football he describes that night and at the same time speaks to the origin of how Tiger Stadium became known as “Death Valley.”
In the Chapter called “Death Valley USA” on page 123, Mule wrote about the reaction from Cannon’s 89-yard punt return to beat Ole Miss.
Mule wrote: “The noise level generated by Cannon’s run is to have supposed to have brought people scurrying from their homes for miles around to see what happened, part of why Tiger Field was dubbed ‘Deaf Valley.’ The name ‘Death Valley’ – which was used first at Clemson – was picked when the original term was not properly enunciated, and misunderstood.”
In other words, LSU never intended Tiger Field to be called “Death Valley.” The locals could not say “Deaf Valley” correctly. Also, it proves Tiger Field’s nickname did not come until many years after Clemson began using the moniker “Death Valley” and Mule acknowledges Clemson used it first.
Former LSU and South Carolina head coach Paul Dietzel confirmed Mule’s writings. Dietzel coached the Tigers from 1955-’61 and he said the nickname “Death Valley” was not used for Tiger Field while he was the head coach in Baton Rouge.
“I don’t think so. That came a little later,” said Dietzel in a 2012 interview with The Clemson Insider.
Through the years, Death Valley has lived up to its nickname. Heading into the 2021 season, the Tigers have totaled 322 wins in 79 years and have won nearly 75 percent of its games (322-102-7). It’s the only place Heisman Trophy winner, and Georgia running back, Herschel Walker lost a regular season game in his three years at Georgia.
Led by All-American linebacker Jeff Davis and All-American safety Terry Kinard, the Tigers took down the Bulldogs, 13-3, on September 19, 1981. The Tigers forced a record nine Georgia turnovers that day.
“I came here knowing it would be loud and Clemson would hit hard, but the noise was the biggest factor. I didn’t concentrate as well because of it,” Walker said afterward.
Under Dabo Swinney, Death Valley has never been so good. Heading into 2021, the Tigers are 77-6 under Swinney, including a 66-3 home record from 2011-2020. Clemson had a 21-game home winning streak from 2013-2016 and enters the 2021 season with a 28-game home winning streak.
The Tigers were 49-1 at Death Valley from 2013 through the end of the 2020 season. The recent senior class left Tigertown with a 27-0 record at home.
“It is one of the best places to play in college football,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said prior to his team’s 2019 trip to Clemson. “It is Death Valley. It will be loud.”
Through the years Memorial Stadium has grown and changed its appearance. In 1958, 18,000 seats were added and in 1960, 5,658 seats were built in the west end zone due to an increase in ticket demands.
With the west end zone stands, capacity increased to 53,000. It stayed that way until 1978 when Clemson added an upper deck on the south side of the stadium. In 1983, an upper deck was added on the north side, swelling the capacity to more than 80,000.
Over the years, Memorial Stadium has packed in more than 86,000 diehard Clemson fans.
“There will be a lot of orange. If you like orange, there will be a lot of that,” said Fisher, who is 1-4 at Death Valley as the head coach at Florida State and Texas A&M. “There will be a lot of happy fans. They are a great fan base. Tremendous fans base, a classy fan base. But very loud and hard to go play in.
“Like in [the SEC], it is like the venues you are going to play in, in our league. It is 80,000 something or 90,000 or whatever it is. They love their ball and they are passionate about it, that is for sure.”
Today, Memorial Stadium is one of the largest on campus stadiums in the country, with crowds over the 81,500 capacity.
“We go to a lot of great venues for college football, but this doesn’t take a back seat to any place. In terms of the atmosphere, stadium, noise and facilities, this is a special place on a Saturday night,” ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge said.
It’s a good thing Frank Howard did not listen to Jess Neely all those years ago.
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