Clemson Football

The First Big Thursday for Clemson's First Great Coach

November 29, 2019
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The undefeated Tigers visit Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday to face 4-7 South Carolina in the 117th renewal of the most lopsided arch rivalry in major college football. Clemson has won approximately 63% of the games between the two schools that have not ended in ties (70-42-4).

Clemson’s record is even more remarkable, when you consider that the game was played on Carolina’s home field from 1896-1959. The Tigers have outscored the Gamecocks, who were known as “Jaguars” until about 1902, by a whopping 715 points in the series.

To say that Clemson has dominated the rivalry is an understatement. This domination was abated a few times over the years, most recently from 2009 through 2013 when Steve Spurrier’s teams took five straight. Clemson won in 2014 and Dabo’s boys go for a sixth consecutive triumph Saturday.

There can be no question that Dabo Swinney is one of the great head coaches in Clemson history, possibly THE greatest. Let’s look back at the first Carolina contest for the first great Tiger football coach – John Heisman.

THE FIRST BIG THURSDAY FOR CLEMSON’S FIRST GREAT COACH

By Jim Roberts

From its inception in 1896 through 1959, the Clemson- Carolina game was played on Thursday of State Fair week. The only interruptions were 1901 (reasons unknown) and 1903-1908 (due to armed confrontations of students from both schools in 1902). No game was played in those years. Otherwise, the game has been played each season. Not even World War I or World War II would interrupt the series.

Clemson and South Carolina met on the gridiron for the first time on Thursday, November 12, 1896. One member of the Columbia press corps wrote that the contest was “one of the best attractions of fair week.” To say that the game quickly grew in importance to the citizenry of the state would be another understatement.

Carolina won the first meeting 12-6, but the Tigers roared back to take the next three to end the nineteenth century. Clemson’s first football coach was Walter Riggs who coached the team in 1896 and 1899, then moved into the position of head of the Engineering Department.

Riggs had previously worked with a young football coach when he taught at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. He believed this man would be the best choice to succeed him as head coach of the Tigers. The young coach was, of course, John Heisman, who had built the Tigers of the school now known as Auburn University into a southern football power in less than four years.

Riggs’ lead role in hiring Heisman was, in the short run, as important to Clemson athletics as that of Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips’ influence in the hiring of Dabo Swinney as head football coach in 2009. Heisman directed the Tigers to their first undefeated season in 1900 and to three one-loss seasons in his four years at Clemson. Of course, Swinney has now coached the Tigers for 10 ½ years and won two National Championships, but his first four years pale in comparison to Heisman’s.

Fortunately for the Clemson faithful, Swinney shows no signs of letting up as his 2019 team is contending for another National Championship. Heisman, on the other hand, left for Georgia Tech after his brief stint in Tiger Town. Both Riggs and Phillips were primarily instrumental in showing the nation that “it can be done at Clemson!”

Even with the hiring of Heisman Carolina fans were openly optimistic about their chances against Clemson. (Sound familiar?) Both teams had played twice prior to the State Fair match-up. Carolina lost 5-0 to Georgia and beat Guilford 10-0. The Jaguars’ defense had been impressive. Clemson blew out Davidson 64-0 and Wofford 21-0. The Tigers had been impressive on both sides of the ball. An estimated record crowd of 5000 showed up at the fairgrounds for the game. Carolina won the toss. It would be the only thing they won all day.

Carolina could not gain a first down on its initial possession and punted to Clemson. Heisman’s charges moved quickly into the end zone with QB Buster Lewis running the last five yards for the score and then kicking the extra point himself. Less than two minutes had elapsed on the game clock and the Tigers were just getting started. With less than 5 minutes gone in the first quarter, Clemson FB Claude Douthit blasted into the end zone and Lewis again kicked the point after. The Tigers led 12-0. (TD’s counted only five points in those days.)

Things were getting out of hand in a hurry as Douthit scored again a short time later. The extra-point kick missed and the Tigers led 17-0. Some of the SCC (South Carolina College as it was known at the time) fans began to leave. (Sound familiar). Clemson went on to soundly defeat Carolina 51-0. The upstate military college now held a 4-1 lead in the series against its arch-rival. The Tigers followed the State Fair victory with wins over Georgia, Virginia Tech and Alabama to finish 6-0 and claim its first SIAA championship. The offense was prolific and the defense was like steel. Clemson’s defense gave up only ten points the entire season while the offense scored 222!

[Editors note: Carolina’s loss to Georgia that year was by forfeit (5-0) because the team was so outraged by an official’s decision that they left the field and refused to continue to play. The score was actually tied 5-5 at the time of the incident, and in 1900 the score of a forfeited game was always recorded as “5-0.” In more recent seasons it’s just the Gamecock fans who leave the games early.]

John Heisman’s tenure at Clemson would have been even shorter if he had accepted Alabama’s offer in 1902 to double his salary to $2,500.00 a year if he would come to Tuscaloosa to coach the Crimson Tide. The State newspaper reported this overture in its November 14, 1902 issue under the headline “Alabama Wants Heisman”.

It has been well documented that the University of Alabama tried to lure two other Clemson head coaches to the school. Bama alumni Frank Howard and Danny Ford rejected lucrative offers from the Tide and remained at Clemson. It is hoped that Dabo Swinney will do the same when his alma mater comes calling when Nick Saban retires. 

So Alabama trying to hire successful Clemson football coaches is certainly nothing new. The practice started well over a century ago with the Tigers' first great coach, John Heisman.

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