Nobody would blame a Clemson football fan if they believed in voodoo.
New Orleans has been a hellhole for Tiger football, especially over the last four seasons.
Clemson’s dreams of its third national championship in five seasons was squashed last night when Ohio State rolled to a stunningly easy 49-28 victory in the Sugar Bowl, the second College Football Playoff semifinal.
The Buckeyes, who played only five regular season games, then defeated Northwestern in the Big Ten Conference championship game, faces Alabama in Miami Gardens for the championship a week from Monday. The Crimson Tide had no trouble in rolling over Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl, relocated from Pasadena to Arlington due to California’s ban on spectators at sporting events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are 6-5 in CFP games. They have been in college football’s version of the Final Four every year since 2015, the second year of the playoff.
Tonight’s loss dropped Clemson to 0-3 in CFP games in the Superdome. The Tigers lost 24-6 to Alabama in the 2017 semifinals and 42-25 to LSU in last year’s championship.
Clemson’s cursed history in the Big Easy goes back to the Tigers’ longest-tenured coach, the man who is honored prior to every Clemson home game.
Frank Howard was already a near-deity in South Carolina, and a living legend in the college football coaching ranks, in 1958. He was in his 19th season at Clemson, and by then, he established the Tigers as a southern stalwart, highlighted by an 11-0 campaign in 1948 which saw the Carolina Tigers defeat Don Faurot’s Missouri Tigers in the Gator Bowl.
What did an 11-0 record get Clemson in 1948? The No. 11 spot in the final Associated Press poll, which was taken prior to bowl games. The AP’s first post-bowl poll was in 1965, and it did not become permanent until 1968..
The Tigers were ranked eight spots behind North Carolina, which went 9-0-1 in the regular season before losing to Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1948, North Carolina and Clemson were toiling in the Southern Conference, which was nothing more than a loose confederation of teams most in the Carolinas and Virginia, with Maryland the northern edge of the conference. There were big names like UNC, Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina State and Maryland in the SoCon, but lesser lights like Washington and Lee, The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Furman.
UNC and Clemson didn’t play in 1948. However, the Tigers defeated SEC members Mississippi State and Auburn away from Memorial Stadium, Boston College in Massachusetts and South Carolina in Columbia.
The Tar Heels rocketed to No. 2 after wins over Texas and Georgia, the latter in Athens. UNC hit the top spot after defeating Wake Forest, but somehow dropped two spots after a win over NC State. Then UNC beat LSU and Tennessee, the latter in Knoxville, but was tied 7-7 by William & Mary, which had a fine team and finished No. 20 in the final AP poll of 1948.
Should Clemson have been higher than No. 11? Absolutely. Not ahead of the top three (Michigan, Notre Dame, North Carolina), but no lower than No. 7, where 7-2 Northwestern resided.
Two years later, Clemson went 8-0-1 in the regular season and finished 10th in the final AP poll. The Tigers won their ninth game by defeating Miami on its own field in the Orange Bowl.
In 1953, the large schools from the SoCon formed the Atlantic Coast Conference. Clemson won its first ACC title in 1956 and a trip to the Orange Bowl, where it lost 27-21 to Colorado, which was not yet in the Big Eight. The Tigers went 7-3 in 1957, but only 4-3 in the ACC, and thus did not get invited to a bowl.
Howard’s 1958 squad started 4-0 and rose to No. 10 in the AP poll, but a 26-6 loss in Columbia to the Gamecocks dropped the Tigers nine spots. Clemson lost two weeks later to then-SEC member Georgia Tech in Atlanta before winning its last three regular season games vs. NC State, Boston College and Furman.
South Carolina, which lost to North Carolina two weeks before defeating Clemson, had the inside track to a bowl bid, but blew it by losing 10-6 to Maryland in College Park.
The Terrapins did the Tigers a huge favor. Clemson was then home free after winning in Raleigh. North Carolina took itself out of the running with losses to NC State and the Tigers in the first two weeks, and Duke lost its first two conference games to South Carolina and Virginia, the Cavaliers’ lone win of 1958.
Howard’s club climbed back into the rankings at No. 16 after the NC State game. His coaching cachet and Clemson’s rabid fan base was mighty appealing to the New Orleans Mid-Winter Sports Carnival, which was under pressure from Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, the City Council and the Louisiana Legislature to invite only all-white teams to Tulane Stadium.
The Sugar Bowl had to look only 80 miles west to find Clemson’s opponent.
One week after inviting LSU, the Bayou Bengals wrapped up the 1958 national championship by stomping Tulane 62-0 in New Orleans. Paul Dietzel’s White Team, Go Team and Chinese Bandits pillaged the Green Wave for 56 second half points, one record which survived Joe Burrow’s passing frenzy of 2019.
This was not Howard’s first rodeo in New Orleans. He took Clemson to Tulane Stadium to play the Green Wave four times between 1940 and 1946, coming away a loser three times. The lone Tiger win was 47-20 in 1945. Tulane was also 2-1 vs. Clemson prior to Howard’s arrival, leaving the Tigers 2-5 in the Crescent City prior to playing the Bayou Bengals.
Clemson was a decided underdog, facing the national champions in what amounted to a road game. Yet Howard, much like Swinney, had the Carolina Tigers loose and ready to roar. What did they have to lose?
It took a trick play, a halfback option pass from Billy Cannon to Mickey Mangham, for LSU to overcome its stubborn foe 7-0. The Bayou Bengals cemented their national championship without much complaint from the peanut gallery, even though Iowa was voted No. 1 in the Football Writers Association of America poll after the Hawkeyes crushed California 38-12 in the Rose Bowl. The Golden Bears haven’t returned to the Granddaddy of Them All, much as Chuck Munice and Aaron Rodgers tried.
Two years after the loss to LSU, a rock found in the real Death Valley was given to Howard by Clemson booster Samuel Jones. Howard used the rock as a door stop until 1966, when another booster, Gene Willimon, told the coach to do something with the rock or get rid of it. Howard took Willimon’s advice and placed it on the pedestal in the east end of Memorial Stadium.
Clemson did not rub the rock during the 1966 season, although in its first home game of that season, it rallied from an 18 point deficit vs. Virginia with 17 minutes left to win 40-35.
The next season, the tradition of rubbing the rock began. It actually ended in 1970 when Hootie Ingram succeeded Howard and continued through most of 1972. Ingram chose to have Clemson enter the stadium from the west end instead of the east.
Bad idea, Hootie.
Prior to the 1972 season finale vs. South Carolina, Ingram realized the Tigers were a putrid 6-9 at home under his leadership. He decided to have the team enter from the east end before facing Paul Dietzel’s Gamecocks.
Clemson won 7-6. The tradition carries on.
Back to Clemson and New Orleans.
After losing the Sugar Bowl to LSU, Clemson did not return to the Big Easy until 1981 to play Tulane in the Superdome. The Tigers won 13-5 (not a typo) en route to their first national championship, claimed with a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson left the Superdome last night with a humbling 3-8 lifetime mark in the Big Easy.
Two silver linings:
–The Superdome will have a new sponsor when Clemson returns. Mercedes-Benz’ naming rights deal expires later this year, and the German automaker will not renew the contract, due to its sponsorship of Atlanta’s stadium. Clemson’s three CFP losses came during this naming rights deal.
–Trevor Lawrence will only have to play in New Orleans once every eight years, since the Jaguars and Saints are in opposite conferences. If you think the Jaguars have a chance of playing in Super Bowl LIX following the 2024 season, I’ve got a beachfront condo in Russell to sell.
A rambling post about Clemson football. Foots Prints at its finest. Goodbye for now.