Presbyterian College head football coach Lonnie McMillian was preparing his football team for a road trip in 1948 when he told the sportswriters in northwest South Carolina about “taking his team to play Clemson in Death Valley.”
The reference was to the Clemson University cemetery that used to overlook the hill leading down to the field. Tigers head coach Frank Howard (1940-69) picked up on the theme in the 1950s, himself referring to the stadium as Death Valley.
In the early ‘60s, Howard received a gift from Samuel Jones, who found a unique-looking chunk of rock in Death Valley, Calif., and brought it back to South Carolina to present to Howard.
Since 1967, Clemson football players have touched “The Rock” on top of “The Hill” where the Tiger football players gather before entering Clemson Memorial Stadium. Howard reportedly told his players, “If you’re going to give me 110 percent, you can rub that rock. If you’re not, keep your filthy hands off it!”
Called “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football” by long-time broadcaster Brent Musberger, the team’s trip down the hill leading into Memorial Stadium will get prime-time focus Saturday night when the Tigers – undefeated (3-0) and ranked No. 12 – host Notre Dame, also undefeated (4-0) and ranked No. 6.
“I’ve never been there; I don’t know,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of the Memorial Stadium atmosphere. “(But) I would think that it’s a raucous crowd like we have at our stadium. I would think that a good football team makes it raucous, and they have a good football team. It’s well coached.
“All those things being equal, our team will have to play well. If you play well, you tend to quiet crowds.”
It’s difficult to quiet the Memorial Stadium crowd, an edifice that was built in 1942 against the better judgment of Clemson head coach Jess Neely, who offered this advice upon his departure to Rice in 1939.
“Don’t ever let them talk you into building a big stadium,” Neely said. “Put about 10,000 seats behind the YMCA. That’s all you’ll ever need.”
Today, Clemson Stadium seats 81,500, and they could use those extra 10,000 seats this weekend when Notre Dame makes its first appearance since 1977 when Joe Montana engineered a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter comeback for a 21-17 victory in its only previous trip to Memorial Stadium.
Under head coach Dabo Swinney, who took over for Tommy Bowden with seven games left in the 2008 season, the Tigers have won 42 of 47 games at home. Since 2011, Clemson has won 28 of 30, including victories over No. 21 Auburn and No. 11 Florida State in 2011, and No. 5 Georgia in 2013.
(It should be noted that nearly 20 percent of Clemson’s 81 victories at home since 2000 have come against the likes of Presbyterian, Wofford [twice], Furman [twice], North Texas, Troy, South Carolina State [twice], The Citadel, Louisiana-Monroe, Florida Atlantic, Appalachian State and Middle Tennessee.)
Howard – who coached the Tigers to a 165-118-12 record in 30 seasons – may have had some success at home, but rarely rose up to compete on a national level. His Clemson squad was 11-0 in 1948, 9-0-1 in 1950 and 9-2 in 1959. Most of his other teams hovered around the .500 mark with an average of 5.5 victories per season.
The Irish are familiar with difficult places to play. Notre Dame’s five-game losing streak from late in the 2013 season (Pittsburgh and Stanford) through the 2014 campaign (Florida State, Arizona State and USC) was more outlier than a reflection of how the Irish under Kelly usually perform on the road.
Notre Dame had Florida State on the ropes in Doak Campbell Stadium last year, only to see their shot at dethroning the Seminoles fade away on a controversial offensive interference penalty. By the time Arizona State and USC rolled around, injuries had taken a chunk out of the Irish.
“Our football team was well prepared for Florida State, relative to being on the road and a loud crowd and all the things that go with that,” Kelly said. “I think in pre-game we had more media presence and cameras than we did in the (2012) national championship game, at least it appeared that way.”
Only the seniors and fifth-year seniors were part of Notre Dame’s 2012 excursion to No. 8 Oklahoma, where the Irish – a 12-point underdog – attacked the Sooners from the outset and ended up pulling away for a 30-13 victory that kept them in the hunt for the national title.
All but the freshman class was part of last year’s statement performance at Florida State.
“Most of these kids played in that game,” Kelly said. “We’ll have a lot of carryover and we’ll talk in terms of the same kind of environment, very similar, and how we need to prepare.”
Of course, the Irish had a veteran signalcaller at the controls at Florida State – Everett Golson, pre-interception implosion – whereas DeShone Kizer will be making his first road start. What a place to break in.
“There are things that he hasn’t seen before,” said Kelly of Kizer. “There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well. But he has a presence about him, a command when he goes out there with the other 10 players. You don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there.
“It’s not meek, it’s not weak, it’s a presence that he brings when he goes out there.”
Other than Kizer and a handful of others, a veteran Notre Dame team versus a predominately young Clemson squad will enter Memorial Stadium Saturday night, ready to deal with all that comes with Death Valley, Howard’s Rock and The Hill.