You know the old story of how your grandfather had to walk uphill to school every single day without shoes, many times in bad weather.
And you also know the old story of how things were much better back when your father and mother were teenagers in “the good old days”.
And surely you have heard of the story of how much better Clemson fans supported their football team back in the 1980’s?
I have attended almost every home game at Clemson since 1977. I have seen Death Valley packed to the gills against Georgia and Florida State back in the late 1980’s. And I have seen Death Valley with as little as 40,000 fans in the stands for a rainy game against Wake Forest when Ken Hatfield was coaching.
With all that being said, I’m here to debunk the myth of Clemson football attendance and how it “used” to be much better than it is today. Because it is just that…a myth.
This is a myth that you hear all the time. From internet message boards to talk radio to print media. There is a general consensus, or at least a general perception, that Clemson just does not support its football team like it did under the Danny Ford regime in the 1980’s. Even if you asked the average Clemson fan at their tailgate spot on a football Saturday, they would tell you more people came to Clemson home games back in the heyday of Tiger football.
So I set out to see exactly how accurate those perceptions were to the reality of what went on back then as compared to right now. And the results are going to be surprising to a vast majority of Clemson fans and those that cover Clemson football.
Clemson completed the final expansion to Death Valley with the North Upper Deck in 1983, bringing the official capacity to Memorial Stadium slightly over 81,000.
It was not long after the completion of the expansion that Clemson strung together arguably the best four year run in the football program’s history. From 1986-1989, Clemson compiled an amazing 38-8-2 record under Coach Danny Ford. During this time of unprecedented football success, Death Valley crowds averaged 78,673 per game over that four year span. That number is based on actual attendance per Clemson University, not the estimated attendance that is giving out immediately after the game.
By comparison, the past four years Clemson has compiled a marginally different 29-20 record under Coach Tommy Bowden. But Death Valley crowds have averaged 78,145 fans per game, only 528 less fans per game as during that great run in the 1980’s.
That surely comes as a surprise to those that have told you that the crowds in Death Valley the last few years have not been what they used to be back in the “good old days”.
To further my point, I tried to find a four year time frame where Clemson has compiled a similar record to what the Tigers have had the past four years to compare attendance relative to the number of wins.
From 1994-1997, Clemson compiled a 27-20 record under Coach Tommy West, which is comparable record-wise to the past four years under Coach Bowden. During that four year stretch, Clemson averaged only 69,322 fans per game, which is 8,823 less fans per game than the past four years under Bowden.
In essence, Clemson has averaged almost identical attendance numbers the past four years as it did during the most successful four years of the program’s history. In addition, the past four years have been remarkably better attendance-wise to a similar four year stretch in terms of wins and losses back in the mid 1990’s under a very popular coach.
One last way to analyze the attendance is to look at the numbers under each head coach since the upper decks were finished. Clemson averaged 77,704 fans per game during the Danny Ford era (post 1982, when the 2nd deck was finished). Under Ken Hatfield, an average of 74,800 fans filed into Death Valley each home game. Tommy West, widely regarded as one of the more popular coaches in Clemson football’s recent history, saw an average of only 69,120 fans per game in Death Valley. And finally, during Coach Bowden’s entire six year span as Clemson’s head coach, the Tigers have averaged 78,210 fans per home game. That is the highest average of any coach in Clemson football history, surpassing the Danny Ford era by 506 fans per game.
What all of this adds up to is a false perception. Clemson has recorded some of the best attendance numbers in the history of the program recently. What makes it more impressive is that the support has been this high despite the fact that the on the field record of Bowden’s teams does not equal that of Ford’s teams of the 80’s.
It is even more impressive when you consider that almost every Clemson home game has been televised under Coach Bowden’s term, something that was not the case at all back in the 1980’s.
So you could certainly make the point that support through attendance is much better in the post 1999 Bowden era than at any other time in the history of the program…even with only an above average winning percentage and with almost every single game televised working against home attendance.
Sometimes perception is simply not reality.
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