Bizarre, admittedly, is a difficult term to accurately define in the sports world. Webster defines bizarre as “Strikingly unconventional and far-fetched in style or appearance.” Bizarre is certainly a relative term; what is bizarre to you may not be so bizarre to me.
Clemson’s recent football history, of which I will only devote this list to, consists of the post 1970 era. Certainly, there were some bizarre events that took place prior to 1970 in Clemson football. You could probably even say that the early years of Clemson football offer up things that today would seem improbable or impossible. But I’ll stick to what I have seen during my lifetime as a Clemson football fan in creating this list of ten most bizarre moments.
I’ll complete Part II of this article this week with the #5 most bizarre moment in recent Clemson football history and end today’s article at the #1 most bizarre moment. To read Part I, click here.
And, as always, I would assume that there would be some debate about my rankings.
September 12, 1992
Lights On in Death Valley
Young folks won’t get this one at all. But, believe it or not, night games in Clemson were nonexistent prior to just 15 years ago. Well, actually it had happened before 1992. The Tigers played a night game in 1956 in Clemson, but few fans prior to 1992 had ever seen their team play under the lights at home.
In fact, until the start of the 1992 season, few believed that Clemson would ever have to succumb to the television demigods and have a night game.
But in early September, Clemson hosted the #5 ranked Seminoles for a prime time match up on ESPN. The game was the first under the lights in the modern era of Death Valley, and it was also significant in that it was the Seminoles first year in the ACC.
FSU won 24-20 on a Charlie Ward drive late in the game that was orchestrated by then-FSU offensive coordinator Brad Scott. It was a turning point game in two respects. First, the night game opened up the floodgates in terms of television dictating start times for Clemson. More and more games would be played at night in Death Valley as the years went by, to the point now where Clemson plays at night almost as much as any other team in the conference. In fact, I could argue that night games in Clemson don’t even seem that out of place to Tiger fans anymore.
This game also signified a changing of the guard. FSU won the game, ended up winning the conference championship that year, and began their nearly 10 year stranglehold on the conference and Clemson.
Who knows what would have happened to the fate of the two programs had Clemson won under the lights in Death Valley that night? Reality was not kind to the Tigers that evening, and Florida State quickly became the bully on the block in the bizarre world of football in the dark.
November 21, 1998
Fire Him, Then Pay Tribute
If you Google bizarre on the Internet, you may see a picture of a freshly fired football coach being carried off the field by adoring fans. Such was the ending of the Tommy West era at Clemson.
The 1998 season was, by all accounts, miserable. Heartbreaking losses to Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Georgia Tech (all by 7 points or less) were part of the story. Equally as miserable was the blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Florida State. And losing to Wake Forest and Duke in the same year (two teams that combined for 7 wins in 1998) is never a good thing for a Clemson coach. And the fact that Clemson would now be 8 years removed from their last ACC conference title was a bubbling boiling point.
So the fact that Tommy West, with a program winning only three games in 1998 and perpetually stuck in underachieving roles the previous three years, was fired is no real shocker. Very few fans felt the program was heading in the right direction, or at least that the program was on the cusp of returning to greatness. What was bizarre, however, was how the fan base rooted for West to succeed at Clemson about as much as they did for their team to succeed.
So when West received his walking papers the week before the season finale with South Carolina, there was a sense of sadness amidst the uplifting hope of a new coaching staff coming in to turn the corner for our football-crazy school. The game week was a blur, a distraction, and left Clemson fans wondering what team would show up on Saturday night against the Gamecocks.
The answer was resounding. Clemson soundly whipped South Carolina 28-19 for the first win in Death Valley against the Gamecocks since 1990.
Maybe to show appreciation for beating the Gamecocks under such a trying week, or maybe to show appreciation for the hard work he gave to Clemson, or maybe because they really had wished he would produce a winner at Clemson; the fans did something rather extraordinary.
For only the second time in school history, the fans tore down the goal posts in Death Valley. For the first time in school history, the fans carried a recently fired football coach off the field on their shoulders. And also for the first time in history, the fans at Clemson carried off the wife and child of their football coach.
Tommy West, his wife Lindsey, and son Turner must have felt like they were in a dream as they left the field on the shoulders of fans and players that evening. The Orange and White magazine photographer, who caught the last image of Tommy West inside of Death Valley with his feet 5 feet off the ground, captured the moment brilliantly.
Bizarre? You bet. A great story that shows human character and empathy by our fans that truly wanted to win and to win with Tommy West at the helm? Absolutely.
November 3rd, 2003
Bowden, Quivering Lips, and an Upset
There are few (if any) reading this article that were not around just three short years ago in the aftermath of the loss in Winston Salem and the subsequent week that revived a coach and a program.
For a moment that is so fresh on the mind, it is a moment that is fraught with bizarre moments and forgotten truths. If the networks wanted to create a soap opera out of a football program, that month of November would have plots and sub plots that even the greatest writers could not dream up.
It started in Winston Salem, but the seeds were planted from the frustrating losses in the previous two years. Patience with Coach Bowden was worn razor thin, and the last shreds of support seemed to fizzle away at the end of a 45-17 loss to a bad Deacon football team.
What happened the Monday after the Wake game was a mix of rumor, truth, sarcasm, treachery, wit, stupidity, insightfulness, ignorance, and craziness. Which of those feelings were yours all depends on how you saw it and perceived it.
Bowden was in trouble, whether at that moment he was only in trouble with some disgruntled fans or whether he was in trouble with his athletic director depends on how you saw things unfold. Very few, if any, of the fans that left Winston Salem that Saturday really believed the program was heading in the right direction. The rumor of Bowden teetering between hired and fired was joyous news to some while frustrating to others who wanted the season to play itself out before coming to judgment.
Terry Don Phillips, deciding to play his cards close to his vest, inadvertently threw flames on the fire by not defending his coach publicly. Instead of quieting the rumors, it only fed them.
All the while the team was preparing to play the #3 team in the country. Given the opportunity to lie down and feel sorry for themselves, the team instead was picking itself off the mat it was dumped on in Winston Salem.
Bowden, with a stroke of genius or out of pure desperation, told his team in the locker room after the Wake game that they were going to beat FSU the next week. Instead of giving up on their embattled coach, they responded to him.
While everyone was talking about Bowden that week, the team simmered to a crescendo. By Saturday night, Clemson was spanking the Seminoles as if the Tigers were the #3 team and FSU had a coach on the hot seat.
The incredible win against Florida State was not the end of the Bowden saga, as no contract extension was waiting on the desk the following Monday.
Even after a 40-7 whipping of Duke, Bowden's future remained up in the air. At his weekly press conference, the media held to Bowden’s every single breath. His long pause after a question was asked about his future at Clemson, coupled with a quivering lip, sent the fan base into sheer pandemonium trying to determine the significance (or lack thereof). The media members tried every conceivable way to prod Bowden into saying something significant, all to no avail. Fans listened to the press conference live on the net and on radio stations hoping something, anything, would bring to light what was really going on.
The Tigers went on to complete an incredible run by beating South Carolina (63-17), and Tennessee (27-14) and was arguably the most improbable and satisfying four game stretch in 20 years.
Whether through fate or divine intervention, Bowden rightfully received his due. It was a bizarre month on all fronts; but the outcome of the FSU game, considering all of the hoopla, was maybe the most bizarre moment and the starting point for a season-ending stretch run for the history books.
December 28, 1978
Woody Hayes Wallops Charlie Bauman
The recently departed Charley Pell assisted with the game plan of the new Tiger staff the week before the Gator Bowl match up with Ohio State. Considering Pell’s status as villain of the century for jilting the Tigers for the Florida Gators, the mere fact that Pell was helping newly hired Danny Ford seems improbable.
But it was not nearly as improbable as what happened in the waning moments of the game.
The play started simple enough. Ohio State freshman quarterback Art Schlichter took the snap, looked to his right, and lofted a pass with the intent of connecting with a Buckeye receiver over the middle of the field. Charlie Bauman, an anonymous sophomore defensive player for a little school from South Carolina that many in the televised game had never heard of, stepped in front of the pass and ran towards the Ohio State sideline before being pushed out of bounds. Bauman’s interception sealed Clemson’s improbable win over the perennial power Buckeyes. But the interception, and for that matter the game itself, would quickly become a footnote.
The next five seconds after Bauman is pushed out of bounds is going to become the most watched Clemson football moment in the history of the program. And it was about to become the end of a career for one of college football’s greatest coaches.
Simply put, Woody Hayes lost control and punched Bauman with his right hand while holding Bauman’s facemask with his left. Very few fans inside of the Gator Bowl that evening saw the swing. But the television audience, stretching from coast to coast, got an almost completely unobstructed view of the boxing moment.
The morning after the 17-15 defeat, Hayes was fired. He never coached again and there are conflicting reports as to whether or not he ever personally apologized to Bauman.
Keith Jackson, ABC's legendary play-by-play announcer, claims he did not see the play as he was broadcasting the game. Jackson was openly criticized for not calling the play on television, citing the theory that he and color analyst Ara Parseghian were covering for the legendary Hayes. "The media decided to hang my butt," Jackson told the Cincinnati Post several years later. To this day he claims that he did not see the punch or he would have verbalized it at the time.
Regardless of Jackson’s controversy, the play itself became superhuman. Considering the large television audience that saw the game live, plus the countless number of times the replay was shown in the days, weeks, and even years after the incident, the Charlie Bauman interception and subsequent Hayes punch is easily the most watched football clip in Clemson football history.
Not to mention a bizarre ending to a coaching legend.
January 21, 1990
Anarchy In The Aftermath of Ford
There are only a small handful of times in my lifetime that I have truly been dumbfounded (thanks Pawless in Seattle®) by what I was seeing at Clemson. Late January of 1990 was one of them.
The facts are pretty simple. Danny Ford was out as Clemson coach. Ken Hatfield was hired. And hardly anybody was happy about it.
The in-between of it all is what makes this the most bizarre moment in Clemson football history. To put it mildly, the system failed at every single level to create a black eye that all but sunk a top 15 program down to a middle of the pack ACC program in less than four years.
Coach Ford certainly failed his program because he felt he had become bigger than Clemson University and for openly criticizing his superiors. The President (Max Lennon) and other university officials failed the program by railroading a coach that had become legendary. The athletic administration failed the program by not buffering Ford and university officials and for ultimately not standing behind a coach that meant everything to the program. The fans failed the program by acting as a mob in the aftermath, staining the program and Clemson University with actions that doomed Ford’s predecessor before he set foot in the press area to be introduced.
Ironically enough, it was Clemson’s other legend, Frank Howard, that doused the fiery emotions of the fans long enough to cool the anger. Protests by fans at the President’s House eventually moved to the press entrance of the South Upper Deck. Realizing that Hatfield and his wife were sitting ducks for the verbal jousts coming from the protesting mob, Howard stepped out of the press area and calmed the fans long enough to allow them to cordially (if not happily) welcome their new coach.
The enduring moment in the whole week for me, however, was not the protests and Howard’s comments or even Hatfield’s press conference. The moment blazed in my head all these years later is that of then WYFF sports anchor Stan Olenik. Olenik, desperate to get a quote from Athletic Director Bobby Robinson, chased down the Clemson AD with cameraman in tote to get a statement. Olenik, weighing in at around 250 pounds, dwarfed the 150 pound Robinson. Olenik caught Robinson, wedged himself in-between two cars that Robinson was walking between, and basically created a roadblock. Olenik asked Robinson repeatedly for a quote before finally saying, “Don’t you think you owe the Clemson fans a reason for Ford’s departure?”
The look on Robinson’s face told the story. He knew as well as anybody that the system had failed on all fronts. As insensitive as the Clemson fans may have been in the aftermath, Robinson knew that the fans were let down because of petty bickering and short sightedness from the people that were supposed to be bigger than all of that. Those people included Robinson, although his status as the King Villain of the time does not represent the reality that went on behind the scenes. Robinson was a simple pawn, or so it seems in hindsight. But nothing Robinson could say to Olenik or to Clemson fans on the air that day was going to make things any better at that point.
It would take 15 years for Clemson to fully recover, if you consider the program recovered at this point under Bowden. It is bizarre moments like 1990 that, upon reflection, make me appreciate where we are at now. We have a President that supports the athletic program (unlike 1990). We have an athletic department that thinks outside the box while working within the confines of Clemson University’s vision (unlike 1990). And we have a coach that honorably plays within the rules at all costs while humbly admitting that there are pieces to the puzzle that are bigger than him and the football program (unlike 1990).
As bizarre of a time as it was in 1990, we are all better for it. Although the painstaking rebuilding process was longer than any of us would have ever believed.