CLEMSON, SC -- Charley Pell says he hasn’t thought about Clemson in a while.
You can’t blame him – there’s been plenty of other things to take care of in his life. But it’s obvious that somewhere along the line he spent some time thinking about Clemson. Maybe while at Florida, or during one of a half-dozen failed business ventures, or before the failed attempt on his own life.
“We had an outstanding group of young folks at Clemson that wanted to win,” he says in his still-gruff voice when asked to recall that era in the late 70’s that jump-started Clemson’s football program.
Pell wanted to win badly. Nearly a quarter-century after he took the head coaching job from Red Parker, he remembers an incident that made him determined to succeed at Clemson and he talks about it like it still sticks in his side.
“I had just taken the job in December (1976) and we went to an all-conference dinner in Greenville,” he recalls. “And we’re sitting there in that banquet and Clemson did not have a single player selected to the first or second team for all-conference in the ACC. I was there will Bill McClellan. I was embarrassed and I was mad. I fumed all the way back to Clemson...Clemson had zero. None. I was so angry and I wasn’t angry at anybody. I was just fuming.”
A year later, things had changed. Clemson went from 3-6-2 in 1976 to 8-3-1 in 1977.
Charley Pell, complete with perma-frown and the ability to bring sobriety to any celebration, in two short but happy years at Clemson set the direction for the football program for the next decade and a half.
Whatever love there was between Pell and the Clemson fans, however, evaporated when he resigned to take the head job at Florida after the 1978 regular season. Clemson finished 10-1 during the regular season, but he was asked to not hang around for the 1978 Gator Bowl. Danny Ford coached that game and Pell went on with the rest of his life. But things didn’t go the way Pell envisioned they would when he walked away from Clemson.
There were some good years early on a Florida. He quickly turned the program around like he had Clemson’s. Florida went 0-10-1 in his first season, 8-4 in his second season and 9-2-1 in his fifth. But things went downhill quickly when the NCAA started sniffing around Gainesville. Many at Clemson blamed him for Clemson’s probation in 1982, although he was not named in any of the violations. And two years after Clemson was placed on probation, Florida was the target of an NCAA investigation. Pell took the blame for 107 NCAA violations at Florida, although he later said he wished he hadn’t done that.
He was fired in 1984 and thought that he would get on with the rest of his life, which he assumed would include coaching. Other than a spot on the sideline of the 1995 Hula Bowl and a brief stint as a high school coach that same year, his coaching career was over.
No one wanted Pell, who had turned around the fortunes of two schools’ football programs.
Instead, he spent his time investing in bad business ventures. He figures he lost a million dollars over the next decade in poor investments.
When he talks about Clemson now, you can hear his gruff, strong voice that he carried during his days at Clemson. When he talks about the time after 1978, his voice lowers.
After a decade of failure, Pell started planning his own death. He told NBC’s Dateline in 1995, “I just didn’t feel like climbing another mountain.”
He spent a year before Feb. 2, 1994 shopping for caskets, planning the perfect date (he wanted his death to occur at the end of a week and when the coaches he knew wouldn’t be out recruiting) and preparing two budgets for his family – one for if his wife sold the house and one for if she kept it.
He wrote notes to his wife and three children and directions to where his body could be found and included them in a box that he left at a golf course a few miles from the home of friend Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Malcolm Jowers, his bodyguard at Florida games in the 80’s.
Pell drove his Buick north of Jacksonville on the morning of Feb. 2, 1994. He parked on an old logging road and drank a half liter of vodka to chase down six sleeping pills. He ran a hose from the car’s tailpipe to the interior of the car. When things didn’t happen as quickly as he had hoped, he stuck the hose in his mouth. That made him violently sick. He fell out of the car and passed out on the ground.
Jowers received the box with the map and hurried to find his friend. When Jowers arrived, Pell was fading in and out of consciousness. Two days later he woke up in the hospital mad that his plan hadn’t worked.
He spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with clinical depression.
“There’s so little understanding about depression,” he says. “I know because I lived with it for 53 years not understanding that I was going through stages of it in my own life.”
Pell is now in his third year as a vice president with a real estate auction company in Gadsden, Alabama. “It’s a great deal like recruiting,” he says. “You have to visit and eliminate and select the top prospects.”
He lives his life differently than he did before his suicide attempt. He found out that older brother Myles had been receiving medication for depression for 26 years and came to grips with his own depression.
“I suffer from it today,” he says. “It’s much like a diabetic condition. You never heal it, but you learn how to deal with it.”
He also turned his life around spiritually. “About three o’clock one morning while I was in the hospital I woke up and came face to face with what was making me suffer,” he says. Pell, who was baptized when he was 12, says he became a Christian after that early morning experience in the hospital.
“I had to surrender and dedicate my life to Jesus Christ,” he says. “When I talk to people that don’t know Christ about this, I emphasize with them, ‘Look, please try to understand the difference, I have been where you are. You have not been where I am in the case of true surrender.’ Those that do not surrender are missing the only way of having this experience. It’s a hard word for men. Surrender is not supposed to be a word in their vocabulary. I didn’t like the word for 53 years.”
He says he goes to maybe one football game a year now. “My son-in-law is an avid Alabama fan,” he says. “We took his children to a their first game together. That’s the best quality time we’ve had.”
He figures there’s more quality time ahead.
NOTE: The following is an edited version of a story that will appear in the Fall Preview Edition of the Tiger Insider (Issue #5).