Mickey Plyler's Blog for May 3

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Sometimes I get a chance to speak to some of the freshman sports management classes. It is one of the things I look forward to each semester. I love visiting with the classes. I often talk about the Clemson I remember when I was their age, and sometimes I forget they never saw Danny Ford coach. Many have heard of him and some have met him, but many never actually saw him coach in a game.

When I mention Charley Pell, they stare with a blank look.

I was eight years old when Pell was named the head coach at Clemson. Let me give you my memories of the man some feel helped turn the Clemson football program into what it is today.

First, I think some of the credit needs to go to Red Parker and his staff. That staff recruited some great players. Talent wins and Parker's staff brought in talent. However, in my opinion, Pell taught them how to win.

Perhaps there is no greater example of Pell's desire to win or his psychology than the first and second games of Pell's head coaching career.

The Tigers lost his first game, but some credit that loss, with the program's biggest win in years the following week.

Pell was the defensive coordinator in 1976. The 1976 team went 3-6-2 and 0-4-1 in the ACC. He was named the head coach at Clemson on December 1, 1976 less than two weeks after Clemson beat South Carolina 28-9 in Parker's last game.

Clemson opened the 1977 season at home against 10th-ranked Maryland. The Terps were coming off an 11-1 season where they finished eighth in the nation. Pell's Tigers fell 21-14 on that opening day, but the Tigers played well in the second half, which gave Clemson confidence they could play with anyone.

The following week they did just that and more. Clemson had not been to a bowl game since the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl. They had some nice wins in the last years of Coach Howard and the two men that followed him, but the only ranked team the Tigers defeated was in 1971 when they defeated 14th-ranked Duke. So when Clemson traveled to Athens to play the 17th-ranked Dawgs on September 17, 1977 they were looking for their second win versus a ranked opponent in the last 17 years.

Not only did Clemson beat Georgia on that Saturday afternoon, but they also defeated the Dawgs for the first time in Athens since 1914. They avenged a 41-0 loss to UGA from the previous year, and it was the first of a seven-game win streak.

You see, the Tigers did more than beat Georgia that day. They proved to themselves that they could win and that they were for real. Interestingly enough, Pell did something no had ever done, or ever thought would needed to be done. Pell turned Clemson from a basketball school at the time, back into a football school.

Pell started another tradition on that Saturday. On the bus ride home from Athens, Pell had the team buses pull over at roadside store and he purchased several boxes of cigars. The team smoked them as victory cigars, a tradition that lasted many years in Tigertown.

Pell lost only three of the remaining 22 games in his days in Clemson. He led Clemson to back-to-back Gator Bowls. His only two Clemson teams finished ranked 19th and 6th in the country. He was the only coach in conference history to be named the ACC coach of the Year in his first two years.

The Tigers became big-time again under Pell and his staff. They had big games again. Before Pell, Clemson faced teams like Oklahoma, Tennessee and Alabama, but the Tigers were not competitive in most of those contests.

They did play Tennessee to the wire in 1976, but it was a 6-5 Vol squad. They faced 11 top ten teams from 1959 to 1976, but went 0-11.

Perhaps the biggest game in Clemson history to that date was a November 12, 1977 match-up against fifth-ranked Notre Dame. Joe Montana and 25 other NFL players rolled into Death Valley. I remember the Valley being as loud as I have heard it at that time. I also remember Ken McAfee, Vegas Ferguson, and Montana coming back to defeat the Tigers. I remember the Irish going on to win the national title that year. But most of all I remember Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine getting unsportsmanlike conduct calls and flipping the Clemson crowd his middle finger. It was a wild day, but not Pell's wildest as the head coach at Clemson.

His wildest day came seven days later. In the season finale, Clemson entered the game ranked 15th in the nation. They headed to Williams Brice to face a 5-5 USC team. Clemson jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but USC stormed back to take a 27-24 lead late in the fourth quarter. After the go-ahead touchdown, Gamecock players revealed their secret under-shirts that read "No Cigars Today" in reference to the tradition started outside of Athens earlier that year.

The Tigers still had hope, and when Steve Fuller hit Jerry Butler for a 20-yard touchdown pass it signified several things. First, it was one of the most thrilling wins in the Clemson-USC series. Second, it gave Clemson fans one of the greatest single plays in school history (Butler's twisting, leaping catch.) It gave the Tigers a berth in the Gator Bowl,their first in 18 years. It also gave the Tigers momentum heading into what turned out to be an 11-1 season in 1978.

The 1978 team was one of the best in school history. Steve Fuller finished sixth in the Heisman balloting. The Tigers went undefeated in the ACC. The magical season saw another thrilling Clemson win. This time it was in College Park, MD as Clemson clinched the ACC title with a 28-24 win over the 11th-ranked Terps.

In his final game on the Clemson sidelines, Pell helped lead the Tigers to a 41-23 win over USC.

Pell left Clemson on December 4, 1978, only a couple of days after saying he was not leaving to go to Florida. The next day Clemson named Danny Ford, 30, who became the youngest head coach in the country.

Pell, who passed away in June of 2001 after battling cancer, was not the greatest coach in Clemson history. He had many faults and things were not always rosy in his tenure. However, he is a significant figure in Clemson football history and hopefully will be remembered as such.

I enjoy history, especially Clemson history. I hope the young people enjoyed this and I hope I haven't butchered too much of the facts for those who were old enough to remember it better than me. After all I was only eight, but man it was fun watching this program and the energy around this program grow.

Also, please visit our sponsors, Mr. Knickerbockers, George Coleman Ford and Brad Hughes All-State Agency. It is their patronage that keeps the blog free. We are adding more sponsors for this month as well. If you are interested in great advertising opportunities on the blog contact me @ mickey.plyler@tigernet.com

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