Note: The following appears in the Virginia gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 125th season of Clemson football. To commemorate the first 125 years, Tim Bourret is writing articles this year on some of the most important moments in Tiger history. Below is the second installment of the series.
One of the most striking examples of “the simpler times” of college football took place in January 1940, when Frank Howard was hired as Clemson’s head football coach and athletic director. Jess Neely had just resigned to move to Houston, Texas to become the head coach at Rice.
Neely made his decision after Clemson defeated Frank Leahy’s Boston College team by a score of 6-3 in the 1940 Cotton Bowl, the program’s first bowl game and first top-20 season.
A few days after Neely resigned, the athletic council met to begin the process to find Neely’s replacement. At the meeting, Howard’s name was placed in nomination by Professor S.R. “Slim” Rhodes.
Incredible as it may seem today, Howard was sitting in the back of the room during the meeting, waiting to be interviewed. After Rhodes made his proclamation, there was a brief moment of silence. Howard raised his hand and said, “I second!”
The council members laughed as they realized he seconded his nomination.
Howard interviewed and was quickly approved by the athletic council and Board of Trustees as Clemson’s 17th head coach. He had been Neely’s assistant coach the previous nine years.
He signed a four-year contract, which he misplaced on a recruiting trip. It was the only contract he ever received in 30 years as head coach. Every year after the first contract ran out, he accepted a handshake offer from Clemson’s president to continue as head coach.
His head coaching career began with a 38-0 win over Presbyterian College on Sept. 21, 1940. On the first offensive play, a back named George Floyd ran 18 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers went on to win the Southern Conference title.
Known as the “Bashful Baron of Barlow Bend,” Howard’s job was in jeopardy only once in 30 seasons. The war years were not great to Clemson, as many of his players had to go off to the war effort. Prior to the 1943 season, Clemson’s entire junior and senior classes were drafted (into the armed services, not the NFL), and Howard started an all-freshman lineup.
Clemson suffered a 21-19 loss to South Carolina in 1947, the fourth setback of a five-game losing streak. Fans were upset and students went to his office to ask him to resign.
But Howard turned the season around with three straight wins to close the year. That was followed by an 11-0 season in 1948, a Southern Conference championship and a No. 11 final AP ranking. The 1950 season featured an undefeated 9-0-1 season and a No. 10 final ranking. It is still the only time the Tigers have had undefeated seasons twice in a three-year span.
Howard led the Tigers to eight conference titles, including six ACC championships. He totaled 165 wins, most in school history, but Dabo Swinney is gaining on him rather quickly.
It should be noted that Howard amassed 165 victories in an era when teams played just 10 games a year. He also did not benefit by playing many home games. As athletic director, he was concerned with wins, but was also concerned with balancing the budget.
As a result, Howard played many games on the road to get a good paycheck in return. The Tigers played at Georgia Tech 14 times under Howard without a return game. The South Carolina game was played in Columbia every year between 1940 and 1959.
Clemson only played 38 percent of its games at home during Howard’s tenure, so it is amazing that he had a College Football Hall of Fame career. While Swinney is gaining on his overall win total (165-132), Swinney is still just over halfway to his road win total (72-41).
In 1989, the year Howard was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, legendary broadcaster Beano Cook came to Clemson to do an ESPN College GameDay feature on Howard. I arranged the interview and sat in on the session that was held in a room at the Holiday Inn in Clemson.
At the end of the interview, the always entertaining Howard showed a serious side.
“The most satisfaction I have is seeing some ole guard or tackle or halfback become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a successful businessman and a good citizen. It’s worth more than 100 touchdowns. And that’s the truth, if I ever told it.”