Note: The following appears in the UConn football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 40th anniversary of Clemson’s first national championship season in 1981. For each program in 2021, Tim Bourret takes us back to that season with features on players or games from the landmark year.
There were a couple of times in my Clemson sports information career that I cringed when a student-athlete gave a pregame or pre-tournament quote that I believed was going to fire up the opposing team. However, two examples stand out as quotes that served as motivators for Tiger teams.
One was D.J. Trahan’s 2003 pre-tournament interview at the NCAA National Tournament at Oklahoma State. Trahan did not say anything derogatory towards the host Cowboys, but he put a lot of pressure on his teammates and Head Coach Larry Penley by saying the following.
“If we don’t win this tournament, the season has been a failure.”
Clemson won its only NCAA Men’s Golf Tournament in history by two shots over the No. 2 Cowboys. Winning that tournament on Oklahoma State’s home course is akin to winning the Final Four over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The other example was a quote from captain Jeff Davis about Georgia running back Herschel Walker prior to the 1981 game with Georgia.
Walker had led Georgia to the national championship the previous year and the Bulldogs had won their first two games of the 1981 season, leading to a No. 4 national ranking entering the game. They had won 15 games in a row dating to the last game of 1979.
Davis took stopping Walker as a personal challenge and said the following to the media before the game.
“I am anxious to play against the top back in the nation. Last year, Herschel was a freshman who played like a senior, and I admire him for that. But things are going to be different when he comes to the Valley. He’ll find he won’t be able to do as well against this senior.
“We had those national champs beat last year and then we let them slip away.
“That’s not going to happen this year.”
Davis and his teammates backed up the brave statement in one of the most important games in Clemson history. Sometimes, statements like that can be a motivator for your own team.
The Tigers had finished 6-5 the previous year and were not only unranked in the preseason poll, they did not get a single poll point.
Clemson had beaten Wofford 45-10 in the 1981 opener and had a less than impressive offensive performance in a 13-5 victory over Tulane in New Orleans in the season’s second game.
This was a historic matchup. It featured Hall of Fame Head Coaches Vince Dooley (Georgia) against Danny Ford (Clemson). It was Clemson Hall of Fame defensive players Terry Kinard and Davis against the Bulldogs’ Hall of Fame running back, Walker.
Death Valley held just 63,000 fans in 1981, two years before the North upper deck was built. But to me, it was as loud as any Tiger home game I have attended. It was 60 minutes of hard-hitting football.
On the afternoon, Clemson’s defense forced nine turnovers, still the most in a game in Tiger history. The nine turnovers were collected by nine different Tigers. The point-prevention unit had five interceptions and four recovered fumbles.
Buck Belue, who has gone on to a career in sports talk radio, was harassed all day and only had 133 passing yards on 26 attempts. While Walker had 128 rushing yards, he contributed to the Clemson cause as well, losing two fumbles, one that was recovered by freshman William Perry. Walker also never reached the endzone. In fact, he did not do so in three games against the Tigers.
While the contest was not on live television, Clemson’s 13-3 win attracted a lot of national attention. It was the highest-ranked team Clemson had defeated in its history to that point. The Tigers entered the AP poll at No. 19, then moved up to No. 14 after an open date, setting up Clemson for a run to the top 10 with a win over a solid Kentucky team.
A win over No. 8 North Carolina further enhanced Clemson’s reputation. When the Tigers defeated South Carolina in the regular-season finale, they were No. 2 going into Thanksgiving weekend. Clemson did not play that weekend and watched Penn State annihilate top-ranked Pittsburgh 48-14 on Friday.
That moved Clemson to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in the final regular-season poll. A Jan. 1 win over No. 4 Nebraska followed and Clemson had its first national title in any sport.
It all began with the 13-3 win over the defending national champion on Sept. 19, 1981.