Clemson’s famous rock had a busy summer.
By Jacob Barker Sports Info. Graduate AssistantWake Forest Game Program – September 16, 2000
The events of August 24th would have made the late Frank Howard, Samuel C. Jones, Sr., and Gene Willimon very proud to be Clemson Tigers. On that warm summer afternoon, at the top of the hill in the east end zone of Memorial Stadium, a new granite pedestal carved by John Fernandez was unveiled for Howard’s Rock that will add even more to one of the most exciting traditions in all of college football.
In the early 1960’s, Jones brought the rock to Clemson from Death Valley, CA with the hopes that legendary coach Frank Howard could use it in the football stadium. The two and a half pound rock sat in Howard’s office for more than a year until finally one day the coach ordered long-time IPTAY chief Gene Willimon to take it out of his office. Willimon was told he could do whatever he wanted with it, so after driving around campus for several hours he decided to place the rock at the top of the hill in the east end zone. On Sept. 24, 1966, with the rock in place for the first time, the Tigers came from an 18-point deficit to defeat Virginia 40-35.
A year later, Howard told his players they could only rub the rock for good luck before they ran down the hill if they planned to give maximum effort.
“Coach Howard told them if you’re going to give 110 percent you can rub my rock,” said longtime sports information director Bob Bradley. “If you’re not, keep your filthy hands off of it.”
Howard’s motivational strategy worked and the Tigers defeated Wake Forest 23-6 on Sept. 23, 1967.
While Howard, Jones, and Willimon will always be remembered as the masterminds of the what is known today as Howard’s Rock, Fernandez’s name will now also be forever linked with the rock’s storied history. As a junior at Clemson in 1967, Fernandez was in the crowd when the Clemson team rubbed Howard’s Rock for the first time.
“It was so exciting to see those players rub the rock for the fist time and then run down the hill. It is something that I will never forget,” Fernandez recalled.
He finished his degree requirements at Clemson in December 1968, but because the university did not have a December commencement at that time and because he relished being a Clemson student, he waited until the spring of 1969 to receive his degree.
“I loved being a student and my mom really wanted to watch me walk across that stage and get my degree so luckily I got to remain at Clemson for another semester,” Fernandez said.
Today, Fernandez and his wife Rhoda own a granite-sawing company – Stone Mart, Inc. – in Elberton, GA. Ever Since his graduation from Clemson, Fernandez’s love for the university has led him to volunteer his time and materials to many projects on campus. He has carved and shaped granite signs for the Walter Cox Plaza, the Military Heritage Plaza, and the Madren Center just to name a few.
“I love Clemson and I am always looking for ways to give back to the university in any way I can,” stated Fernandez.
Then earlier this year, while flipping through an issue of the Orange and White, Fernandez noticed a picture of the original concrete pedestal of Howard’s Rock being sawed down.
The rock was removed because of the concrete in which the rock had previously set had to be removed to make way for the construction of the east endzone. The project was part of the Tiger Pride campaign. The removal marked the first time Howard’s Rock had been moved since it was first placed in Memorial Stadium in 1966.
“It has been right there in that same spot,” Bradley said.
George Jones, who served as director of facilities at Clemson for many years, constructed the first pedestal in 1966 but Fernandez knew he would love to be the one to create what would be only the second pedestal in the history of Howard’s Rock. Because no one had contacted him about the job, however, he went on with the daily work of his company in Elberton.
As the rock sat inside the IPTAY offices upon removal from Death Valley, Fernandez continued to hold on to his vision of constructing a new pedestal in Memorial Stadium. Several months later his dream became a reality.
In early June, Sam Zanca of Clemson University construction services called Fernandez and asked him if he would be interested in creating a new granite pedestal for Howard’s Rock. As always, Fernandez was extremely eager to volunteer his services and materials to such a special project.
“I was so thrilled when Sam called that I told him of course I would be interested,” remembered Fernandez. “I had wanted the project ever since I saw the picture in the Orange and White, but I could not believe that I was actually going to be a part of such a great thing.”
In mid July, Les Jones, Clemson’s Associate Athletic Director for Capital Improvements, visited Fernandez and toured the quarry and the granite mining, cutting, polishing and engraving operations. From that day on, the completion of the project and the safety of the rock took main priority in Fernandez’s life.
“When I first received the rock, I was in awe,” said Fernandez. “Every time I looked at it, I could not help but think about all the people that had touched it and the tradition that it stood for.”
During the construction process, Feranandez carried the rock with him to and from work and the only time he took he took his eyes off it was while he was sleeping.
“With all the Georgia fans in Elberton, we really live in enemy territory,” Fernandez chuckled. “I was paranoid that something was going to happen to it, so I did everything I possible could to ensure its safety.”
His concern for the rock even led Fernandez to take it with him to a family cookout at his oldest son Danny’s house. “I think people really begin to think I was crazy then,” Fernandez stated.
After cutting and shaping the 1,000-pound jet black granite to the exact size he wanted, Fernandez and his crew fitted Howard’s Rock into its setting and sandblasted the lettering and tiger paw onto either side of the pedestal.
“I thought that it would be good to have something carved into the field side of the pedestal for the television cameras to see when the team ran down the hill so that is why we decided to put the tiger paw on that side,” said Fernandez.
Even though he only began working on the project in late June, the pedestal was delivered and dedicated to the Clemson Family on Aug. 24. “We did not have any problems whatsoever during the construction process,” recalled Fernandez. “Everything just seemed to fall in place and it turned out exactly like we wanted.”
The impressive looking pedestal has already made a big impression on the Clemson football team.
“When I went to rub the rock against The Citadel, I could not believe how fancy it looked,” said starting linebacker Altroy Bodrick. “With the way the rock looks now, I definitely think that touching it and running down the hill is the best tradition in all of college football.”
So while the names Howard, Jones, and Willimon will be forever linked with the famous rock now known as Howard’s Rock, John Fernanadez’s name will also now be remembered for many years to come. Through his pride and dedication for this great university, Clemson’s most famous rock has a new resting place that all Tigers fans and football players can enjoy and be proud of.
December 6, 2023