Death Valley Name synonymous with Clemson Memorial Stadium. The Stadium was dubbed this affectionate title by the late Lonnie McMillian, a former coach at Presbyterian. He used to take his teams to play at Clemson, and they rarely scored, never mind gained a victory. Once he told the writers he was going to play Clemson up at Death Valley because his teams always got killed. It stuck somewhat, but when Frank Howard start calling it that in the fifties, the term really caught on. It is now in its 54th year.
Many people think the name is derived from the fact that there rests a cemetary outside the fence on the press box site of the stadium. But, although it would make sense, the name was first coined by Lonnie McMillian.
First Friday ParadeThe Clemson football season kicks off each year with the annual First Friday Parade. The once a year event takes place on the Friday afternoon prior to the first home football game. Floats from various fraternities and sororities and other campus organizations are represented in the parade that rolls down main street in Clemson. The parade culminates at the Amphitheater in the middle of campus where the first Pep Rally of the year takes place.
The Grand Marshall of the Parade is featured at the Pep Rally. Recent Grand Marshall’s have ranged from current PGA professional Dillard Pruitt, to College Football Hall of Fame legends Jess Neely and Frank Howard, to noted television announcers Brent Musburger and Ara Parseghian.
HomecomingClemson holds a classic homecoming every year. Displays by fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations that are months in the making, are built on Bowman Field the week prior to the Homecoming Weekend. It is an event that draws alumni and friends of Clemson from all over the country.
The Friday evening prior to the game , Tigerama is held in Death Valley, an event that attracts over 35,000 fans. The Homecoming Queen and her court are presented in addition to Homecoming skits, a pep rally and a large and loud fireworks display.
The first homecoming game played at Clemson took place on September 30, 1922 when Clemson met Centre. There is no record of a homecoming game in 1930 or 1938, but the event has been held in conjunction with a football game every year since 1939, even through the war years. Clemson has a 58-19-3 overall on homecoming games, a .743 winning percentage. Clemson has been especially successful on Homecoming in recent years, posting a 28-3-2 record since 1971.
Howard’s RockWhen the Clemson team gathers to Run Down the Hill the players rub Howard’s Rock because of the mystical powers it is supposed to give Clemson players.
The rock is mounted on a pedestal at the top of the hill and was given to Coach Frank Howard by a friend (S.C. Jones’ 19) who picked it up in Death Valley, CA.
The Rock was first placed on the pedestal at the top of the hill on September 24, 1966, a game Clemson won 40-35 over Virginia.
The team started rubbing the rock for the first game of 1967, a 23-6 win over Wake Forest on September 23, 1967.
Running Down the HillWhat has been described as, “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football from a color and pageantry standpoint,” actually started out as a matter-of-fact entrance, mainly because of necessity.
The first 20,000 seats in Clemson Memorial Stadium were built and ready for use before the 1942 season. The shortest entry into the stadium was a walk down Williamson Road from Fike Field House’s dressing rooms to a gate at the top of the hill behind the east end zone. There were no dressing facilities in the west end zone-only a big clock where the hands turned, and a scoreboard, which was operated by hand.
The team would dress at Fike, walk down Williamson Road, come in the gate underneath where the big scoreboard now stands and jog down the hill for its warm-up exercises. There was no fanfare, no cannon shot fired, no tiger paw flag, no Tiger Rag played…just the team making its entrance and lining up to do the side straddle hop.
That’s pretty much the way things went for the next 25 years. Either in 1964 or 1965, S.C. Jones, a member of the Clemson class of 1919, made a trip to California. He stopped at a spot in Death Valley, CA, and picked up this white flint rock. He presented it to Coach Frank Howard as being from Death Valley, CA, to Death Valley, South Carolina.”
The rock laid on the floor in Howard’s office in Fike for a year or more. One day Howard was cleaning up his office and he told Gene Willimon, who was the executive secretary of IPTAY, to, “take this rock and throw it over the fence, or out in the ditch…do something with it, but get it out of my office.”
Willimon didn’t think that was the way a rock should be treated. Afterall, it had been brought 3000 miles by a very sincere Tiger fan. By the mid-sixties, Memorial Stadium was pretty well living up to its moniker, Death Valley, because of the number of victories that had been recorded there. Actually, the name was first used by the late Lonnie McMillian, head coach at Presbyterian College in Clinton in the 1940s.
McMillian and the other Blue Hose coaches before him used to open the season each year by coming to Clemson. Seldom scoring (24 shutouts in 39 games) and with only three wins and four ties to show for it, his teams were getting killed by the Tigers regularly. In 1948 McMillian made the comment to the press that he was taking his team to play Clemson in Death Valley.
An occasional reference to Memorial stadium by that name could be heard for the next three or four years, but when Howard started calling it ‘Death Valley’ in the 1950’s, the name took off like wildfire. The Tigers celebrated the 50th season in the ‘valley’ in 1991.
But getting back to Howard’s rock. The rock was mounted on a pedestal at the top of the hill. It was unveiled September 24, 1966, on a day when Clemson played Virginia. The Tigers were down 18 points with 17 minutes to play and came back to win (40-35) on a 65-yard pass play from Jimmy Addison to Jacky Jackson in the fourth period. That was quite a spectacular debut for that rock.
The team members started rubbing the rock prior to running down the hill September 23, 1967, a day when Clemson defeated Wake Forest, 23-6. Prior to running down the hill that day, Howard told his players: “If you’re going to give me 110 percent, you can rub that rock. If you’re not, keep your filthy hands off it.” Howard told of the incident the next day on his Sunday television show and and the story became legend.
When Hootie Ingram succeeded Howard as head coach prior to the 1970 season, Ingram decided that the team would make its final entrance on the field out of the dressing room in the west end zone. In all home games in 1970 and 1971 and the first four of 1972 when the Tigers did not run down the hill, their record was 6-9. The team decided it wanted to come down the hill once prior to the South Carolina game in 1972. The result, in a cold, freezing rain, was a 7-6 victory when Jimmy Williamson knocked down a two-point conversion attempt which preserved the win.
The Tigers have made the entrance for every home game since 1942, except for the seasons mentioned above – 320 times heading into the 2007 season.
After Clemson’s final warm-up, the team goes back into its dressing room under the west end zone stands for final game instructions. About 10 minutes before kickoff the team boards two buses, rides around behind the north stands to the east end zone and debarks to the top of the hill behind Howard’s Rock.
At the appointed time, the cannon booms and led by a high-flying tiger paw flag, the band forms two lines for the team to run between and strikes up ‘Tiger Rag’…The frenzy starts in all sincerity…and usually lasts two and a half to three hours.
It is a tradition that has inspired Clemson players for many years.
July 31, 2021
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