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Clemson’s First Football Game

Sept. 19, 2000

By Sam Blackman Associate Sports Information Dir.Wake Forest Game Program – September 16, 2000

One thousand games ago, dating back to an 1896 game between Clemson and Furman, Clemson Football was born.

On a still, balmy, September night on the young and undeveloped Clemson College campus a group of cadets met in the barracks to discuss the feasibility of organizing a football team to represent the all-male military school. Other state schools had football, and the question was raised-why not Clemson?

A total of 30 students met that night and from this group 20 players would make the varsity squad that year. From this group three students were appointed to consult an engineering professor Walter M. Riggs as to the management of a football team and to ask his aid as coach. Legend has it that only one of these 30 players had ever seen a football.

It was only appropriate Riggs would coach the Clemson Tigers. Riggs played football at Auburn during his student days at left end. He was captain and catcher of the baseball team and graduated with top honors in 1892 with a B.S. degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. After starting the Clemson program and coaching the team in 1896 and 1899 he headed the Clemson Athletic Association (Athletic Director) and was a key administrator of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (an early southern athletic conference with several schools as members). He later became president of Clemson College in 1911.

There is something to be said about the “old college try.” On October 5, 1896, Clemson began practice on a 50 x 200 foot field in front of the college. It is believed that this field was located in front of the old student union building (The area between Tillman Hall and the Trustee House).

Also the first football team had training rules to be followed to the letter: (1) Will report promptly to all practices prescribed by the coach unless physically disabled or prevented from attending on account of college duties.

(2) That in any of the above instances, we will report the facts beforehand, when possible to the coach.

(3) That we will not, without the consent of coach and trainer, eat anything at any time except at training table, will not drink an alcoholic or spirituous liquors or soda water.

(4) Will not use tobacco in any form or engage in any form of dissipation.

(5) Will retire not later then 11:00 PM. unless permission is granted by coach and trainer or prevented by college duties.

(6) Will obey the directions of the coach and captain on the field of play as before specified, and use our influence to promote discipline both on and off the field of play.

Another oddity about Clemson’s early beginnings is that Professor Riggs was one of two men around who had ever played football and only a few had ever seen the game.

Practice continued and as one description put it “a hardy group of early Tigers who cared little for their skin and bones turned out for practice and began enthusiastically slamming each other to the rock strewn practice field.”

Without any capital, the team’s first equipment were personal property, but other necessary equipment were purchased with money which was willingly contributed by members of the faculty and student body.

Equipment in the early years consisted of very little padding except at the knees and elbows. Tightly fitting and laced leather or canvas jackets were the main bodily protection against the crashing effects of mass plays and left little for a tackler to grab. A few had nose and shin guards. Due to the lack of helmets and head protection they wore long hair to protect the head.

After gruelling practices, the first-ever Clemson game day finally arrived. On October 31, 1896, Clemson traveled to Furman (probably by train). This was the first time that many of the Clemson players had seen a full-sized gridiron.

George Swygert, center on the first Clemson football team, recalls the Furman game and the first season as follows: “With Professor Riggs as our coach we got in shape fairly well. Our first game was with Furman, the biggest men I have ever seen, and believe it or not we won that game. We had a few trick plays. One was when the play ended near the side lines, our lightest end would hide the ball under his sweater and as the two teams moved toward the center of the field for the next play, he appeared to be injured, then when things were clear, he made a bee-line for the goal. This worked maybe once a game, it worked against Furman our first game.”

Very few details of the Clemson-Furman game are known, but it is known that Charlie Gentry scored Clemson’s first touchdown in history. The Tigers defeated Furman 14-6 at Greenville, SC.

Clemson’s upset win over Furman was a monumental milestone for the school. Furman was considered at the time an experienced team having played the game since 1889, (the year Clemson was founded).

A member of Clemson’s first football team, Shack Shealy was the head coach of the Tigers in 1904. He holds the distinction of being the only Clemson player to have coached his alma mater. Shealy coached Clemson one year and guided the Tigers to a 3-3-1 record overall, which included wins over Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

In 1896, a football field was 110 yards long and a touchdown counted only four points: whereas a field goal, and that was either a drop kick or through placement, counted five points, and the goal after touchdown counted two points, as also did a safety.

Little did this group of 30 students know, meeting 100 years ago in a tiny barrack’s room, they would set the foundation of one of the most successful football programs in the nation.

1896 Starting Lineup LE: J.H. Blain, SR LT: J.D. White, FR LG: L.L. Hendricks, SO C: George Swygert, JR RG: Shack Shealy, FR RT: Jock Hanvey, FR RE: Charlie Gentry, SO QB: Jeff Maxwell, JR LHB: F.G. Thompkins, SR FB: A.M. Chritzberg, SR RHB: R.G. Hamilton, SR