Sept. 5, 2001
By Sanford RogersThe UCF Game
Two-hundred and forty-four days have passed since the Clemson Tigers last took the field against Virginia Tech in the Toyota Gator Bowl. The excitement and anticipation building towards today’s kickoff against UCF is running high for players, fans and coaches.
The person who just may be the most excited of all will be wearing orange in Death Valley for the first time since 1977. Quarterback Coach Mike O’Cain, Class of 1977, is in his first season back at his alma mater in more than two decades.
“It will be a special time,” said O’Cain. “When I was growing up, past the age of seven or eight, Clemson was a big part of my life. I had two older brothers who went to Clemson. My family and I would try to come to one or two games a year. As I progressed as an athlete in high school I thought I might have a chance to play college football. Clemson was the place for me.”
O’Cain, a native of Orangeburg, SC, made quite an impact during his time as a student-athlete in Tigertown. A four-year letterman, he was the most valuable player of the 1976 team, handling duties at both quarterback and punter. He completed 91 of 182 passes for 1,291 yards and six touchdowns during his career at Clemson. He still ranks 14th in Clemson history in passing efficiency.
After completing his eligibility, O’Cain spent the 1977 season as a graduate assistant for the Tigers. That year Clemson ended an 18-year bowl drought with an 8-4 record and an appearance in the Gator Bowl.
He then left Clemson to pursue a full-time coaching career with stops at The Citadel, Murray State, East Carolina, N.C. State and North Carolina. He served as the head coach for the Wolfpack from 1993 to 1999, taking the team to three bowl games. In 1993, he took the Pack to nine wins, still tied as the single season victory record in N.C. State history.
It was during his time as an assistant in Raleigh that O’Cain had flashbacks to his college days. “I was away from Clemson until the 1987 season when N.C. State played at Clemson. “Hearing the band play Tiger Rag and seeing the team run down the hill was special. Those are ties that you just don’t lose over time.”
Since returning to Clemson last December O’Cain has had the opportunity to renew old friendships and return to an environment that has always brought him comfort. “There are so many people here that were at Clemson when I was in school,” recalled O’Cain. “I was in school with Bob Mahony and now he is working in IPTAY. It is really nice to renew friendships with folks that I had not seen in 25 years.”
Mahony, who has served as the Associate Executive Director of IPTAY since 1989, has seen first-hand what O’Cain means to Clemson. “Mike’s return is very special,” said Mahony. “He brings a great deal of football knowledge, but he also brings great understanding of the history and tradition of Clemson. He has been well received by everyone.”
While O’Cain was still familiar with a number of people still at Clemson, there were obvious changes to the landscape. “I guess the things that have changed the most are the size of the stadium and the student body,” remembered O’Cain. “The last year I played (1976) the stadium seated around 40,000. There were no upper decks. I think the undergraduate enrollment was around 8,000.”
While the campus and Death Valley have grown substantially, O’Cain can still feel the same spirit from his playing days. “The tradition at Clemson has gotten even stronger since I played. The fan support and their love for Clemson is even greater. That is one of the things that makes it such a special place.”
The special feelings that O’Cain points to make it easy to understand how he made the decision to return to Clemson prior to the Gator Bowl. “I was very excited about this opportunity,” said O’Cain. “I had no doubts about coming back to Clemson. It was a matter of Tommy (Bowden) being comfortable with me. I understand that you not only hire a good football coach, you hire someone who fits with the staff you have in place.”
When Bowden was looking to fill the quarterback coaching position vacated when Rich Rodriguez left for West Virginia, O’Cain was an obvious choice. “Mike O’Cain brings a great deal of experience to our staff,” said Bowden. “He has been a offensive coordinator and a head coach in this conference. His experience will allow us do some different things with our offense. He also has strong ties to Clemson, he played here and graduated from here, so that made it even more appealing.”
The timing of Rodriguez’s departure allowed O’Cain to serve in advisory capacity for the Gator Bowl. That experience in December was time well spent for several reasons. “Being around the program in December was a tremendous advantage,” said O’Cain. “I was able to be around the staff as they were preparing a game plan. It is nice to have gone through planning for a game before this season starts.” O’Cain was also able to get to know the players he would be coaching in the spring of 2001.”When conditioning drills rolled around, I didn’t have to introduce myself,” said O’Cain. “When I was in the weight room they knew who I was and I knew who they were. That helped the transition immensely.”
In an ironic twist, there is one player who O’Cain knew before his arrival. As Clemson quarterbacks coach he will be tutoring Heisman Trophy candidate Woodrow Dantzler. Dantzler, like O’Cain, is a native of Orangeburg and attended Orangeburg-Wilkinson High.
“When I was at North Carolina State we recruited Woodrow,” remembered O’Cain. “We thought very early in the process that he was going to attend Clemson or South Carolina so we didn’t spend a great deal of time with him. But our staff knew what kind of potential Woody had. “It is special to coach someone from your hometown and from your high school. But it is even more rewarding because of the kind of person he is. A lot of people just see Woody as the guy who wears #1 and makes things happen on the field. But the thing that impresses me the most is the type of person he is. The way he conducts himself and gives of his time is what makes him such a special person.”
While O’Cain was adjusting to new coaches and players, he was also preparing for change of pace for he and his family. His wife Nancy and daughters Jenny (16) and Lizzi (14) stayed in Raleigh until school ended in late May.
“We had lived in Raleigh for 15 years, that is a long time,” said O’Cain. “Our daughters had lived in the same house and had the same friends for their entire lives, so that was certainly a change for them. But, there are many athletic staff and coaching families that are the same age. That will make it a little easier for them.”
O’Cain and his family are already adjusting and enjoying the slower pace of a small town.”Clemson is a great place to live,” said O’Cain. Growing up in a small town makes you appreciate the pace and quality of life.” O’Cain’s small-town Orangeburg roots make it easy to understand how two of his hobbies, hunting and photography, are two things he enjoys during the off-season. “I love to spend quiet time outside,” said O’Cain. “Hunting and taking pictures require a great deal of patience. You just can’t rush a sunset or hurry a turkey into a clearing. The coaching profession is a hectic one, so those things kind of force me to relax and slow down.”
Sanford Rogers worked in the Clemson Sports Information Office as a student assistant from 1990-93 and currently serves on the stat crew.
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