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Coaching Debut Games

Aug. 26, 1999

Walter Riggs coached Clemson in not only his debut game, but the program’s debut. In 1896, Clemson won its first game in history 14-6 at Furman. Riggs might have recorded the top first-game coaching performance of all because his first team did not begin practicing until October 5, 1896, just 23 days prior to the first game. He had 30 players attend that first practice and he took just 21 to Furman for that first game. With most of his team seeing a full sized football gridiron for the first time, the Tigers pulled off the victory over the Paladins.

The most impressive debut for a Clemson coach from a score standpoint was turned in by John Heisman. In 1900 he opened his Clemson career with a 64-0 victory over Davidson, still the largest margin of victory in Clemson history for a coach in his first game. Heisman did not stop with that opener, as his Tigers went on to a perfect 6-0 season, Clemson’s only perfect season in the first 52 years of the sport. He would also defeat South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in his debut season.

Not all Clemson coaching debuts have resulted in Tigers victories, even for some of its best coaches. Jess Neely tied Presbyterian 0-0 in 1931 in his first game as Clemson head coach. By his last game however, he had the Tigers in the Cotton Bowl, a 7-6 win over Boston College and Frank Leahy, who is still the second winningest coach in college football history on a percentage basis.

Neely was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame upon the completion of his career. He left the Tiger program in the hands of his top assistant coach, Frank Howard, in 1940. Howard’s first game was also against Presbyterian, but Howard showed how far the program had come with a 38-0 victory on the road.

Howard called an end-around on his first play as head coach and George Floyd ran 18 yards for a touchdown. Howard went on to win 165 games at Clemson and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

Each of the last three Clemson coaches have had celebrated debut games. Only eight coaches in college football history have made their coaching debut with a program in a bowl game and 25 percent of those coaches were from Clemson. In 1978, Danny Ford made his debut in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL against Big Ten power Ohio State and Woody Hayes.

What a debut for Ford, who was only 30-years-old, at the time the youngest head coach in the nation. Not only was it his first game, he was coaching against a future Hall of Famer, a ranked Big Ten team, on national television. Then the game was even more exciting.

Behind Steve Fuller and Jerry Butler on offense, and Bubba Brown and Jim Stuckey on defense, Clemson held a 17-15 lead in the final two minutes. Freshman quarterback Art Schlichter brought the Buckeyes back to field goal range.

But, on a third-and-five from the Clemson 24, second-team middle guard Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass over the middle, the only interception of his career. He ran the ball back and was knocked out of bounds near the Ohio State bench. A frustrated Woody Hayes swung at Bauman after he got up, hitting him squarely in the throat. The Tigers ran out the clock and the coaching career of Woody Hayes. The next day, Hayes was fired by Ohio State and Danny Ford’s accomplishments were moved to background, at least nationally. Three years later he got his due, coaching Clemson to its only National Championship.

Ken Hatfield succeeded Ford in 1990. His first game was in the friendly confines of Death Valley against Long Beach State. The game attracted quite a media contingent. In addition to it being Hatfield’s first game, it was also the return to coaching of NFL Hall of Famer George Allen, who took over the program the previous spring. Newspapers from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles covered the contest….which really wasn’t a contest at all. Clemson scored 10 more points than the 49ers nickname in registering the shutout victory.

Tommy West’s debut as Clemson coach could be called the most unusual in coaching history. Not only was he making his debut in a bowl game, the Peach Bowl against Kentucky, he was taking over a program without having coached the team during the recent regular season. West had spent the regular season as the head coach at UT-Chattanooga, then replaced Ken Hatfield in December.

During bowl game workouts, Clemson players, even seniors, had to wear their names across their helmets so the coaches knew who they were. Some of the red-shirt seniors had been on the Clemson team of 1989 when West had been an assistant, so they bridged the gap.

Those veteran players were key to the 14-13 Clemson victory. Stacy Seegars forced a fumble on an interception return by Wildcat linebacker Marty Moore. Fellow fifth-year senior Brent LeJeune recovered at the Clemson 21. With 20 seconds remaining, Patrick Sapp, now a linebacker in the NFL, connected with Terry Smith for the winning touchdown, the latest Clemson touchdown to win a game since 1958.

Now we have reached the debut game of Tommy Bowden. While his predecessors have had challenges in their opener, he will not have an easy task either. Marshall enters the game ranked as high as 15th in one preseason poll, and the Thundering Herd are rated 27th by the dean of polls, the Associated Press. The Marshall program has won 101 games in the 1990s, the highest total in college football.

The scene is set for another historic debut game in Clemson coaching history.

by Tim Bourret

Clemson Coaches Debut Games

   Coach              Year   Opponent       Site  W-L  Score   Walter Riggs       1896   Furman          A     W    14-6   William Williams   1897   Georgia         A     L    0-24   John Penton        1898   Georgia         A     L    8-20   John Heisman       1900   Davidson        H     W    64-0   Shack Shealy       1904   Alabama         N1    W    18-0   Eddie Cochems      1905   Tennessee       H     T     5-5   Bob Williams       1906   Virginia Tech   H     T     0-0   Frank Shaughnessy  1907   Gordon          H     W     5-0   John Stone         1908   Gordon          H     W    15-0   Frank Dobson       1910   Gordon          H     W    26-0   Wayne Hart         1916   Furman          H     W     7-6   Edward Donahue     1817   Presbyterian    H     W    13-0   E.J. Stewart       1921   Centre          A     L    0-14   Bud Saunders       1923   Auburn          H     T     0-0   Josh Cody          1927   Presbyterian    H     T     0-0   Jess Neely         1931   Presbyterian    H     T     0-0   Frank Howard       1940   Presbyterian    A     W    38-0   Hootie Ingram      1970   Citadel         H     W    24-0   Red Parker         1973   Citadel         H     W   14-12   Charlie Pell       1977   Maryland        H     L   14-21   Danny Ford         1978   Ohio State      N2    W   17-15   Ken Hatfield       1990   Long Beach St.  H     W    59-0   Tommy West         1993   Kentucky        N3    W   14-13      N1--Birmingham, AL   N2--Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, FL   N3--Peach Bowl at Atlanta, GA