Note: The following appears in the Florida State gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 150th season of college football. The author of this article, Tim Bourret, is one of 150 college football historians on a committee formed by ESPN that is selecting the top teams, games, players and programs during the first 150 years. In conjunction with that, Bourret is writing articles this year on the great moments in Clemson football history. Below is the fourth installment of the series.
It had been 18 years since Clemson played in a bowl game. But with a 7-2-1 record entering the final regular-season game at South Carolina, the 1977 Tigers were in position to break that drought.
By today’s standards, that sounds absurd. With 40 bowl games scheduled this year, teams with losing records will probably go to a bowl. But that was not the state of college football in 1977, as there were only 12 bowl games, and four of those had conference ties that locked Clemson out of an opportunity.
So even with that 7-2-1 record going to Columbia to face the rival Gamecocks, most believed it was a do-or-die situation for the Tigers.
That is why this was such an important game in Clemson history and one of my most important moments in program history.
In 1959, Clemson won the ACC title with a 6-1 record and finished 9-2 overall. Frank Howard’s team defeated No. 7 TCU in the first Bluebonnet Bowl and ranked No. 11 in the nation in the final poll. It was the highest-ranked team that Howard beat in his 30-year career.
Few could have predicted the 1960 season would start the longest dry spell of bowl non-participation since it first won the Cotton Bowl over Boston College at the end of the 1939 season.
There was a big reason for the 18-year drought. The ACC presidents passed the 800 rule, which stated that all athletes had to have at least an 800 SAT score to play a sport. The rival SEC did not have the rule, and as a result, it dominated the ACC in recruiting and on the scoreboard for over a decade.
The rule was not struck down until 1972, and by the mid 1970s, the league and Clemson football started to return to prominence. Juniors Joe Bostic, Jerry Butler, Steve Fuller and Randy Scott were ready to lead the Tigers back to a bowl game.
The Tigers lost the season opener to No. 10 Maryland 21-14, but they won the next week at Georgia 7-6. The Bulldogs were defending SEC champions, and it was Clemson’s first win in Athens since 1914.
On the way back from the thrilling victory, Head Coach Charley Pell stopped all the buses, went into a convenience store and cleaned out the cigars.
It became a tradition. After each victory, there were cigars aplenty in the locker room.
The week before the South Carolina contest, the Tigers hosted No. 5 Notre Dame, which featured 26 players who went on to play in the NFL. The Tigers had a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, but Joe Montana led one of his comebacks and the Fighting Irish won 21-17.
It was a great performance for Clemson’s national brand, but how would they react after such an emotional loss?
This was the first Clemson vs. South Carolina game shown on live television, and perhaps that was a motivation for the Tigers, who took a 17-0 halftime lead thanks to a four-yard run by Warren Ratchford, a one-yard run by Lester Brown and an 18-yard field goal by Obed Ariri.
A 52-yard touchdown run by Ken Callicutt midway through the third quarter gave the Tigers a 24-0 lead.
However, the Gamecocks, who entered the game with a 5-5 record and had no chance of postseason play, got a 77-yard run by Spencer Clark and two rushing touchdowns by Steve Dorsey to cut the margin to 24-20.
South Carolina made a third straight stop and got the ball back with 4:01 remaining in the fourth quarter. A few plays later, the Gamecocks faced a fourth-and-10 at the Clemson 40. Ron Bass connected with Phillip Logan across the middle, and he went the distance with 109 seconds left to give South Carolina a 27-24 lead.
When the South Carolina players went to the bench, many of them lifted up their jerseys to reveal they were wearing t-shirts that read, “No Cigars Today!”
“That kind of made me mad,” said Butler in an interview after the game.
That might have been the most understated postgame quote in Tiger history.
Clemson took the ball over at its own 33 with 1:39 remaining. On third-and-seven from the Clemson 36, Fuller connected with Rick Weddington for a 26-yard gain. Another completion to Dwight Clark moved the ball to the South Carolina 20.
Moving with a fast pace like today’s offenses, Fuller ran a play for Butler, who made a diving backwards catch in the endzone, giving the Tigers a 31-27 lead with 49 seconds left. The play is remembered in Tiger lore as “The Catch I.” South Carolina drove to the Clemson 40 in the final 49 seconds, but the Tigers held.
Clemson got that invitation to the Gator Bowl and lost decisively to Pittsburgh. But the experience gained led to the 1978 Gator Bowl victory over Ohio State.
That led to the 1981 national championship. And the tradition has continued today.
But it all started with that thrilling victory in Columbia 42 years ago.