When you talk about the biggest plays in Clemson football history, a blocked punt by Phil Prince against South Carolina in 1948 always makes the list.
The undefeated Tigers trailed South Carolina 7-6 with just four minutes left in the Big Thursday game in Columbia. With the line of scrimmage the South Carolina 28, Gamecocks punter and quarterback Bob Hagan felt he just needed a solid punt to put the Tigers in poor field position. One more defensive stand against a Clemson team that had scored just six points to that point would do it.
But, Prince took a different route on his rush, got by his man and blocked Hagan’s punt. The ball caromed to the 11-yard-line where Oscar Thompson picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown.
Bobby Gage intercepted Hagan on the very next drive to ice the game.
The Tigers went on to an 11-0 record in 1948, the school’s first undefeated season since 1900, and a number-11 final ranking in the AP poll, the highest in school history at the time. Clemson, Michigan and Notre Dame were the only college football teams with perfect records that year and most historians, former players and coaches, remember Prince’s blocked punt as the key play of that season.
I guess it is fitting that Prince’s play is considered among the most important in Clemson history. A top the list would be Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown catch to beat Alabama in 2016. Prince’s middle name is Hunter.
All this came to the forefront on Friday as we learned of the passing of Phil Prince.
Prince had another connection to that 2016 National Championship team. In 1944, he began the season as a starting offensive tackle as a true freshman. Another Clemson true freshman did not start the season opener at an offensive tackle position until 2015 when Mitch Hyatt started at left tackle in the first game of the season. Hyatt became a four-year starter and two-time All-American.
While it might be the first thing long time Clemson fans think of when they hear the name Phil Prince, he did far more with his life than just that one play…..by a long shot.
In fact, if I had to name the top five most respected football players I have met in my over 40 years working in Clemson athletics, he would be on the list. In addition to serving as co-captain of that 1948 team, he also served as the Clemson University Senior Class Vice President for the 1948-49 academic year.
I first met Phil Prince in Bob Bradley’s office in the spring of 1979. He had just become a senior vice president with American Express. Four years later he held the same position with Synco Property Incorporated. Between 1951-67 he had been in an executive position with Milliken, including vice president.
Bradley told me that day in 1979 he was one of Frank Howard’s most respected former players, and I could see why. He had a most engaging personality.
Prince retired from the corporate world, but never stopped serving Clemson. Beginning in 1982, he served on the Board of the Clemson Foundation and became president in 1989. That year, the Clemson Life Trustees elected him to become a Life Trustee. He won the Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1983 and the Clemson Medallion in 1989.
In February 1994, Max Lennon resigned as Clemson President and the Board of Trustees turned to Prince to serve as acting president.
I was very pleased with that selection because I knew him well through Bradley and writing articles about the 1948 team. It was the first time in my career I could just pick up the phone and call a president on his direct line.
Prince served in that position for 11 months and didn’t just “hold the fort” for someone else. Prince was given the task of reconstructing the administrative and academic divisions within the university, as he was faced with the challenges of continuous state funding cuts.
He accomplished this by grouping the nine existing colleges into four and by combining administrative units. His successor later split one of the larger colleges into two, leaving the university with five colleges after restructuring.
At the end of his 11 months, the term “acting” was removed and historically he is considered a full-time president.
Prince was again recognized by the University with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Clemson in May of 1995. I was there when he received it. What an ovation!
Each year five faculty members are presented with the Phil Prince Award for Innovation in Teaching at the Victor Hurt Convocation that begins the academic year. In 2015, he received the Bond Clemson Distinguished Athletes Award at the Boston College game. It is an award presented each year to a former Clemson athlete who has distinguished themselves after graduation.
Prince made one final significant contribution to the Clemson football program in the mid 2000s when he served as chairman of the fund-raising campaign for the West Endzone project. With his name connected to the project, it received instant credibility. The success of the Clemson program the last decade can be traced to the building of that facility at Memorial Stadium.
Prince was 93 when he died. He lived a long, fruitful and giving life. I don’t know a more respected person who has represented Clemson in the area of athletics and academics with distinction for a longer period of time.