Note: The following appears in the September issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
By Sam Blackman // Athletic Communications
With the overuse of Bowman Field and the need for a seated stadium, Clemson embarked on building its first athletic facility, Riggs Field.
Perhaps one of the first big “stepping stones” in helping make Clemson successful in athletics today was the construction of Riggs Field. Named after one of the most beloved leaders of the early years, Walter Merritt Riggs, Riggs Field turns 100 years old on Oct. 2, 2015.
What made Riggs Field so significant to the school at the time it was first built in 1915? It was the first major facility on the campus dedicated to intercollegiate athletics.
Riggs Field gave the football team a place to play and practice on its adjunct fields. The baseball field was constructed where the tennis courts are now and the track encircled the football field.
Construction of Riggs Field started in the early summer of 1914. Approximately $10,000 was appropriated for the construction of the facility that covered almost nine acres. Before its completion, the Clemson Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to name the new athletic complex Riggs Field in honor of Clemson’s first football coach and originator of the Clemson Athletic Association.
Riggs Field was dedicated in grand fashion on Oct. 2, 1915. The band, corps of cadets, faculty and alumni marched from Tillman Hall to the new field.
According to The Tiger, “the group formed a ‘C’ formation on the field and poured forth a thrilling volume of patriotic Tiger yells and songs.” Professor J.W. Gantt, president of the Clemson Athletic Association, introduced Riggs as, “the man who has done more for the athletics at Clemson and probably more for southern athletics than any other man.”
In presenting the field to the corps of cadets, Riggs said, “This magnificent field is a token of recognition by the trustees of Clemson College of the importance of military and athletic training for the cadets. It is to be a place for the teaching of the principles of teamwork and fair play.
“This large and beautiful athletic field is to stand for the development of the physical man, and whether in real work or in play, it is hoped that this field will be used as an agency in the development of high and honorable men. Whether victorious or defeated, may the men of this field always be gentlemen of the highest type.”
A few minutes later, Riggs made the initial kickoff in the first football game played on the new field. While on the field, he wore a new orange and blue sweater he had just received from Auburn, his alma mater, as they too wanted to congratulate Clemson and Riggs for their accomplishments. Clemson and Davidson played to a 6-6 tie that day.
Walter Merritt Riggs, The Man
Riggs graduated with top honors from Auburn in 1892 with a B.S. degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. At Auburn, he was captain and catcher of the baseball team as well as the manager and left end of the football team. He also served as class president and was the director of the Glee Club.
Upon his graduation at Auburn, he served as assistant to the president of the college until 1896, when he made his trek to Clemson. Before he came to Tigertown, he hired John Heisman from Auburn to coach the football team.
Riggs came to Clemson in 1896 as an assistant in the mechanical and electrical engineering department. He was the first football coach at Clemson that fall. He stepped down as head coach in 1897 to devote his full time to academics.
He again coached the team in 1899 because the athletic association was low on funds. In two years of coaching, Riggs guided the Tigers to a career record of 6-3.
Although no longer the head coach, Clemson athletics and Riggs could not be split. Although not given the title, Riggs also was the equivalent of an athletic director, managing the money and making contracts with other teams.
In 1900, the search for a new coach ended when Riggs hired Heisman again, this time to coach the Clemson Tigers.
The well-respected Riggs was also president of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), an early conference preceding the Southern Conference. In later years, he became interim president of Clemson in 1909 and became the school’s fifth president on March 7, 1911.
Riggs, a native of Orangeburg, S.C., had a keen interest in SC State, and ironically, the school was in his hometown.
During the development of SC State, Riggs helped design the infrastructure of the school in his spare time, free of charge. This included electrical plans as well as utilities such as water, heat and sewage as the school developed. He was also an advisor and friend to the school. Riggs also helped SC State develop an extension service that mirrored Clemson’s department to help African-American farmers.
In Washington D.C., on Jan. 22, 1924, Riggs died unexpectedly. He was in the nation’s capital to attend a meeting of the executive committee of the American Association of Land Grant Colleges. Riggs kept a demanding schedule and was known as a tireless worker.
At his hotel room in Washington, he had a coughing spell that was believed to have resulted in an internal rupture. At the time, the attack was not believed to be serious and a doctor was called to his side. A few hours later, he died.
Riggs had been suffering from high blood pressure, and friends and colleagues warned that he should rest more and not work so hard. He was only 50 years old when he died and was just two days shy of his 51st birthday. Some historians believe that he worked himself to an early death.
In all, Riggs had a 28-year association with Clemson. He served as Clemson’s coach, president and friend to many.
Hollywood Comes to Clemson
The original configuration of the track and former football stadium as well as the bleachers were featured in a long scene in the latter portion of the 1974 Burt Lancaster movie, “The Midnight Man,” filmed in part at Clemson University in 1973.
In 1974, the detective film was released. Lancaster and Susan Clark starred in the movie. Historic Riggs Field was seen prominently in the film and offered not only a useful setting, but also a picturesque backdrop in the movie.
Burt Lancaster shared directing credits with Roland Kibbee. Co-stars included Cameron Mitchell (seen in many television westerns) as well as the future Daisy Duke, Catherine Bach, in her first screen appearance. Character actors Ed Lauter and Charles Tyner, were both featured in “The Longest Yard,” a football film that starred Burt Reynolds and was also shot in 1974.
The movie was shot on Clemson’s campus and Anderson, S.C., along with other scenes in Pickens County in 1973. The shooting of the movie started on Feb. 13, 1973.
The film was released on June 10, 1974 in New York City, and nationwide on June 14. It premiered at the Astro III theater in Clemson on March 14, 1974 with a red-carpet ceremony.
Today’s Riggs Field
Historic Riggs Field today is considered to be one of the top, if not the top, soccer facility in the nation. Clemson started playing soccer at Riggs Field in 1980. Since that time, the Tiger men’s soccer team has won over 80 percent of its matches played there. Also, the 1987 NCAA Men’s Soccer Final Four was contested at Historic Riggs Field, and Clemson won the national championship before a record crowd of 8,332.
On Sept. 1, 1987, Clemson unveiled the soccer stadium at Historic Riggs Field. The construction of a 6,500 seat grandstand provides top-notch accommodations for fans and players, and the recent revitalization of the grass field makes Historic Riggs Field one of the nation’s finest.
Last year, a pedestrian bridge along with new stands located north of the playing surface were constructed. Images of Riggs were installed in the middle of the bridge that were donated by Tiger Brotherhood.
In 1988, 1994 and 2001, the ACC champion was determined at Historic Riggs Field, as Clemson hosted the annual ACC Tournament in November. It was also the site of the 1996 ACC Women’s Championship.
The Clemson men’s and women’s tennis teams play on part of Historic Riggs Field, as the Hoke Sloan Tennis Center was built on the west side of the soccer stadium. The tennis teams have developed into perennial powers and have won many conference championships.
The women’s tennis team has been to 26 NCAA Tournaments, including two Final Fours. The men’s tennis team has been to 26 NCAA Tournaments and seven Elite Eights over the years.
As one looks from Riggs Field and sees the grand clock tower of Tillman Hall guarding that part of campus, it is only appropriate that these two symbols of the university are so close in proximity, as both have played such a significant role in Clemson history.
Historic Riggs Field Firsts
• Oct. 2, 1915 – Clemson and Davidson tied 6-6 in football in the first athletic contest at the complex. Historic Riggs Field was the home of Clemson football through the 1941 season. The football team moved to Memorial Stadium in 1942.
• March 27, 1916 – Clemson’s first baseball game was played at Historic Riggs Field. The Tigers defeated West Virginia Wesleyan 4-2. The Tiger baseball team played there through the 1969 season. The baseball field was located where the tennis courts are today.
• April 14, 1917 – Clemson’s men’s track & field team lost to Davidson 60-54 in the very first track meet at Historic Riggs Field. The track was located around the present soccer field. Home track & field meets for the Tigers were held there through the 1973 season.
• March 6, 1970 – Clemson’s men’s tennis team defeated Wingate 6-3 in the first tennis match at Historic Riggs Field. The current tennis courts cover where the baseball field used to be. Both the men’s and women’s teams continue to play there. The Indoor Tennis Center was first used in 1987.
• Sept. 7, 1980 – Clemson defeated Old Dominion 5-1 in the first men’s soccer match at Historic Riggs Field. The soccer grandstands were built in 1987.
March 23, 2023