Note: The following appears in the Texas A&M gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This story was written by former Clemson Sports Information Director Brent Breedin, who serviced the athletic department in that capacity from 1951-55.
At Clemson, seasons that end with a nine have been incredibly eventful. There have been 12 seasons in school history that have ended in nine, and eight of the 12 have seen a head coach in either his first or last year with the program.
We have had Clemson’s first bowl team and first top-20 squad, three top-12 seasons, Clemson’s first bowl win over a top-10 foe and the program’s first ACC Atlantic Division championship.
With a No. 1 preseason ranking for the first time in 2019, hopefully that trend of firsts continues. Another national championship would make Clemson just the third program to win the national championship (AP) three out of four years, joining Notre Dame (1946-49) and Alabama (2009-12).
Here is a rundown of the “9” seasons that have had a significant impact on the program’s 124-year history.
Engineering Professor Walter Riggs, who coached the Tigers’ first season in 1896, also coached the 1899 squad when the athletic department ran out of funds for a full-time head coach. He actually coached the Tigers without pay! Clemson’s 4-2 record was outstanding, but there was a 34-0 loss to an Auburn team coached by John Heisman. Having followed Heisman’s career, Riggs persuaded Clemson to hire Heisman as his replacement for the 1900 season. Four years later, Georgia Tech hired Heisman away from the Tigers after a 73-0 Clemson win over the Yellow Jackets. Two years later, Heisman beat the Tigers 17-10. He is one of the first examples of how coaching makes a difference.
Clemson’s 1909 team under Bob Williams posted a 6-3 record. The season was highlighted with back-to-back shutout wins over South Carolina (6-0) and Georgia (5-0). It is the only time Clemson has had a shutout victory over South Carolina and Georgia in one season.
Clemson finished the 1919 season with a 6-2-2 record, the best winning percentage (.700) for a Tiger team during the first 32 years of the program. The only two losses were to Georgia Tech and Auburn, who finished the 1919 season with a combined 15-4 record.
Josh Cody brought Clemson to a new level between 1928-30, totaling eight wins each season, the only time Clemson had three straight seasons of 8+ wins until 1977-79. The 1929 team featured Covington “Goat” McMillan at tailback and Bob Jones at end. Both went on to be assistant coaches at Clemson under Jess Neely and Frank Howard.
Five years of IPTAY support culminated in Head Coach Jess Neely’s ninth Clemson team, a squad that had a record nine wins behind All-American Banks McFadden and All-SoCon selections Joe Blalock, Shad Bryant and George Fritts. The only loss (7-6) that year took place at Tulane. The No. 12 Tigers’ season included a victory over No. 11 Boston College and Head Coach Frank Leahy in the Cotton Bowl. Leahy is still the second-winningest coach in college football history on a percentage basis, trailing only Knute Rockne. Clemson’s final ranking for 1939 is listed as No. 12, but there was no post-bowl poll in those days. Clemson would have been ranked much higher had there been a poll in January 1940. Neely left Clemson for Rice at the end of the season, leading to the hiring of Assistant Coach Frank Howard, who served as the leader of the program for a record 30 years.
Frank Howard’s 20th season as head coach was one of his most successful, as the Tigers won the ACC championship and finished with a 9-2 record. The No. 11 Tigers’ 23-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over No. 7 TCU was the program’s first over an AP top-10 team. Linemen Lou Cordileone and Harold Olson were top-13 selections in the NFL draft, and running back Bill Mathis became the first former Tiger to win a Super Bowl championship ring. Clemson finished the season with a 9-2 record and No. 11 ranking in the AP poll. Just like the 1939 season, there was no poll after the bowls. Clemson would have finished in the top 10 had there been one.
Danny Ford, Clemson’s fourth head coach of the decade after leading Charley Pell’s 1978 Tigers to a Gator Bowl win over Ohio State, led his team to a No. 13 AP ranking after defeating Notre Dame in a late November game on the road. It was just the third time in 40 years Notre Dame lost on “Senior Day.” At age 31, Ford became and still is the second-youngest head coach to beat the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium.
Danny Ford’s 11th and final season as Clemson’s most successful head coach at the time featured a 10-2 record and a fourth consecutive bowl win. The Tigers did not win the ACC title, but their No. 12 national ranking was the highest of any ACC team. Clemson was 4-0 against top-25 teams, including a 34-23 win over a Florida State team that finished the year No. 2 in the AP poll.
First-year Head Coach Tommy Bowden faced what might have been the most difficult schedule in Clemson history, as the Tigers played six top-25 opponents, including five that were ranked in the top 15. The Tigers had a 6-6 record, but they still finished tied for second in the ACC and Bowden was named ACC Coach-of-the-Year.
In Dabo Swinney’s first full season after taking over for Tommy Bowden during midseason of 2008, the Tigers featured C.J. Spiller, the only player in the nation to score a touchdown in 14 games that year. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, the best finish by a Tiger since 1978 (Steve Fuller). Spiller and Swinney led Clemson to a 9-5 record, a final No. 24 AP ranking and the school’s first ACC Atlantic Division title.
Clemson started the season with a No. 1 national ranking in the polls, a first in school history in the preseason. Could it be the start of another landmark “9” season in Tiger history?