Sept. 4, 2001
Much will be written about Clemson ‘s 1981 National Championship season this year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. The contributions of Clemson’s 1951 team won’t be forgotten either and they will be honored prior to today’s game. Brent Breedin, who covered the 1951 Tigers for the Anderson Daily Mail, takes us back 50 years to review the great accomplishments of Frank Howard’s top-20 team. – Editor
Clemson’s 1951 football team is special for many reasons. Not only did it finish the season ranked among the top 20 teams in the nation, but it ended the year in the Gator Bowl, quite an accomplishment in those days considering there were only five bowl games played. It was a team that established records on an individual and team basis that still stand 50 years later.
On reflection, the most special aspect of the 1951 team was the harmonious manner in which five veteran coaches and the remnants of Clemson’s first “top ten” team worked together to integrate 13 new “starters” into the well-oiled offensive and defensive “machines” of 1950 and barely missed a beat in the process.
Toughest job of all was the task facing offensive backfield coach Covington (Goat) McMillan. The “dream backfield” of tailback Jackie Calvert, wingback Ray Mathews, fullback Fred Cone, and blocking back Dick Hendley (grandfather of Clemson All-America golfer Lucas Glover) was gone-Mathews, Cone, and Hendley to the NFL. Only the tailback position was set, with Billy Hair, MVP in the Orange Bowl win over Miami, seemingly the equal of Clemson’s best of the past.
To fill the wingback slot, McMillan persuaded the parents of brilliant Rock Hill back Buck George of the Catawba Indians to move in with him for his final semester of high school and to work out in the spring with the Clemson varsity. (Because of the Korean War, the NCAA okayed the use of freshmen in varsity play once again.) At blocking back, Coach Frank Howard ultimately decided to move reserve offensive guard George Rodgers to that position. And at fullback, the job was divided between 220-pound junior Jim Shirley, who had seen limited action in 1950, and sophomore Lawrence Gressette, now the chairman of the Clemson Board of Trustees. End Coach Bob Jones lost Bob Hudson to the NFL, Jim Calvert to polio in the summer, and Dreher Gaskin to a broken leg in the Presbyterian opener. Returning was the versatile Glenn Smith, but lightly used reserves Otis Kempson on offense and Frank Gentry and George Withers had to mature in a hurry.
Defensive Backfield Coach Russ Cohen lost veteran defensive signal-caller and All-South linebacker Wyndie Wyndham to graduation along with cornerback Gil Rushton, who still comes to Clemson games today evaluating officials for the ACC. The veteran Don Wade took over Wyndham’s defensive signal-calling in teaming with newcomer Jimmy Quarles at linebacker, reserve Archie Baker joined Knobby Knoebel at corner, and Peter Cook took full command of the safety position after having shared it with talented Jackie Calvert in 1950.
And Frank Howard, who was his own line coach, had to find replacements for tackle Dick Gillespie and center Jack Brunson on offense and guard Sterling Smith and tackle Billy Grigsby on defense. Smith had made the play of the year 1950, tackling a Miami (FL) runner in the endzone for a safety in the final minutes of the 15-14 Orange Bowl victory.
Joe (Bogie) Bryant was selected to anchor the offensive line with Gary Byrd (no relation to the current Clemson offensive lineman by the same name) joining the veteran Jack Mooneyhan at tackle and Pete Manos and Dan DiMucci at the guards. In defensive line, Howard selected Earl Wrightenberry to join Bob Patton at tackle and Tom (Black Cat) Barton to team with Barclay Crawford at guard.
Clemson’s schedule opener against Presbyterian College enabled the new Tiger backfield to demonstrate its mastery of the single wing with a 53-6 victory via 532 yards total offense, fifth most in school history at the time. Tailback Hair had his first of three “double hundred games”-174yards rushing in 14 attempts and 123 yards through the air in on just five completions. Fullback Shirley blasted his way to 99 yards in 14 carries, and Gressette, in his first varsity game, added 110 yards in 10 tries.
Now four road games would follow against the “big boys.” The big test would be at Rice University in its year-old 70,000-seat stadium. The game itself was a gift of sorts from former Clemson Coach Jess Neely of Rice to his friend and former assistant Frank Howard.
The payoff would be bigger than in 1949 when they met in Rice’s old 37,000-seat stadium. On that occasion the Tigers were clobbered 33-7, with Neely’s Owls going on to finish number five in the nation and justify a new stadium. Howard motivated his team in many ways, including housing them in “the world’s swankiest new hotel”-The Shamrock, near the Rice campus.
The relatively green Tigers did their homework to such an extent that one Rice player, frustrated at his failure to keep “Black Cat” Barton out of his team’s backfield, mumbled, “You seem to know every move I make,” to which Barton responded, “Son, I know what you had for breakfast this morning.”
A unique occurrence in the game was Clemson’s linebacker play. Wade, who quarterbacked the defense, was on crutches Friday morning when the team flew from Anderson to Houston. Coach Cohen insisted that he make the trip because of his knowledge, then, he insisted that he play. “I’m probably the only linebacker in history who played an entire game without making a tackle,” Wade recalled after the game. Cohen verified the fact after studying the film.
However, Wade set up the defenses and colleague Quarles’ super effort-including a 90-yard pass interception return for a touchdown-were instrumental in a Tiger, 20-14 upset win. Knoebel intercepted a pass at the endzone as time ran out for the Owls. On offense, Hair was in and out of the game with injuries but finished with 221 yards total offense-137 passing and 84rushing-reminding Neely of his former Tiger tailback, Banks McFadden.
North Carolina State in Raleigh didn’t figure to be a major hurdle. A win or tie would set a new Clemson record of 16 consecutive games without a loss. The Tiger defense held State to five first downs, mostly on future NFL Hall-of-Famer Alex Webster’s running, and two pass completions in12 attempts. Still, with only a 6-0 lead, courtesy of end Glenn Smith’s great catch of Hair’s 23-yard bullet pass to climax a 75-yard drive at the start of the second half, the contest was in doubt to the very end. It was Fullback Shirley’s finest hour, as he carried the ball a record 36 times for 133 yards in keeping the ball out of State’s hands much of the night.
The next week Clemson traveled across the country, roughly eight hours by air, on a Friday to oppose a College of Pacific team that finished number 10 in the nation in 1949 behind a little magician-like quarterback now in his second year with the Washington Redskins, Eddie LeBaron. In place of LeBaron, Pacific had two future NFL running backs, Eddie Macon and Tom McCormick, a pumped-up defense, and a real live Bengal tiger (caged) on the sidelines.
With several Clemson players trying to overcome air-sickness from Friday Howard’s boys looked sluggish from the start. Despite bravely shutting down a pair of serious first half scoring threats by the home team, the South Carolina Tigers fell short in the second half and gave up three TDs, losing 21-7. Only Clemson score was a 30-yard pass from Bob Paredes, subbing for an injured Hair in the final quarter, to end Kempson.
Even with the next weekend off, leading into Big Thursday, Howard wasn’t able to overcome traditional foe South Carolina. The Tigers’ superb defense was trumped by the Gamecocks, with defensive back Billy Stephens playing the game of a lifetime. He returned a first quarter Hair punt 74 yards for the first touchdown after earlier having stopped a Tiger drive with a fumble recovery. In all, Clemson had seven turnovers-three fumbles and four passes intercepted. A fumble recovery on the Tiger 25 by freshman linebacker Leon Cunningham in the final two minutes of the half resulted in a second USC touchdown, and linebacker Harry Jabbusch turned his second interception of a Tiger pass into a 14-yard, fourth-quarter romp to clinch a 20-0 victory. It was Clemson’s first shutout loss in four years.
Now with three home games and a visit to nearby Furman on the agenda, the downtrodden Tigers would attempt to revive an offense that had scored but two touchdowns in the past three games-and one of them in the final seconds of a lost cause. Under new Coach Tom Rogers, the Deacons were coming to town with a 5-1 record, including decisive wins over North Carolina, N.C. State, and Boston College. They led the Southern Conference in total offense and total defense and were a two-touchdown favorite.
And then a funny thing happened as “Bohunk” Coach Bob Smith (former Furman head coach and athletic director) began studying film of Wake’s games. Deacon quarterback star Dickie Davis inadvertently moved his left foot before the ball was snapped whenever he was going to pass. With this knowledge, the Tiger defense smothered the Wake offense. Meanwhile, the Clemson offense came to life behind another “double hundred” performance by Hair-102 yards on the ground, including a 43-yard TD romp, and 142 yards through the air, including a 16-yard scoring pass to Smith. Boston College, making its second visit to Clemson in three years, lost this time, 21-2. Billy Hair led the way, completing two touchdown passes to Glenn Smith-one for 23 yards in the end zone and the second barely across the line of scrimmage to set the stage for a 41-yard Smith romp-and scored himself from the one. The visitors dominated play in the final quarter, but failed to sustain a drive, thanks in part to three Tiger interceptions.
Traditional rival Furman, a genuine Tiger nemesis in the 1920s and 1930s when it compiled a 10-7-3 series mark, fell short for the ninth straight time to a Howard-coached team, 34-14, this time before an overflowing, hopeful homecoming crowd. Wingback Buck George broke the their hearts on Clemson’s first offensive play of the second half with a 90-yard scamper to offset a fine Furman punt that dropped dead on the Tiger 10. With placekicker Charlie Radcliff converting for the third time, Clemson moved in front, 21-7, and was on its way to victory number six. George and Gressette dominated the offense, each scoring two TDs in compiling rushing totals of 134 and 114, respectively.
For the third time in four years, Auburn appeared to be the only obstacle between Clemson and a bowl invite. A 7-6 win in Mobile in 1948 gave Clemson a 10-0 record, a number 10 AP ranking, and a Gator Bowl invitation (issued a week later following a 20-0 win over The Citadel). A year ago at Auburn, Orange Bowl officials wanted a 40-point Clemson victory to justify an invitation, and Howard’s team, wearing “long johns” under their uniforms to keep warm in freezing weather, prevailed, 41-0, to complete an unbeaten season and finish #10 in the AP voting. This year Gator Bowl officials wanted another lop-sided victory to justify inviting Clemson in view of its two mid-season losses.
With only a 6-0 lead entering the fourth period, the home team exploded, scoring four touchdowns behind the amazing offensive play of Hair, Smith, Gressette and Co. and a 56-yard interception return by Archie Baker for the final score. Hair had his third “double 100” of the year with 113 yards and a touchdown on the ground and 184 yards passing and two TDs through the air to Smith, Gressette gained 177 yards rushing and scored once, and Smith, who threw several key blocks on long Clemson runs and played half the game on defense, was named the nation’s “Lineman of the Week” by the Associated Press, the first national award of its kind for a Clemson player. The 34-0 win brought the bowl invite.
Defying the presidents of Southern Conference colleges in accepting a bowl bid, Clemson was faced by a strong Miami team seeking vengeance for its loss in the Orange Bowl a year earlier. The Tigers outplayed the Hurricane in virtually every statistical category but the score, losing 14-0. A one-man gang named Jim Dooley was the problem. His four interceptions of Hair passes and key tackles stopped Clemson all afternoon. It remains a national record for interceptions in a bowl game.
The bowl loss was Clemson’s first ever, still, the season had been a remarkable one. Billy Hair’s sixth place finish in total offense in the nation with 1579 yards set the stage for a possible Heisman Trophy push in 1952, Glenn Smith’s seven TD receptions to go with 11 caught in 1949-50 remains a Clemson record, as do Tigers’ 25 pass interceptions that helped Clemson shut out all 10 opponents from scoring through the air. No Clemson defense has gone an entire season without allowing a touchdown pass since.
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