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The 1959 Sugar Bowl Tigers

The 1959 Sugar Bowl Tigers

By Sam Blackman

Frank Howard’s 1958 Clemson football team does not hold a lot of school records. There are teams with more yards rushing, more yards passing, more points scored and the same goes for defensive high water marks. For the season, this ACC Championship team ranked 12th in the final AP poll, yet outscored the opposition by just 31 points.

But, the 1958 team does have one important distinction, four times that season, Clemson overcame a deficit in the final period to gain victory. Three times this team came back from a deficit to gain victory over North Carolina, and they did it twice against Virginia. The touchdown that gave the Tigers a 12-7 victory at Vanderbilt was registered with nine seconds to spare, and the ACC Championship was clinched with a 13-6 win over NC State.

(To offer constrast for black and white televisions, Clemson in cooperation with NBC wore blue jerseys in the 1959 Sugar Bowl.  LSU wore white jerseys.)

What was this team’s secret to success? One need only look to the example set by team captain Bill Thomas. This club put the team first in every manner. Thomas even delayed his wedding until after the season in accordance to Coach Frank Howard’s wishes.

“We didn’t play very well against Colorado in the 1957 Orange Bowl,” recalled Thomas, who was a sophomore in 1956. “A lot of the players had gotten married that year and brought their wives to Miami for the bowl game. We went down 21-0 in the first half and Coach Howard thought the players’ minds weren’t on the football game.

“He said he didn’t want me to get married until after the bowl game. I wanted to get married in December and have a honeymoon in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl, but coach Howard said no.”

That is just one example of the self-sacrifice and the ‘team-first” attitude of the 1958 Tigers. It was a true team, the deepest of Frank Howard’s career. Clemson won the ACC title, but had just one first-team All-ACC player and no All-Americans.

This team had talent, but it was balanced. Eight players off the 1958 Tigers made it to the NFL, including five who played at least five years and two who were first-round draft choices (Lou Cordileone and Harvey White). Harold Olson, a tackle, went on to make All-Pro in the AFL.

The statistics from that season document the incredible level of balance. Clemson led the ACC in rushing with 225 yards a game, yet no one had over 500 yards and only one player, quarterback Harvey White, had a 100-yard rushing game.

Eight different players had at least 100 rushing yards for the year. The team completed 69 passes for the season, but to 15 different players. No receiver had over 60 yards in any game, never mind a 100-yard game. Twelve different players returned kickoffs and another dozen returned a punt. Three different quarterbacks ran the attack and seven different players had interceptions.

“Coach Howard played two full teams and sometimes three,” said Thomas. “That depth was the big reason we were able to dominate the fourth period and win games in the final quarter.”

Clemson opened the season with a victory over Virginia at Death Valley. This was a special opening day because Memorial Stadium had been enlarged over the summer to hold 40,000 fans. There was a new press box, a new scoreboard on the east end of the stadium with the Tiger on top, and the team ran down the hill on a rug for the first time.

(Clemson took the rug that the Tigers used to run down The Hill to the 1959 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.  It was first used by the Tigers in the 1958 season.  In the picture below the Clemson cheerleaders run on the rug at the Sugar Bowl.  It was known as the “World’s Largest College Banner.”  The carpet weighed 527 pounds.)

Clemson dominated the action, gaining 384 yards on the ground and winning the total offense battle, 438-300. Additionally, Clemson intercepted four passes, typically, by four different players, but gave up 174 in the air on 13 completions, a high total for those days. Lowndes Shingler scored on a one-yard run with 14 minutes left and the Tiger defense held Virginia in the final moments.

After the game, Howard said he was disappointed with his pass defense, something that was apparent to a lot of people, even his wife. “I tried to get my wife (Anna) interested in football for 15 years,” said Howard in a newspaper account the week after the game. “Then our son Jimmy started playing and she went to all his games. When I saw her after the game, she asked me what I was going to do about that pass defense. I’ve created a backseat driver.”

Game two was against North Carolina and it might have been the biggest game of the season. A record 40,000 fans jammed Death Valley on a 93-degree day. Concessions ran out of soft drinks and ice in the third period. It was so hot that the North Carolina team warmed up in just T-shirts, they didn’t put their pads on until just before game-time.

This was a day that team depth would be the difference. Howard had nine different players rush the ball, and Harvey White and Shingler split the quarterback duties. Mrs. Howard was satisfied with the pass defense on this day as North Carolina gained just 145 yards in the air. Clemson on the other hand had its most efficient day of the year, hitting 9-14 passes for 110 yards.

The game went back and forth with many clutch plays. Clemson scored early on a blocked punt. North Carolina attempted a quick kick by Don Coker, but Jim Payne raced through the line to block the attempt. Jim Padgett got to the ball first and raced 28 yards for a touchdown.

One of the biggest plays took place right before halftime when George Usry scored a touchdown on a one-yard run on the last play of the half. Clemson was sending its kicking unit on to the field to try for the PAT, but when North Carolina’s Jim Tatum argued over the allowance of the late score, the Tar Heels were hit with a delay of game penalty, moving the ball to the one-yard-line. Howard then tried to go for two, but the attempt failed and the score was tied at the half. That is one of the few recorded times in history that getting a penalty helped a team directly on the scoreboard.

The second half went back and forth until the Tigers drove 80 yards for the lead score. With 2:52 remaining in the game George Usry scored from a yard out to put Clemson up 26-21, and that would be the final score.

This was a landmark day for Howard. First, he finally defeated fellow future Hall-of-Fame Coach Jim Tatum after five straight losses. Second, it was the 100th head coaching victory for Howard, still the only Clemson coach with 100 wins (he would end his career with 165). After the game, he was presented the game ball and proudly stated it was going to be placed prominently on his mantle at home next to a picture of Fred Cone, who was a key player for Howard in the 1948-50 era.

“I think the smartest thing I did today was substitute every five minutes,” said Howard. “I knew depth was going to be a factor in this heat.” Howard also singled out the play of Jim McCandless, a fine player who would go on to the pros. McCandless was playing for the first time after breaking his neck in a swimming accident two years previously.

While game three won’t go into the books as a game decided by a touchdown or less (seven points), it was really decided by just one touchdown. Clemson scored just one touchdown then made a two-point conversion to gain an 8-0 triumph over Maryland in College Park. This was Clemson’s first victory over Maryland since the formation of the ACC.

White connected with Wyatt Cox on a 50-yard scoring pass in the third period, then George Usry scored the two-point play. You will notice that there were a lot of two-point conversion attempts in this season. The 1958 season was the first year of the two-point play in college football. Coaches at that time, including Frank Howard, thought it would be easy to score from the three. Clemson scored 25 touchdowns that season and went for two 20 times, converting eight times.

While Clemson did not have a star system in 1958, the Vanderbilt game produced the single best performance of the year by a Tiger. Harvey White gained 105 yards rushing in just 14 carries, and completed 8-12 passes for 60 yards. Additionally, White scored both of Clemson’s touchdowns in the final period of a thrilling 12-7 victory in Nashville.

(The Tigers in Blue Jerseys in a pre-game Sugar Bowl picture.)

Clemson trailed 7-0 going into the final period, thanks to five turnovers over the game’s first 45 minutes. But, White, and Rudy Hayes, who had 99 yards rushing on the night, led Clemson back. Trailing 7-6 with just 6:30 left in the game, White took the Tigers on a breath-taking drive that included a fourth-down conversion at the Vanderbilt 10 with 53 seconds left.

Finally, with nine seconds remaining, White burst over the goal line from three yards out. This remains the latest fourth-quarter touchdown score in Clemson history that decided the outcome of a game. For his heroics, White was named Associated Press National Back of the Week.

“With Harvey White you knew he was going to get the job done,” recalled Thomas. “He could take a team down the field in the clutch.” The scores of the games to this point backed up Thomas’ statement. It was the third victory by exactly five points for the Tigers in the first four games and in reality the fourth straight win by a touchdown.

Clemson hit a midseason slump, losing to South Carolina, gaining victory over Wake Forest, then losing to Georgia Tech. The Wake Forest game was a 14-12 Clemson victory. One of the highlights was a touchdown by Johnny Mac Goff, who served as the Superintendent of Education for the state of Ohio. He scored what proved to be the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

His score gave Clemson a 14-6 lead. But, Wake Forest came back behind the passing of future NFL star Norman Snead. He scored a touchdown on a five-yard run that culminated an 88-yard drive, with just four minutes left. But, on the touchdown play, Snead was injured and reserve Charlie Carpenter had to come off the bench cold to try for the two-point play. His pass was incomplete and Clemson had another close victory.

Clemson closed the regular season with three consecutive victories. A 13-6 victory in Raleigh clinched the ACC Championship. Bill Mathis, who later became the first former Clemson player to win a Super Bowl Championship ring with Joe Namath and the New York Jets, was the top rusher against the Pack with 13-75. Usry and Bobby Morgan scored the touchdowns, as again Clemson scored both of its touchdowns in the fourth period.

After the team’s most convincing victory of the season, 34-12 over Boston College, Clemson clinched a Sugar Bowl bid with a 36-19 win over Furman. Clemson was outscored 19-6 in the second half by Furman and Clemson players and coaches wondered if they had blown the Sugar Bowl bid in the process.

Immediately after the game, Coach Howard went to his office and called the bowl committee to get a reaction. The committee offered Clemson the bid. Howard went into the dressing room to inform the team, “We got it.” The Tigers were matched with undefeated and number-one ranked LSU and 34-year-old coach Paul Dietzel.

Clemson’s invitation was met with distain by many of the national media. “A lot of people thought SMU should have been LSU’s opponent,” said Thomas. “We were not shown much respect, but we came to play.”

(Hall-of-Famer Red Grange (top) and legendary announcer Lindsey Nelson were the broadcasters for the 1959 Sugar Bowl on NBC that featured Clemson and #1-ranked LSU.)

Since both teams’ jerseys were light-colored, and because of everyone in America having black and white televisions, something had to be done about the players’ attire. Tradionally, LSU wore either a gold or white uniform and Clemson wore either an orange or white uniform. For this game NBC-TV executives wanted one team to wear a darker jersey so the viewers would be able to distinguish the teams on the field. Clemson decided to wear a dark blue jersey for this game and this solved the problem. Clemson wore those same jerseys against South Carolina in 1962 and the Tigers won the game 20-17.

(Rodney Rogers kicked the winning field goal against South Carolina in 1962.  The Tigers wore the Blue Jerseys that were worn in the 1959 Sugar Bowl against the Gamecocks.   Rogers kicked the 24-yard field goal with 1:31 left in the game in giving the Tigers a 20-17 victory over South Carolina.)

Legendary announcer Lindsey Nelson and Hall of Famer Red Grange were the broadcasters for NBC in the nationally televised game.  

The Tigers took the rug that the Tigers used to run down the hill to the Sugar Bowl. The rug weighed 527 pounds and at the time was known as the “World’s Largest College Banner.”

The Tigers put in many hours of practice at home and in Biloxi, MS, in preparation for Billy Cannon, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner. Coach Howard kept all the articles that ridiculed the Clemson program and showed them to the players prior to the game in an effort to fire up the team.

His ploy worked, as Clemson gave LSU its toughest game of the season. LSU’s high powered offense gained just 182 yards of total offense and gained just nine first downs. The LSU Tigers had to score on a halfback option pass in the third period after a Clemson fumble at its own 11.

Clemson drove 17 plays from its own 17 to the LSU 28 late in the game, but a fourth-down pass from White to George Usry went incomplete and LSU held on to win the game 7-0. Clemson had shown America that they deserved to be in the Sugar Bowl.  

Never has a Clemson team gained so much respect from a loss. “I wish we could line up and play LSU again…today,” said Thomas.

It was this type of spirit, which still lives on today, that made the 1958 Clemson team one of Clemson’s most successful and respected teams in history.