Note: The following appears in the Louisville gameday football program
Last year, I received a phone call from Allison Dalton, the former executive director of IPTAY who was promotions director in the early 1980s. Allison was coordinating some reunion weekend activities for his class members, and he wanted me to speak on the accomplishments of Clemson athletics during their time in school.
I spoke to them about the accomplishments of all sports, but the football list for those 1956-59 seasons was considerable. I knew that going in because those were the early years of Bob Bradley’s career, which started Oct. 1, 1955, and on our many trips to games together over the years, he told me about those teams.
You can make the argument that the late 1950s is the third-best era in Tiger football history behind our current eight-year run and the 1980s.
Here are some facts about the era in the late 1950s.
• Only seven classes (1960, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2016, 2017, 2018) in Clemson history have finished in the top 20 of at least one of the polls all four years. As you can see, the only class to do it between 1936, when the AP poll started, and 1989 was the class of 1960.
• Clemson and Oklahoma were the only schools that finished in the top 20 of at least one of the national polls all four seasons.
• Clemson had a 31-10-1 record those four years, and the 31 wins tied for fourth with Syracuse for that era.
• The Tigers were ranked in the top 20 in the nation in 29 polls in those four years, eighth most in the nation.
• Clemson won three ACC championships in the four years and had a 19-5-1 record in league play.
• The Tigers were 14-2 at home, but they actually won more games away from home (17-8-2).
• Clemson was 3-1 against South Carolina, and all three wins were by shutout. The Tigers have shut out South Carolina just once since (45-0 in 1989). That era might be the best in Tiger history when it comes to defense, as Clemson had 11 shutouts in four years.
In 1956, Clemson won its first ACC championship and finished 7-2-2 overall. The Tigers were unbeaten in the ACC and finished No. 19 in the AP poll. The Tigers played in the Orange Bowl, where they lost a heartbreaker to Colorado by a score of 27-21.
Harvey White came on the scene as in 1957 and was named First-Team All-ACC, the only sophomore quarterback to do that until 2011. He was fourth in the nation in passing touchdowns (11), and his passing efficiency is still sixth in school history. Clemson did not go to a bowl (there were only nine bowl games that year), but it finished No. 18 in the UPI (coaches) poll.
The 1958 season brought a return to ACC championship glory for the program with an 8-2 regular-season record. The Tigers were 5-1 in the league and were invited to the Sugar Bowl. One of the thrilling games of the year was a 12-7 victory at Vanderbilt, as White scored with three seconds left in the game. It was Clemson’s latest game-winning touchdown until the overtime rule came into existence in 1996.
Clemson faced top-ranked Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl. The ACC Tigers gained great respect in the 7-0 loss to the national championship team that was led by Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.
In 1959, Clemson was ranked No. 5 in the nation early in the year, its highest ranking at the time. The season included a 27-0 win over South Carolina in the final “Big Thursday” game. White completed 8-10 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. At one point, the Clemson defense recorded four straight shutouts, something no ACC team has done since.
The Tigers finished the year with a 23-7 win over No. 7 TCU in the first Bluebonnet Bowl. It was the highest-ranked win of Frank Howard’s career. Clemson finished No. 11 in the AP poll.
The 1959 squad included Harold Olson and Lou Cordileone, who went on to become the No. 12 and No. 13 overall selections, respectively, in the NFL draft. They join Mike Williams and Deshaun Watson as the only Tigers drafted in the top 13 of the same draft. Bill Mathis, a future All-Pro and Clemson’s first Super Bowl champion, was also on that team.