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Nov 25, 2022

Willie Underwood | Record-Setting Performances

By: Tim Bourret

Note: The following appears in the South Carolina football gameday program.

Editor’s Note – For each program in 2022, Tim Bourret chronicles a great individual performance in Clemson history. Today is the seventh installment.

As hard as it is to believe, it has been over 42 years since No. 14 South Carolina came into Clemson favored against a Tiger team that was finishing a .500 season to that point.

On Nov. 22, 1980, the Gamecocks entered Death Valley with a Gator Bowl bid already secured. In addition to a great season, the Gamecocks featured George Rogers, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later.

Clemson, on the other hand, had struggled to a 5-5 record under second-year Head Coach Danny Ford and was coming off a 34-7 loss at Maryland the week before, the worst loss of Ford’s Tiger coaching career.

The Gamecocks may have had everything in the world going for them coming into Clemson on that cold, damp, late November afternoon, but what they did not have was Tiger defensive back Willie Underwood.

Underwood came to Clemson in August 1977 from Fort Payne, Ala. He was one of the top signees in Head Coach Charley Pell’s first recruiting class.

In March 1977, just a month after signing day, Jim Phillips, who broadcasted Clemson games for 36 years, took a group that included Pell and several media members to a small honky-tonk in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They were in town for the South Carolina Sportswriters meeting and took this side trip to hear a new country music band.

“This band was playing, and all of a sudden, the lead singer comes over and speaks to Coach Pell,” said Al Adams, who was Bob Bradley’s assistant at the time and was on the trip.

“The singer, who was also from Fort Payne, had attended Jacksonville State when Pell had coached there previously. He wanted to know what kind of player his hometown favorite Willie Underwood was going to be. Coach Pell gave him a ringing endorsement.”

That lead singer mentioned above was Randy Owen, and the up-and-coming band would come to be known as one of the great groups in all of country music, Alabama. They were also the first to know what all Tiger fans knew after Nov. 22, 1980…Underwood was a good one.

Underwood lettered four times at Clemson and was the starting strong safety in 1979 and 1980. His hard work and dedication were evident, as he was named a co-captain of the 1980 Tiger squad. But for him, to be the star of the game against South Carolina was somewhat surprising.

There were surprises all around Clemson on Nov. 22, 1980. The Tigers warmed up in pregame as usual with their standard home orange jerseys and white pants. But when they returned to the locker room prior to kickoff, Ford had the ultimate motivation tool. For the first time ever, Clemson wore orange from head to toe when they arrived at the top of the Hill.

Rogers, like 1981 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, never scored against Clemson, but the Tiger strong safety managed one touchdown when he intercepted a Garry Harper pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Underwood also had a 64-yard return that set up another score in Clemson’s 27-6 thumping of the Gamecocks. Making the feat even more remarkable was that those were the first two interceptions of his career in four seasons and 47 career games.

His 101 interception return yards that day still stand as a Clemson single-game record.

In addition to his two interceptions, he was credited with a team-high and career-high 17 tackles, as he continually came up from his strong safety position to give run support. It is still the most tackles in a game by a Tiger who also had two interceptions. For his efforts, he was named Sports Illustrated National Defensive Player-of-the-Week.

Jeff Davis still remembers Underwood’s performance to this day.

“It could not have happened to a better player,” said Davis. “Willie Underwood was dedicated in every way. No one on our team outworked Willie. It is hard to believe that he had never gotten a ‘pick’ before then. The way he played the game made you feel good that he had that type of performance for his last time in Death Valley.”

That was Underwood’s last game in a Clemson uniform, but he had an impact on the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team.

“That game was pivotal heading into the next season,” added Davis. “It served as a springboard for what we could accomplish. A lot of that credit goes to Willie Underwood.”