Clemson won three national team titles in the 1980s, the football title in 1981, and men's soccer in 1984 and 1987. All three of those titles were gained in extraordinary circumstances.
The Clemson football team of 1981 was coming off a 6-5 season that did not include a bowl bid in 1980. No preseason college football poll for 1981 picked the Tigers in the top 20, never mind listed Danny Ford's team as a national championship contender. No player made any preseason All-America teams and in many circles Ford was considered to be "on the hot seat".
After trailing Wofford (an NAIA team at the time) at the end of the first quarter at home, few wondered if Clemson would get to 6-5. The Tiger faithful was still skeptical after a 13-5 win over Tulane in New Orleans in the second week.
But, a 13-3 victory over defending National Champion Georgia on September 19, brought new hope to the Clemson program. It was the only regular season loss of Herschel Walker's Bulldog career. Another 10-8 victory over a top 10 North Carolina team in Chapel Hill in November was a key to Clemson completing an undefeated regular season. A victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl gave Clemson a 12-0 season, the only undefeated Division I team in 1981, and the school's first national championship in any sport.
While the Clemson football team had never threatened for the national title prior to its ground-breaking accomplishment in 1981, the men's soccer team had been knocking on the door for over a decade when the 1984 season began. Coach I.M. Ibrahim had made four trips to the Final Four by then, including two championship game appearances, but never collected the championship trophy.
The 1984 season was moving along with relative success, like many of the past, but the NCAA Tournament proved to be a different story. Clemson was ranked ninth in the nation entering the tournament with a 17-4 record, but made an incredible run, thanks to National Freshman of the Year Bruce Murray, and the greatest defender in Clemson history, Adubarie Otorubio. Otorubio might have been Clemson's most gifted athlete in any sport.
Clemson's NCAA Tournament run included a second-round victory over number-one ranked Alabama A&M, and a 1-0 victory over third-seed Virginia brought Clemson to the Final Four. There was no Final Four site that year, as only the top two teams made the trip to Seattle for the National Championship game. Led by Otorubio, Clemson defeated the fourth-ranked UCLA team in Los Angeles, 4-1.
Clemson went on to defeat two-time defending NCAA champion Indiana and legendary coach Jerry Yeagley by a 2-1 margin. John Lee's goal with 1:42 remaining proved to be the game winner. The semifinal win over UCLA and the final win over Indiana avenged regular season defeats for the Tigers, who concluded the year 22-4.
In defeating the number-one seeded Indiana team live on ESPN, Clemson had beaten the number four, three, two and one seeds in the tournament. It is believed to be the only time in NCAA history that a school has beaten the top four seeds in any team dual meet/match formatted tournament.
Clemson's men's soccer championship of 1987 was as surprising as the program's 1981 football championship. While the football team of 1981 was coming off a 6-5 1980 season, the men's soccer team of 1987 had struggled entering the NCAA Tournament. Clemson had a 1-4-1 ACC regular season record, then lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament to North Carolina. Clemson barely made it to the NCAA Tournament with a 13-5-1 record and was the 23rd seed in a 24-team tournament.
Unlike Clemson's other three national championships that featured true team efforts, the 1987 Clemson soccer team rode the back of a superstar, eventual Herman Award winner (Heisman Trophy of Soccer) Bruce Murray. He scored five of Clemson's 10 goals in Clemson's NCAA Tournament run.
Clemson had just renovated Riggs Field and the improvements made it the top college soccer facility in the nation. Unlike previous years, the NCAA decided that it would play the Final Four on one of the team's home fields. When Clemson defeated Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ over Thanksgiving weekend, the Tigers qualified for the Final Four and were awarded the home bid.
After gaining revenge over North Carolina in the semifinals at Riggs Field by a 4-1 score, the Tigers faced San Diego State, also a Cinderella team, in the championship. The Aztecs had entered the tournament as the #24 seed in the 24-team field. Clemson took a 2-0 victory in front of 8,332 Tiger fans. The official capacity of Riggs Field is just 6,000 so you can imagine the atmosphere that December 6th afternoon.
Clemson's golf victory in Stillwater was no less incredible, or predictable. Unlike the program's three previous titles, the golf team of 2002-03 had been ranked number-one in the nation from the preseason poll, and by a wide margin. Heading into the national tournament, Clemson's margin over second-ranked Florida in the Golfweek/Sagarin ranking, was equal in computer points to the distance between Florida and the 17th place team, New Mexico.
But, that momentum from the regular season did not carry much weight heading to the national championships because the Tigers were faced with the task of winning the championship on Oklahoma State's home course. Many other schools have played host to the golf national championship in recent years, but those programs had not been ranked in the top 10 in the nation entering the event. In fact each of the last two University courses to play host to the event, Ohio State in 2002 and Duke in 2001, did not even have their teams qualify for the national tournament.
But, Oklahoma State entered the tournament ranked fifth in the nation, and was on a hot streak entering the national tournament having recorded five tournament victories in the spring, including the NCAA Central Regional. The Cowboys had won nine national championships, including eight under current coach Mike Holder.
In many ways, Larry Penley's golf team was faced with the task of playing the Final Four against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The comparisons were amazing. Mike Holder has eight National Championships at Oklahoma State, Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyewski has eight Final Fours at Duke. Cameron is known for its intimate atmosphere, while the NCAA allowed spectators to walk the fairways with the players the entire tournament. The final round was played in 90 degree heat. Prior to the installation of air conditioning in Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2002, it seemed to be 90 degrees in that facility on days the Tiger basketball team has played at Duke.
Aside from the atmosphere surrounding the course, you can make a case that the home course advantage in golf is greater than any other sport. Oklahoma State's players play that course every day. They know where all breaks are in slick greens, know what clubs to hit from every distance in the fairway, know when to go for broke and when to play conservatively. When Jack Ferguson hit his second shot to the 18th green in the final round, no less than 500 people (490 were Oklahoma State fans) stood as close as 15 yards from his back swing. When Oklahoma State's Hunter Mahan put his second shot on 18 within 15 feet from the cup with a shot at an eagle three, you would have thought Shane Battier had just nailed a three-pointer with under 10 seconds left in Cameron.
When Ferguson eventually two-putted for a par five to give Clemson the victory it gave the Tigers a landmark national championship victory, its first on an opponent's home facility. Clemson had become the first golf program in history to win its conference, NCAA regional and NCAA national tournament in the same year, an accomplishment that puts the resume of this year's Tiger golf team in perspective on a college golf history and Clemson athletic history basis.