By Sam Blackman
In 1939, Clemson belonged to the old Southern Conference, a 20-team league at the time. The conference consisted of all the schools now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with South Carolina, Davidson, The Citadel, Washington & Lee, VMI, and a few others. Because there were so many members, only the top eight teams were invited each year to participate in the conference tournament.
Banks McFadden, Clemson’s first two-sport All-American and retired intramurals director, was a junior center on the 1938-39 team.
“The previous season, we had been runner-up in the conference for the first time and we had a pretty good team coming into the 1938-39 season,” he remembers. “But we didn’t get off to a good start at all that year, and for a while it looked as if we wouldn’t even be invited to the tournament.
“Most of our starters were also on the football team and since the two seasons almost overlapped, it seemed we always got off to a poor start. By the middle of January, we were 2-2 in the conference. Back then we couldn’t miss class for athletics so our coaches decided we would go to the state of North Carolina one weekend and play all three teams. We did and we lost on three consecutive nights to UNC, N.C. State, and Duke, making us 2-5 in the conference with only five conference games left to play.”
But the Tigers made an amazing comeback and won 10 of their next 11 games and managed to win an invitation to the tournament. At the time, only 10 players could travel with the team. Retired Dean of Student Affairs, George Coakley was selected as one of the 10 for a very unusual reason.
“Our coach, ‘Fearless Joe’ Davis was very superstitious,” Coakley said. “I believe that the only reason I got to go to the tournament is that I sat next to him during those games! I had an identical twin on the team and he didn’t get to go.”
The Southern Conference Tournament was always held in Raleigh, North Carolina. This year, instead of the usual eight participants, 11 teams were asked to the tournament, because five teams were tied for seventh and eighth place. Clemson was one of these teams so the Tigers had to play an extra game before making it to the final eight.
The first contest was on Wednesday night against the North Carolina Tar Heels, who had beaten the Tigers the previous season in the final game. UNC led until the final seconds of the game, when a Banks McFadden basket put Clemson ahead to stay and the Tigers won by one point.
The following night, the Tigers faced number-one seeded Wake Forest. Once again, the Deacons held the lead until late in the second half when McFadden put the Tigers ahead. This time the margin of victory was two points. On Friday night, the Tigers took a fairly easy victory from Davidson, winning by 16 points. The team was tired, but excited about being in the finals.
“Every night after the games, the team would walk downtown for a while,” Coakley said. “We would walk past a sporting goods shop that displayed the conference trophy in the window. We would eye that thing each time we walked by, but we never expected we would win it since we had to win four games to do it.”
Before the Tigers could win that trophy, they had one more team to defeat.
“The class of the whole tournament was a team called Maryland,” said McFadden. “They weren’t very big, but they had very good ball handlers. We surprised even ourselves and won by 12 points.”
The Tigers were the Southern Conference Champions and returned to Clemson.
However, the team had to leave the trophy in Raleigh to be repaired.
“I remember we were so happy and I had the trophy,” said Dude Buchanan, a star on the 1939 team. While we were celebrating, I dropped the trophy and we had to leave it back in Raleigh to get repaired. We got to campus and the cadets welcome us back to campus with a pep meeting. Everyone was anxious to see the trophy and was asking to see the cup. Coach Davis stared at me and told them ‘You can’t see it, Buchanan dropped it
and it’s back in Raleigh getting fixed.’”
Traditionally, the conference champ was invited to the National Invitational Tournament, but instead of the Tigers receiving an invitation, Maryland went to the tournament in Madison Square Garden.
“We expected to get an invitation, but we were so elated with the championship that we really didn’t question it. After all, we were just some overgrown football players who had managed to play well as a basketball team!” McFadden said.
Years later, McFadden and Coakley found out that the 1939 basketball squad had indeed received an invitation to the NIT, but that it had been turned down by Athletic Director Jess Neely, who also happened to be the football coach.
“I almost passed out!” said McFadden. “But he said that our bread and butter was football and since most of us were football players, we had to get back for spring practice.”
Spring practice must have gone well since that year’s football team was invited to the Cotton Bowl.
Clemson Swimming Won Southern Conference Championship 75 Years Ago
March 3-4, 1939 - Clemson won the Southern Conference men’s swimming Championship. P.B. Holtzendorff III was the star at the meet, setting records in the 100- and 50-yard dashes. Clemson also won the 300-yard medley, with a strong team that included Benton Young, John McKnight, and Ben McKnight. Benton Young was the captain of the team and was undefeated in his last two years of competition, setting a new record at the 1939 Southern Conference meet in the 150-yard backstroke. This was a significant improvement, as Clemson had finished last in the Southern Conference meet in 1938.
Sadly both the McKnight brothers were killed in World War II.