What has been described as, "the most exciting 25 seconds in college football
from a color and pageantry standpoint," actually started out as a matter-of-fact
entrance, mainly because of necessity.
The first 20,000 seats in Clemson Memorial Stadium were built and ready for use before the 1942 season. The shortest entry into the stadium was a walk down Williamson Road from Fike Field House's dressing rooms to a gate at the top of the hill behind the east end zone. There were no dressing facilities in the west end zone-only a big clock where the hands turned, and a scoreboard, which was operated by hand.
The team would dress at Fike, walk down Williamson Road, come in the gate underneath where the big scoreboard now stands and jog down the hill for its warm-up exercises. There was no fanfare, no cannon shot fired, no tiger paw flag, no Tiger Rag played...just the team making its entrance and lining up to do the side straddle hop.
That's pretty much the way things went for the next 25 years. Either in 1964 or 1965, S.C. Jones, a member of the Clemson class of 1919, made a trip to California. He stopped at a spot in Death Valley, CA, and picked up this white flint rock. He presented it to Coach Frank Howard as being from Death Valley, CA, to Death Valley, South Carolina."
The rock laid on the floor in Howard's office in Fike for a year or more. One day Howard was cleaning up his office and he told Gene Willimon, who was the executive secretary of IPTAY, to, "take this rock and throw it over the fence, or out in the ditch...do something with it, but get it out of my office."
Willimon didn't think that was the way a rock should be treated. After all, it had been brought 3000 miles by a very sincere Tiger fan. By the mid-sixties, Memorial Stadium was pretty well living up to its moniker, Death Valley, because of the number of victories that had been recorded there. Actually, the name was first used by the late Lonnie McMillian, head coach at Presbyterian College in Clinton in the 1940s.
McMillian and the other Blue Hose coaches before him used to open the season each year by coming to Clemson. Seldom scoring (24 shutouts in 39 games) and with only three wins and four ties to show for it, his teams were getting killed by the Tigers regularly. In 1948 McMillian made the comment to the press that he was taking his team to play Clemson in Death Valley.
An occasional reference to Memorial stadium by that name could be heard for the next three or four years, but when Howard started calling it 'Death Valley' in the 1950's, the name took off like wildfire. The Tigers celebrated the 50th season in the 'valley' in 1991.
But getting back to Howard's rock. The rock was mounted on a pedestal at the top of the hill. It was unveiled September 24, 1966, on a day when Clemson played Virginia. The Tigers were down 18 points with 17 minutes to play and came back to win (40-35) on a 65-yard pass play from Jimmy Addison to Jacky Jackson in the fourth period. That was quite a spectacular debut for that rock.
The team members started rubbing the rock prior to running down the hill September 23, 1967, a day when Clemson defeated Wake Forest, 23-6. Prior to running down the hill that day, Howard told his players: "If you're going to give me 110 percent, you can rub that rock. If you're not, keep your filthy hands off it." Howard told of the incident the next day on his Sunday television show and the story became legend.
When Hootie Ingram succeeded Howard as head coach prior to the 1970 season, Ingram decided that the team would make its final entrance on the field out of the dressing room in the west end zone. In all home games in 1970 and 1971 and the first four of 1972 when the Tigers did not run down the hill, their record was 6-9. The team decided it wanted to come down the hill once prior to the South Carolina game in 1972. The result, in a cold, freezing rain, was a 7-6 victory when Jimmy Williamson knocked down a two-point conversion attempt which preserved the win.
The Tigers have made the entrance for every home game since 1942, except for the seasons mentioned above - 320 times heading into the 2007 season.
After Clemson's final warm-up, the team goes back into its dressing room under the west end zone stands for final game instructions. About 10 minutes before kickoff the team boards two buses, rides around behind the north stands to the east end zone and debarks to the top of the hill behind Howard's Rock.
At the appointed time, the cannon booms and led by a high-flying tiger paw flag, the band forms two lines for the team to run between and strikes up 'Tiger Rag'...The frenzy starts in all sincerity...and usually lasts two and a half to three hours.
It is a tradition that has inspired Clemson players for many years.