Memorial Stadium - "Death Valley"
Clemson’s Memorial Stadium has been held in high esteem for many years. Whether it be players from the 1940s and 1950s, opposing players from the 1970s and 1980s, or even professional players in the 1990s, the ambiance of this special setting is what college football is all about. And in 2013, BleacherReport.com rated Memorial Stadium as the third-best stadium in the nation.
The storied edifice added to its legend when the first meeting of father and son head coaches (Bowden Bowl I) took place before a record crowd of more than 86,000 fans in 1999. Clemson has been in the top 20 in the nation in average attendance 34 straight seasons. A crowd has exceeded 80,000 fans 70 times since the 1983 season. In 2015, Clemson was 14th in the nation in average home attendance.
The legend was further enhanced in 2014 when the Tigers had a perfect 7-0 record at home. Defending National Champions are 0-3 all-time at Memorial Stadium. Clemson had a 13-game winning streak at home from 2011 to 2012, setting a record for the facility. The Tigers were 26-2 in their 28 home games from 2011-14 as well. Clemson enters 2016 with a 16-game home winning streak, second in the nation behind the 21 by Florida State.
The facility’s mystique is derived from its many traditions, which date to its opening in 1942, the legendary games and players, and Clemson’s corresponding rate of success. The Tigers have won 282 games in 74 years and have won over 73 percent of the contests (282-101-7).
The stadium has definitely been good to the Tigers, but it was constructed against the advice of at least one coach. Before Head Coach Jess Neely left for Rice after the 1939 season, he gave Clemson a message.
“Don’t ever let them talk you into building a big stadium,” he said. “Put about 10,000 seats behind the YMCA. That’s all you’ll ever need.”
Instead of following Neely’s advice, Clemson officials decided to build the new stadium in a valley on the western part of campus. The place took some clearing, as there were many trees, but luckily there were no hedges.
The crews went to work, clearing, cutting, pouring and forming. On Sept. 19, 1942, Memorial Stadium opened with Clemson defeating Presbyterian College 32-13. Those 20,000 seats installed for the opener would soon grow.
When the original part of the stadium was built in the early 1940s, much of the work was done by scholarship athletes, including football players. The first staking out of the stadium was done by two members of the football team, A.N. Cameron and Hugh Webb. Webb returned to Clemson years later to be an architecture professor and Cameron went on to become a civil engineer in Louisiana.
The construction of Memorial Stadium did not proceed without problems. One afternoon during the clearing of the land, a young player proudly announced that he was not allergic to poison oak. He then proceeded to attack the poison oak with a swing blade, throwing the plants to and fro. The next day, the boy was swollen twice his size and was hospitalized.
There are many other stories about the stadium, including one that Frank Howard put a chew of tobacco in each corner as the concrete poured.
Howard said that the seeding of the grass caused a few problems. “About 40 people and I laid sod on the field,” he said. “After three weeks on July 15, we had only gotten halfway through.
“I told them that it had taken us three weeks to get that far and I would give them three more weeks’ pay for however long it took. I also told them we would have 50 gallons of ice cream when we got through. After that, it took them three days to do the rest of the field. Then we sat down in the middle of the field and ate up that whole 50 gallons.”
Howard said that on the day of the first game in the stadium, “the gates were hung at 1 p.m. and we played at 2 p.m.” But that would be all of the construction for awhile. Then in 1958, 18,000 sideline seats were added, and in 1960, 5,658 West endzone seats were added in response to increasing attendance. With the large East endzone (“Green Grass” section), this expansion increased capacity to 53,000.
Later, upper decks were added to each side of Memorial Stadium as crowds swelled - the first in 1978 and the second in 1983. It increased capacity to over 80,000, which makes it one of the nation’s largest on-campus stadiums. In 2006, the WestZone was added, an area that contains locker rooms and a luxury club level that holds over 1,000 seats.
The effect that inflation has had can be dramatically seen in the differences in stadium construction. The original part of Memorial Stadium was built at a cost of only $125,000, or $6.25 per seat. Memorial Stadium’s newest upper deck was finished in 1983 at a cost of $13.5 million, or $866 per seat.
Through the years, Memorial Stadium has become known as “Death Valley.” It was tagged by the late Presbyterian College Coach Lonnie McMillian in the late 1940s. After bringing his teams to Clemson for years and getting whipped, he said the place was like “Death Valley.” A few years later, the name stuck.
In 1974, the playing surface was named Frank Howard Field for the legendary coach because of his long service and dedication to Clemson University.
Luckily, it wasn’t built behind the YMCA.
“Running down the Hill is still talked about everywhere I go. Players who played against Clemson when I was in college remember us running down the Hill and thinking we would gain some type of spirit on the field. The adrenalin rush was unbelieveable for a Clemson player and quite a shock for the opponent on gameday.”
Former Clemson All‑American Jerry Butler
“I came here knowing it would be loud and Clemson would hit hard, but the noise was the biggest factor. I didn’t concentrate as well because of it.”
Herschel Walker after his only regular-season loss
“Howard’s Rock has strange powers. When you rub it and run down the Hill, your adrenaline flows. It is the most emotional experience I have ever had.”
All‑American & six‑time All‑Pro Michael Dean Perry
“When Clemson players rub that Rock and run down the Hill, it’s the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
Brent Musburger, ABC Sports
“Death Valley really lives up to its image. I was impressed with this stadium. When you put over 80,000 people in there, it feels like they are on top of you. I’d hate to be whoever comes here to play Clemson.”
San Francisco quarterback Steve Young
“Florida was loud in the swamp. But the loudest, not only stadium, but the loudest place I’ve ever been around in my life was Death Valley. I was yelling at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear what I was saying. That place was unreal in how loud it was. I don’t think I will ever be in a louder place.”
Florida State quarterback Chris Rix
“It’s been a long time ago, but that stadium strikes me as one of the loudest we broadcasted in. I’m not sure if it’s how the stadium is configured or just the crowd, but it is very difficult to hear anything ... very tough place to play.”
Former broadcaster Ara Parseghian
“The game when I was a sophomore (in 2005) stands out for me. What an awesome place that is to play. I’ll never forget that atmosphere, and I know for a fact I’ve never seen so much orange in one place. If you’ve never been there, going out on the field for the first time at Clemson is incredible.”
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan
“We go to a lot of great venues for college football, but this doesn’t take a back seat to any place. In terms of the atmosphere, stadium, noise and facilities, this is a special place on a Saturday night.”
ESPN commentator Todd Blackledge