June 2, 2003
When you read the outlook in the 1987 Clemson soccer media guide you got the idea Dr. I.M. Ibrahim was in the middle of a major rebuilding season. In fact, in August of that year he said the national championship was not a realistic goal. Clemson's only head coach has never been more excited about being wrong.
In 1987, after struggling in ACC play with a 1-4-1 record, the unranked Tigers won five straight matches in the NCAA Tournament, and became the first sport in Clemson history to claim a second national championship. The talented 1984 edition also won the national title, but the performance of the 1987 club rivals any miracle in NCAA sports.
On November 5, the Tigers lost in overtime in the first round of the ACC tournament to North Carolina and, on bid day, few thought Clemson would be invited to the big dance. But, the Tigers reportedly got the 23rd spot in the 24-team tournament and were shipped out to Evansville, IN and the Great Lakes regional.
"At the time we were just happy to get into the tournament," said Ibrahim. "After we had so many frustrating games against teams in our area, it was to our advantage to go to another region."
Clemson downed Evansville 2-1 in a close, physical game on November 15. But, most soccer experts, and those who are not experts in fact, thought Clemson's season would end at Indiana. The Hoosiers had never lost a home NCAA tournament game in 18 tries over the years. Plus Jerry Yeagley, who lost to Clemson in the 1984 championship game and would be looking for revenge, had the number-one ranked team in the nation.
But, for the second straight game, Clemson used a second-half Bruce Murray goal to win the game by a 2-1 margin. The shocking upset threw the NCAA tournament into a tailspin. Ranked teams from Virginia and South Carolina also lost, and it appeared "a team of destiny" would capture college soccer's top prize.
For the third straight week Clemson had to go on the road, this time to Rutgers. Playing in the Scarlet Knight's football stadium, Clemson took an exciting 3-2 victory in what proved to be Clemson's most trying game of the tournament. Bruce Murray scored two goals and the Tigers had a 3-1 lead with just a few moments left.
But, after a Rutger's goal with just five minutes left the Scarlet Knights were back in business. With less than two minutes remaining Rutgers had a penalty kick. But, Clemson goalkeeper Tim Genovese, playing on his birthday, made the save on a shot from one of the leading goal scorers in the nation, Peter Vermese, and Clemson was going to the Final Four. The Monday after the Rutgers game the Tigers were awarded the home site for the Final Four. North Carolina, making just its second appearance in the NCAA tournament, undefeated favorite Harvard, and West Coast Cinderella San Diego State, made up the Final Four field.
Clemson took on the Tar Heels in the first semifinal in front of 6,500 Tiger supporters. North Carolina had beaten Clemson twice during the season with physical play, but that would not be the case on Clemson's large field on this day. Freshman Pearse Tormey scored two goals and sophomore Dave Veghte added another as Clemson routed the Heels, 4-1, much to the delight of the capacity crowd.
That left Clemson one game away, a date with the number-five seed from the West, San Diego State. It was Cinderella against Cinderella in the finals: the 23rd- ranked-team against the 24th-ranked team in the NCAA finals.
The Tigers dominated play in the first half and the Aztecs did not get a shot on goal in the first 35 minutes of play. Clemson scored the first goal of the game on a pass by Bruce Murray to Paul Rutenis, who headed the ball into the goal.
San Diego State threatened early in the second half and even hit the post on one occasion, but a Richie Richmond goal with just 41 seconds left gave the Tigers an insurmountable 2-0 triumph and the national championship.
The 8,332 fans stayed in the stadium for 20 minutes after the game to join in the celebration of one of the top overachievements in Clemson history.
"I was very happy for the way our seniors came through for us... that is perhaps my greatest satisfaction," said Ibrahim. "Our seniors led a young group. We started six freshmen in the NCAA tournament, but Paul Rutenis, Bruce Murray, Tim Genovese and James Rootes held them together.
"I dreamed about this earlier in the season, but quite honestly I did not think we could win the championship. But our fans and our team believed we could. This championship was a great credit to our fans and their support as well as the players. I think the fan support meant a goal per game during the Final Four."
Bruce Murray was the recipient of the Hermann Award, the Heisman Trophy of college soccer, and joined Paul Rutenis on the first-team All America squad.