by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ve become used to seeing Clemson in the mix for playoff berths and national championships in recent years. While fellow Final Four participants Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame have been living at or near the tops of the college football polls for generations, the Tigers are a relatively new entry to the power mix, having effectively supplanted the likes of USC, Michigan, Texas, and some other old, familiar names in the old college football hierarchy.

Clemson’s rather-recent inclusion into the elite class of college football, however, is part of a larger narrative that has fascinated us at TGS for many years. Among other things, the Tigers’ emergence as a gridiron force has enhanced the profile of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which for the first 20+ years of our existence would rarely make noise in the national rankings, and certainly not the upper tier. Clemson would change all of that, much of it involving games vs. Ohio State, its semifinal opponent on Friday for the second year in a row. More on Tigers-Buckeyes in a moment.

The history of ACC membership would be a college sports equivalent of the expansion of the United States had a few of the original 13 colonies decided to withdraw and align with Canada or Mexico. But there are definite similarities in the pattern(s) of growth that have expanded the league to something much different from its original configuration. The league now stretches almost the length of the entire eastern seaboard, from Boston to Miami, and has extended its tentacles westward as far as Louisville and South Bend, Indiana.

Along for the ride the entire way has been Clemson, there from the start in 1953, and provider of some of the league’s top gridiron highlights over the past 60+ years. Indeed, one of our earlier TGS summer Retrospective pieces from 2013 dealt with the Tigers’ magical 1981 season and run to the national title, secured in an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska.

Clemson, however, had started to make noise on a national scale in previous years, and one of the best Tiger teams would play a role in what turned out to be one of the most memorable bowl games–even if for some dubious reasons—of our now 64-season existence of TGS.

Before we get to that example, a little bit of ACC history is in order. Follow closely.

Since its inception in 1953, the league is barely recognizable from its original form. The biggest change in the composition of the membership has occurred over the past sixteen years, when the conference increased from nine schools, as late as 2004, to its current membership of 15 (which includes Notre Dame’s full participation in all sports this academic year). The current member list is more than double the 7-school league from 1971 thru '79, when Georgia Tech would join.

Concurrently, the ACC has accumulated a lot more football tradition, and not only if we wish to include the storied history of the Fighting Irish. Newer additions Pitt and Syracuse also have plenty of noteworthy gridiron history. As does Boston College, though most of the Eagles’ glory days have occurred in rather-recent memory (if 30+ years qualifies as “rather recent”) and within the “modern-era” of TGS publishing.

At its inception, the ACC was a tidy regional alliance spawned mostly by a defection from the old version of the Southern Conference (a league that still exists today), which banned its members from participating in bowl games. With the postseason football ban as a motivator, seven schools (Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, Maryland, Clemson, and South Carolina) withdrew from the SoCon on May 8, 1953, and created the ACC, making the second conference formed by schools collectively withdrawing from the SoCon after the SEC had formed after doing the same in 1932. By December of 1953, Virginia was added to the ACC member list.

Though the conference spanned four mid-Atlantic states, the power base of the league in those days always remained with the North Carolina-based institutions. Indeed, the “Tobacco Road” schools would always possess the most influence and effectively dictate conference policies, which did not exactly endear the North Carolina entries to conference members in other states.

Famously, the ACC put no postseason restrictions on its membership, which is why numerous league members would appear in various bowl games throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, when some alliances (most notably the Big Ten and then-called Pac-8) were still limiting bowl representation to only their championship squads. Or, in the case of the old PCC into the mid 50s, or the Big Ten until 1972, even denying a defending conference champ and Rose Bowl rep a chance to return to Pasadena the next season due to another arcane “no repeat” rule.

Big Jim Tatum’s Maryland, which had won a share of the national title in 1951 in its penultimate SoCon campaign, won the national title in the ACC debut year of ‘53, although it would be considered a somewhat hollow honor after the Terps lost 7-0 in the Orange Bowl to an Oklahoma side coached by Bud Wilkinson (ironically an assistant to Tatum before being promoted to the Sooners’ top spot upon Big Jim’s departure for Maryland in 1947). Final polls, however, were conducted pre-bowl in those days, so Maryland, which had outscored its foes 298-31 during an undefeated regular season, retained its national champion status.

For decades afterward, however, ACC entries found it difficult to be considered for such top honors. A perception soon developed that the ACC was instead a basketball league, which was not a wholly inaccurate label. But there’s no question that the gridiron programs in the league had a hard time overcoming that national stigma. Such regional biases held stronger in those days, and the perception of the ACC as a hoops league was never stronger than it was in the '70s and early '80s.

By the late '60s, not surprisingly, there was also division forming within the ranks. Those fissures were mostly related to academic restrictions placed upon the league schools, guidelines again rammed through conference committees by the North Carolina schools. At its core was an arbitrary minimum requirement for all ACC recruits, specifically an SAT score of 800 or better. While admirable, it also caused plenty of consternation at several league outposts, who knew that the NCAA guidelines of the day required only a 650 SAT minimum. The latter requirement, adhered to by the nearby SEC and many other leagues, often put ACC members (some more than others) at a disadvantage on the recruiting trail.

Those restrictions hit hardest at the outlying schools such as South Carolina, Clemson, and Maryland, which would routinely recruit head-to-head with members of the SEC and other leagues, more so than the North Carolina schools, which for the most part would recruit within state boundaries. South Carolina, in particular, would become increasingly incensed, losing several big-time football recruits to the likes of nearby Georgia and Tennessee, specifically because of the enhanced SAT requirements. Clemson, and to a lesser degree Maryland, were also disenchanted by the SAT restrictions. The Gamecocks would bolt the league for independent status in 1971; Clemson and Maryland considered doing the same, but would stay in the fold (at least until 2014, when the Terps moved to the Big Ten).

Clemson, however, was the one conference rep that never quite fit that ACC mold, more resembling an SEC school with its football emphasis fueled by a string of late ‘50s bowl teams coached by the colorful Frank Howard. The Tigers also set a booster template of sorts with their unique IPTAY (“I Pay Ten a Year”) support group. Some cynics suspected it was more like “I Pay a Thousand (or more) A Year” to fund underhanded recruiting tactics once the program started to win again in the late ’70s...but we digress.

The Tigers nonetheless dipped into a sort of gridiron eclipse for a decade-long run beginning in the late ’60s and the last few years of the Howard regime, thru a desultory stretch under Hootie Ingram and Red Parker that resulted in only one winning record in a nine-season run, before Charley Pell, promoted from defensive coordinator, resuscitated the Tigers in 1977.

Pell immediately ignited the program, chasing a strong North Carolina team for the conference crown. The Tiger offense had an NFL look, with QB Steve Fuller and wideouts Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark all bound for the pro ranks, with a hungry defense led by another future NFL stalwart, DE Jim Stuckey. Pell, who inherited a 3-6-2 team from Parker, immediately served notice that things would be different on his watch when nearly engineering a stunner over defending ACC champ and 11-point favorite Maryland in the opener. The Tigers were on the brink of a significant upset in the 4th Q when Terp DB Lloyd Burruss, who would go on to an 11-year career in the NFL with the Chiefs, blocked a FG attempt by the Tigers’ Nigerian PK, Obed Ariri, setting up the winning TD drive in a 21-14 final.

Pell, however, had sent a message to the rest of the foes on the Clemson schedule that the Tigers meant business. The following week, the 9 ½-point underdog Tigers made the relatively short trip to Athens to face regional rival Georgia from the SEC. Clemson, which had not won ‘tween the hedges at Sanford Stadium since 1914, was ready for the challenge.

It was a defensive war vs. Vince Dooley’s troops, who were the defending SEC champs, but Pell’s Tigers would draw first blood in the 3rd Q on a short TD run by TB Lester “Rubber Duck” Brown, culminating a drive highlighted by key passes from Fuller to both Butler and Clark. The lead held until the final minute, when Bulldog QB Jeff Pyburn connected on a desperation 50-yard heave to WR Jesse Murray, preceding a 2-yard TD pass to TE Ulysses Norris with 6 seconds to play. Dooley, playing for the win instead of the tie, ordered a 2-point conversion, but Pyburn, under pressure, sailed his pass out of the end zone, and Clemson had its upset, 7-6.

The modern era of Tiger football had arrived!

To prove that win was no fluke, Clemson went to Atlanta the next week as a slight 2-point underdog vs. Pepper Rodgers-coached Georgia Tech, but the outcome was never in doubt as the Tigers rolled, 31-14. Instead of the 0-3 start to the season that most in the region envisioned, Clemson was 2-1 and on its way to its first bowl since the 1959 season, when one of Frank Howard’s better teams beat TCU, 23-7, in the inaugural Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.

Along the way in 1977, the Tigers almost pulled another major surprise on November 12 at Death Valley vs. Notre Dame, against a Fighting Irish team that would eventually be crowned as national champs. A 10 ½-point underdog, Clemson had the home crowd rocking and full of belief that a significant upset was at hand, especially after a sharp Fuller led a 48-yard TD march early in the 3rd Q for a 17-7 lead. Unfortunately, the Tigers would fall victim to one of Joe Montana’s earliest magic acts, as the Fighting Irish would rally with two TD drives in the 4th Q. A fumble recovery by Notre Dame DT Mike Calhoun set up the game-winning drive that featured a 36-yard Montana-to-Vagas Ferguson pass that preceded Montana’s game-winning 1-yard TD plunge. Clemson would thus lose a tough, hard-fought 21-17 decision, but was gaining a new legion of admirers from across the country, as the near-upset over the Fighting Irish would resonate in college gridiron circles.

When the dust settled after the regular season, Clemson stood 8-2-1, its chance for an ACC title scuttled by the opening loss to Maryland and a subsequent 13-13 draw at North Carolina, when the 5 ½-point underdog Tigers led into the final minute before the Heels leveled the score on a Tom Biddie 30-yard FG. An earlier missed PAT by Ariri would prove crucial.

After winning the Palmetto State showdown at Columbia vs. South Carolina in the regular-season finale by a 31-27 score, courtesy of a memorable 20-yard TD strike from Fuller to Butler with only 49 seconds to play, the Tigers had moved up to the 11th spot in the polls, and were tabbed to face defending national champ and 10th-ranked Pitt in the Gator Bowl. Unfortunately, Pell’s team would play its worst game of the season and would be trounced by Jackie Sherrill’s Panthers, 34-3, with QB Matt Cavanaugh tossing 4 TD passes in the process.

Still, with many key regulars, including Fuller, Butler, Clark, Stuckey, and DT Archie Reese still in the fold, the ‘78 season was full of promise, and the Tigers would be ranked 18th in the preseason polls. Though Dooley’s Georgia would gain revenge for the bitter ‘77 defeat with a 12-0 early-season win at Death Valley, when the Tigers would be their own worst enemy with several crucial turnovers in Bulldog territory, no one else touched Clemson for the rest of the regular season. There would be no denying this Pell edition an ACC crown, secured with late-season wins over North Carolina and then in a showdown vs. Maryland at College Park.

The 11th-ranked Terps, 2-point favorites, would be buoyed by the longest run in ACC history when star RB Steve Atkins would burst 98 yards for a TD right after Fuller and Butler had hooked up on an 87-yard pass to level the score at 14 apiece. Fuller, however, would eventually pull the game out of the fire, his 62-yard TD pass to Clark tying the game before a 70-yard drive deep in the 4th Q, capped by a short TD smash courtesy Rubber Duck Brown, provided the winning points in a 28-24 final.

With momentum now on overdrive, Clemson punished state rival South Carolina, 41-23, in the regular-season finale at Death Valley, rushing for a whopping 397 yards in the process, with three runners (including QB Fuller as well as Brown and FB Marvin Sims) topping the 100-yard mark for the first time in school history. The win vaulted Pell’s Tigers to the 7th spot in the polls and an invitation back to the Gator Bowl, this time to face a true college brand name, Ohio State.

Still coached by the legendary Woody Hayes, the Buckeyes, though still the Buckeyes, were not a vintage Hayes edition in ‘78. The season began ominously when Joe Paterno's Penn State pitched a 19-0 shutout in Columbus, and though OSU rallied, and true frosh QB Art Schlichter would emerge as a force, the Rose Bowl bid was surrendered in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan, which won a bruising 14-3 decision in Columbus. Reluctantly, 7-3-1 OSU accepted the Gator bid, a year after another Rose Bowl-deciding loss to the Wolverines preceded a no-show in the Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama, which romped 35-6 in the first and only matchup between the legendary coaches Hayes and Bear Bryant, at that time also the top two winningest mentors in college football history.

According to Columbus sports commentator Jim Park, however, something was amiss about Hayes and that entire 1978 season, which Park related to Bleacher Report. Park noted that prior to the '78 campaign, Hayes' assistants and those close to the program felt something was coming, but they didn't know what it was.

"Had Ohio State won (the 1976 Rose Bowl against UCLA), some people have voiced their opinion that Hayes was ready to retire. But since he didn’t win, he wanted to come back and win one more (national title)," said Park.

"Those closer to the program at that time, one of them was a longtime sportscaster by the name of Jimmy Crum, told me that the assistant coaches had told him that they felt (leading up to the 1978 season) something was going to happen," Park added.

"Hayes was just different," Park continued. "He had trouble with some things and just blew his top a lot more. They were not completely surprised when something bad happened."

Park strongly believes Hayes' health had a lot to do with what happened in Hayes' fateful, final game.

"He was a diabetic, I don't think most people know," Park explained. "I think (age, stress and lack of success on the field) plus health contributed to what happened (at the Gator Bowl)."

In the lead-up to the game, however, most of the news surrounded Clemson. Despite the good feeling about the season and the direction the program was going under Pell, things were not alright in Death Valley. Pell was being courted by the Florida Gators, and was ready to leave after the South Carolina finale, saying "You just cannot win a national championship at Clemson." IPTAY tried to get him to stay by purchasing a new Jaguar for Pell, but Charley was bound for The Swamp.

Pell offered to coach the team through the bowl game against Ohio State, after spending a week in Gainesville setting up shop, but the Clemson administration and fans refused, as they all wanted Pell's full attention to go to the Buckeyes. With 30-year-old OL coach Danny Ford promoted to succeed Pell, and the players voting for Ford and not Pell to coach the game, a page had been turned at Clemson.

Hayes was thus matched up with a rookie coach in the bowl game. Ford was not just a rookie at the college level, he had never been a head coach at any level, and was facing a legend who had spent 28 years at Ohio State alone. Nevertheless, Clemson was a slight one-to-two-point favorite in the game.

Hayes was known for making things difficult on his players during bowl trips, and this one was no exception. When bowl officials cancelled the official run-through under the lights the night before the game due to excessive rain and wind, Hayes found a nearby high school that allowed him to use their facilities and went ahead with practice in the rain and mud. Since Jacksonville is on the east coast, Hayes was almost literally following his famous dictum to “train in the Atlantic.”

Hayes promised reporters that he was planning to throw the ball 25-30 times in the game, and he followed that up with passes on the first two plays of the night. On the second play, Schlichter hit WR Doug Donley on the right sideline for a first down to loosen up the defense. It was effective, and Clemson was gashed on subsequent option runs by Schlichter and RB Ron Springs. However, the drive stalled at the two-yard line and OSU turned it over on downs.

Clemson could not move the ball on its possession and punted it back to the Buckeyes. This began a series of exchanges in which neither team could break the scoring ice. Ohio State dominated the first quarter but had nothing to show for it after failing on yet another fourth down attempt from the Clemson 21. The quarter ended with the two teams tied 0-0, OSU having racked up 106 total yards to only 25 for Clemson.

By comparison, the second quarter was a scorefest. The Buckeyes started it by driving from their 30 to the Clemson 9 before settling for a 27-yard field goal. The Tigers, led by the running and passing of Fuller, responded with a long drive of their own, going 80 yards for a TD on Fuller’s 4-yard scamper to take a 7-3 lead. The Bucks then struck right back on a 78-yard touchdown drive with Schlichter running it in from four yards out. However, the extra point was blocked, and that would loom large later in the evening. Clemson’s Ariri kicked a 47-yard field goal just before halftime to take a 10-9 lead going into the break.

The third and fourth quarters were marked by long, time-consuming drives. After four exchanges of possession, Clemson took its turn and proceeded to take almost 8 minutes off of the clock and effectively exhaust what was left of the 3rd Q with an 84-yard drive in 19 plays culminating in frosh RB Cliff Austin’s 1-yard score to extend the margin to 17-9.

OSU, however, would answer in the 4th Q, when Schlichter would drive the Bucks 87 yards in 12 plays with Schlichter once again carrying it in from two yards out for the score. But because they had missed the PAT earlier, Hayes elected to go for two on this touchdown to make up the difference. Schlichter optioned left to the short side and kept it, but he was met in the hole by Clemson's Stuckey and went down for no gain.

The Buckeyes got the ball back one more time with 4:22 left in the game when Clemson fumbled at the OSU 24-yard line. From there, Schlichter drove the team smartly down the field, but faced a third-and-five from the Clemson 24 with just over two minutes remaining. The freshman dropped back to pass, scrambled a bit, but did not see WR Donley running open in the end zone and instead tried to hit RB Springs over the middle. Tiger NG Charlie Bauman had not been able to penetrate the pass blocking in order to pressure Schlichter, instead dropping back a few steps and rolled to his left, attempting to contain the scramble. This pursuit left him in perfect position to grab the pass thrown late over the middle, and he took the interception the way his momentum carried him, right into the OSU sideline.

Then things got really wild!

On the return as Bauman was run out of bounds in front of the Ohio State bench, there was an immediate scuffle that soon escalated into a bench-clearing situation. An irate Hayes was given a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that allowed Clemson to move the ball near midfield and run out the remaining 1:59 on the clock. Final score 17-15 Clemson!

But wait! Hayes was seen right in the middle of the scrum that developed on the Buckeye sideline. Players on the Ohio State bench intervened, pulling Hayes off Bauman, while Tigers ran across the field. It sure looked as if Hayes threw a right hook that caught Bauman just under the facemask. Though the hit was on live TV, cameras almost immediately panned off, and the only replay of the play was shown from the view of the end zone camera. Which indeed showed Hayes throwing the punch. This sequence, however, was avoided by ABC announcers Keith Jackson and his color analyst, ex-Notre Dame HC Ara Parseghian, neither of whom acknowledging the Hayes punch. Jackson would later claim that he had been distracted on the play by the wide-open WR Donley and simply didn’t see the Hayes right hook, but by paying attention to the end zone replay would have made it abundantly clear what had happened. Jackson and Parseghian, however, never said as much on air, prompting Bauman to accuse the pair of covering up for Hayes and his actions. Which might or might not be true, though it certainly adds to the aura of the wild final minutes in Jacksonville.

Buckeye defensive lineman Tim Sawicki would later say that Hayes was beginning to melt down well before he struck Bauman. “I wasn’t expected to even play, but Woody blew up on (middle guard) Mark Sullivan, because they were running right through us,” Sawicki said. “He pulled Sullivan out and pushed away (defensive coordinator) George Hill and yelled, ‘Sawicki.’ I was sitting there on my helmet.” Sawicki might have been remembered as a star of the game, if not for the infamous ending provided by Hayes, as Sawicki had forced the Clemson fumble that defensive back Vince Skillings recovered at the OSU 24 with 4:22 to play that allowed Schichter a chance to pull out the game...before the ill-fated interception and Woody's punch.

Football-wise, there were questions in the immediate aftermath. Why did Schlichter not see his favorite receiver Donley wide open on the same side where he had scrambled? For that matter, why did the famously conservative Hayes elect to throw the ball in that situation, when the Buckeyes were already in field goal position and a short run up the middle would have served his purposes and his personality better than a pass?

The immediate aftermath, however, became an immediate afterthought, as did the Clemson win, once the replays of the Hayes punch were shown on the late nightly news, which became the lead stories on sports segments for that evening, and in sports pages across the country the following Saturday morning. (Full disclosure from this writer, who was in San Diego the night of the Gator Bowl, watching hoops in the first round of the Cabrillo Classic at the San Diego Sports Arena, where Iowa and eventual Final Four participant Penn went into triple overtime before the Hawkeyes prevailed, and Stanford would upset host San Diego State by 1 point. For me, I wasn’t aware what happened until watching the Denver-Pittsburgh AFC playoff the next morning, when NBC’s Jim Simpson would announce that Hayes had been dismissed. My brother would have to fill me in on the Gator Bowl game and local news aftermath, though thanks to YouTube, the entirety of the game can be relived online).

The almost-immediate Hayes dismissal was predictable, as it was simply the last straw for the school regarding its veteran coach, who had also slugged an ABC sideline cameraman the previous year when the Buckeyes lost a fumble in the final minute at Michigan, and a chance at the Rose Bowl. Hayes had also punched a photographer after a Rose Bowl loss six years previous vs. Southern Cal.

Ohio State's athletic director Hugh Hindman held an impromptu press conference the morning after the game. While the team was on the plane at the Jacksonville airport, Hindman announced Hayes would no longer be the coach. The team did not find out about the decision until it arrived in Columbus. Sources say that Hindman had asked Hayes to retire, but Woody refused. “'I'm not doing your damned job for you. If you don't want me here, fire me," Hayes reportedly dared the AD. So Hindman obliged.

"It was time for Hayes to go, but the way Ohio State handled (the firing) was extremely poor," the aforementioned Jim Park would assert in Bleacher Report. "I think the right thing to do was to wait a little bit (to let tempers cool). Then ask Hayes if he would consider retiring, and if he wouldn't, maybe then you force him to retire."

From Clemson’s point of view, Hayes’ punch is only a footnote in Tigers’ history. More important to the Clemson program was how defeating mighty Ohio State (even though the Buckeyes entered as a two-point underdog) helped the school turn a corner, beating a Big Ten team for the first time. In the game, LB Bubba Brown was the star of the Tiger defense with 22 tackles, still a school record for tackles in a bowl game. Fellow LB Randy Scott added 16 and Jim Stuckey had 11 to key the Clemson defense that ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense and 15th in total defense that season.

The Tigers finished 11-1 and, up to that point, a school-best 6th in the final polls. Six Clemson players from the ‘78 team (Butler, Fuller, Stuckey, DE Jeff Bryant, WR Perry Tuttle, and DB Terry Kinard) would eventually end up as first-round draft picks in the NFL, while DT Reese, WR Clark (he of “The Catch” from Joe Montana for the 49ers in the epic 1981 NFC title game vs. the Cowboys), and G Joe Bostic would go on to solid NFL careers. Three years later in 1981, the Tigers would complete their journey to the top of the college football world with the school’s first national title, which has been matched twice by Dabo Swinney since 2016...and maybe for a third time a couple of weeks hence. Stay tuned.

The punch remains an unfortunate final installment in the last chapter of the Hayes coaching legacy. It also marked the night when the ACC would finally be taken seriously as a football entity. Best of all for Tiger fans, the ‘78 Gator Bowl was also a night when Clemson proved (literally) that it could take a punch as it would officially become part of college football's upper tier!

(To see what we think of this week’s Clemson-Ohio State matchup in New Orleans, plus the Alabama-Notre Dame eliminator, and other remaining bowls, check our College Analysis. )

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