A collective gasp, which quickly turned into a roar of approval, greeted the Clemson Tigers last Saturday afternoon as they prepared to embark on their traditional downhill charge onto the field for an Atlantic Coast Conference summit meeting with unbeaten North Carolina State. After warming up in their usual bright orange jerseys, the Tigers repaired to their locker room and changed into purple for the first time in 52 years. Orange and purple are the official school colors, but the magenta hue has been largely forgotten amid the orange mania that has gripped the program and its fans for years.
"At first," said split end Terry Smith, "I thought, Oh, man, these are ugly. But once we put them on, it was sort of cool. And I believe the fans really liked it."
The home crowd of 81,500 at Memorial Stadium was ready for a change. Playing their second season under coach Ken Hatfield, the Tigers had coasted past Division I-AA Appalachian State and lowly Temple in their first two games. But the offense sputtered in a 9-7 win over Georgia Tech on Sept. 28, a 27-12 thrashing by hated Georgia on Oct. 5 and a 20-20 tie with Virginia on Oct. 12, in which Nelson Welch, the Tigers' redshirt freshman placekicker, missed three field goals.
During the Virginia game, the boos reverberating throughout Death Valley so upset Hatfield that he chastised the fans during a press conference before the N.C. State game and requested that critics send him notes instead of taking out their frustration on his players. But as Frank Howard, the Clemson head coach from 1940 through 1969, observed at halftime last Saturday, "Maybe the boos helped; or maybe Ken thought they were saying 'blue' instead of 'boo,' which is why he changed uniforms."
Whatever, Clemson was a different team against N.C. State, and the uniforms were not the only surprise the Tigers threw at the Wolfpack on their way to a 29-19 win. How about a touchdown off a fake field goal, plus reverses, misdirections and a shovel pass? Or how about the kicking by Welch, whose five field goals (from 31, 42, 32, 46 and 41 yards) set a school record? Throw in the brilliant defense, and Clemson was back in its accustomed spot atop the ACC.
Saturday's game marked the second time in the last three years that coach Dick Sheridan had come to Death Valley with a 6-0 team seeking to move up in the polls and win some national respect. In 1989, Clemson sent the Wolfpack home with a 30-10 whipping, and State finished its season 7-5. Yet, as important as Saturday's game was to Sheridan, it was even more crucial to his Clemson counterpart. Ever since he was hired, Hatfield has been fighting an uphill battle with Tiger diehards still loyal to former coach Danny Ford, who was forced out after the 1989 season by Clemson president Max Lennon. Ford believed that football was more important than the university; Lennon disagreed, and Ford was sent packing to his 60-acre farm outside town, where he will collect a Clemson paycheck through the 1994 season, unless he takes another Division I job before then.
Hatfield, who had spent six years as the Razorbacks' coach, brought with him from Arkansas a reputation for being squeaky-clean in the soiled Southwest Conference. He personally delivers a postgame prayer and won't tolerate cursing by his staff or his players.
But many Clemson fans remain devoted to the rough-hewn Ford, who coached the Tigers to the 1981 national title. "It's almost as if some of them are pulling for Clemson to lose," says a member of the athletic department, "so they can say they wish that ol' Danny was still around." The Tigers finished 10-2 in '90, but the disenchantment with Hatfield has remained strong. It boiled over during the Virginia game, yet Hatfield says that none of the changes for Saturday's game, including the uniforms, came as a result of the criticism.
The Tigers had stopped wearing purple after the 1939 season. Seems somebody put a thermometer under both a white and a purple jersey and convinced Jess Neely, Clemson's coach, that the purple ones made the players too hot. Since then, Clemson teams have worn orange or white, except during the 1959 Sugar Bowl game against LSU. Back then most television sets were black and white, so when LSU, as the host team, chose to wear white, the network carrying the game ordered the Tigers to wear dark blue for contrast. Those uniforms were worn once more, in a 1962 game against South Carolina, before being retired for good.
The purple jerseys were purchased last spring by Doug Gordon, the Clemson equipment manager, who was under pressure from the team's seniors to "get us something different." After the booing in the Virginia game, Gordon reminded the seniors of the purple uniforms, and last Thursday they asked Hatfield for permission to wear them.
No one will ever know if Clemson would have won wearing orange, but sophomore tailback Ronald Williams, the leading rusher in the ACC, was wearing orange when he tore cartilage and strained ligaments in his right knee during the pregame workout. Williams will be lost for three weeks, but as it turned out, he was barely missed. His backup, sophomore Rodney Blunt, gained 74 yards on 25 carries (64 more yards than N.C. State was able to net on the ground against the Clemson defense) and caught a game-high six passes for 45 yards.
The Tigers took the initiative right from the beginning; they were determined not to fall behind in the early going as they had in their previous four starts. On its first play from scrimmage, Clemson gained 13 yards on a reverse to flanker Larry Ryans. The crowd roared. With quarterback DeChane Cameron running the option beautifully, as he would all afternoon (79 yards rushing on 18 carries and 14 of 23 passes for 143 yards), Clemson moved within field goal range, but the game remained scoreless when Welch had his only miss of the day, from the 29.
After holding N.C. State on downs, Clemson roared right back to a fourth-and-two at the Wolfpack's three-yard line. As the field goal team trotted out, a few scattered boos were heard in the stands. But as the N.C. State defense prepared to try to block the kick, Clemson holder Jimmy McLees jumped under center, took the snap and handed off to fullback Rudy Harris, who smashed over for an easy touchdown.
The surprise play gave Clemson a 7-0 lead, and the Tigers boosted it to 14-0 when Cameron scored from the one early in the second quarter. Trailing 23-7 at halftime, the Wolfpack tried to regroup but was held at bay by a Tiger defense that got its paws on quarterback Geoff Bender for five sacks and an interception.
"We thought we'd come in here and put pressure on them," said N.C. State linebacker Billy Ray Haynes, one of the leaders of a unit that had yielded only 45 points all season, "but it didn't happen."
The Tigers looked so much better in purple than they had in orange that Hatfield faces a serious sartorial dilemma. However, linebacker Levon Kirkland said he doesn't see purple jerseys in the team's immediate future. "We might not ever wear them again," Kirkland said. "But we wanted to look good. And we did."