It is close to midnight, and Clemson's Memorial Stadium is in
darkness except for a light shining on Howard's rock, a holy
football relic locked in a Gamecock-proof case under the east
end zone scoreboard. As he stands before the rock in the January
cold, Tigers basketball coach Rick Barnes describes for a
visitor the wonders of football game day at Clemson: the band
playing the Tiger Rag, the cheering student body, the purple
carpet rolled out down the hill behind the end zone for the
players' big entrance. "As they come down the hill, the players
all touch this rock and...here, you can touch it yourself," he
says. He pulls out a key ring and tries one, two, three keys on
the lock. Nothing works. Howard's rock, it appears, is the only
football stronghold on campus Barnes can't break into.
Otherwise, his infiltration is complete. After last Saturday's
76-70 win at Florida State, Clemson's basketball team is No. 3
in the AP poll (seven places higher than a Tigers team has ever
been ranked), and the usual wintertime conversation around Lake
Hartwell--football recruiting and upcoming spring football
practice--is being drowned out by an unfamiliar buzz about
hoops. Having beaten Kentucky on Nov. 15, Virginia on Dec. 7 and
Duke last week, Clemson was 14-1 at week's end. The Tigers were
also 3-0 and a half-game out of the lead in the ACC, behind No.
2-ranked Wake Forest and No. 11 Maryland (page 85).
In October, Clemson held Midnight Madness for the first time,
and 5,000 Littlejohn Loonies showed up at the campus's old gym,
Littlejohn Arena. A record 7,433 season tickets were sold for
this year, and students are camping out overnight to buy the
remaining 3,000 game-day tickets. "In the past I had only seen
students line up to buy tickets when Clemson was playing a
Number 1 team," says South Carolina native Bill Harder, a senior
reserve guard and former Tigers ball boy who grew up in Clemson.
"Now they're actually coming to see us."
That's remarkable, particularly when you consider that 1)
Clemson's offense is of the soporific half-court, ball-control
genre and 2) most of the Tigers didn't make big names for
themselves in high school and very likely have no future in the
pros. Of the five starters, only one, 6'8", 245-pound sophomore
Harold Jamison, was heavily recruited--but he was more coveted
as a defensive end in football. Sophomore point guard and North
Carolina native Terrell McIntyre, who at 5'9" is the smallest
scholarship player in the ACC since Muggsy Bogues left Wake
Forest in 1987, commands respect everywhere he goes now, but he
couldn't get a scholarship nibble from North Carolina or Wake
Forest, the ACC teams he watched as a child. Junior forward Greg
Buckner grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., and dreamed of playing for
Kentucky or Louisville, but he finished seventh in the Mr.
Kentucky Basketball voting his senior year. Harder, the one team
member who did want to play for Clemson as a boy, was not
recruited by Barnes's predecessor, Cliff Ellis. Harder gave up
his scholarship at Furman to walk on with the Tigers as a
sophomore. "Just the idea of it made my heart pound," says
Harder. "And I'll tell you, it has been a thrill."
Clemson fans have been thrilled, too, and not just because the
Tigers are winning consistently, something that hasn't happened
in a while. They also like the new face that Barnes and his
hard-nosed, no-name players have put on Clemson's basketball
program and its oft-sullied athletic department, which was most
recently tarnished by the suspension or dismissal of five
football players amid allegations ranging from assault to drug
possession. Though Tigers basketball has never enjoyed the
success of Clemson football (national champs in 1981), it has
endured similar embarrassments, most notably the rampant
cheating in the early 1970s of then coach Tates Locke. His
wide-ranging misdeeds, including academic fraud, payments to
players and the creation of a phony black fraternity to lure
African-American players to a campus populated almost entirely
by whites, landed the Tigers on probation for three years.
"The image of the basketball program has changed," says senior
guard Merl Code, who grew up in nearby Greenville. "People
around here used to think that Clemson athletes were arrogant
and not normal students. Outlaws, even. Now there is a greater
respect for us as people. Coach Barnes really emphasizes our
being one with the student body."
And in that the exuberant Barnes, 42, leads by example. Since
arriving at Clemson 2 1/2 years ago from Providence, he has
embraced university life, including the football program. He
speaks at pep rallies and Touchdown Club luncheons and serves as
a cohost for the Clemson Football Network's pregame tailgate
radio show, a job that entails his driving around the parking
lot in a golf cart interviewing fans. "Hey, it's a great way for
me to let them know about the basketball program," he says.
In reaching out to the community, Barnes has obliged every
student group that has asked him to speak and has shown his
appreciation for those camping out in the cold for tickets by
buying them hot chocolate and pizza. But some of his most
memorable gestures have come at courtside. During a game against
North Carolina in the 1995 ACC tournament and again at a
regular-season contest between the two schools last year, Barnes
dared to shout down Dean Smith, a brazen act that Clemson
supporters took as a message that the Tigers henceforth would
back down from no one. "Those confrontations really galvanized
the fans," says Harder.
Barnes's assertive attitude has carried over to his players,
too. "If you were to do a little word association in the ACC,"
says Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, "you'd say, Wake Forest:
Tim Duncan. Clemson: confidence. The Tigers really believe
they're going to win every game."
Just two years ago few people thought Clemson would win even a
handful. When Barnes took the job, in March 1994, athletic
director Bobby Robinson was frank. He told Barnes that the
Tigers might win only three games the following season and that
he was quite possibly walking into the worst coaching situation
in the country. Indeed, Ellis had left behind a mess, including
a partial NCAA probation that would restrict Barnes's recruiting
for a year, a decade-long legacy of low graduation rates and
diminished spectator interest. "I thought that was a great
situation to walk into," says Barnes. "There was absolutely no
But Barnes didn't know how depleted the program was. In his
first meeting with the players, only eight showed up. Absent
were stars Sharone Wright, who had decided to leave early for
the NBA, and Devin Gray, who had suffered a heart attack and
would play just seven games all year. "I told those eight--some
of whom I didn't even recognize--that they would be proud to
wear a Clemson uniform," says Barnes. "The arrests and bad
things of the past would happen no more. They would not miss
class, and they would sit in the first three rows of the
classroom and be involved. They were to acknowledge people on
the street. And believe me, they were about to become the
best-conditioned team on the planet."
After a summer of intensive workouts, there were only five
players left. As the foundation of the new program, they will
forever be known as the Slab Five. "That summer was pure hell,"
says Code. "We were running five days a week, lifting five days
a week and doing stadium stairs in 100-degree heat. But we had
such limited talent, we had to be in the best shape of anybody
in the country."
That fall brought the addition of Buckner and Iker Iturbe, a
slick 6'7" passing forward from Spain, and the Tigers did the
only things they could do well: They held the ball and played
defense like crazy. They scored only 64.1 points per game, but
they allowed just 62.5. Defying all predictions, they won their
first 10 games and five others, beat Duke twice and earned a bid
to the NIT. Buckner became the first Clemson player named ACC
Rookie of the Year.
"That team will always be special to me," says Barnes. "The
players created a love affair with the community. They were a
throwback: They dived into the stands for loose balls, they
played selflessly, they had no stars. It was my most enjoyable
year in coaching."
If that team was Barnes's greatest success on the court, Buckner
may be his greatest success off it. Born to a 14-year-old mother
in the projects of Hopkinsville, Buckner battled severe asthma
as a child. Ignored by the in-state powers--and just about
everybody else--he signed with Barnes when Barnes was still at
Providence and followed him to Clemson when Providence found he
had not met a foreign language requirement and released him from
his letter of intent. "I knew Coach Barnes would make me work,"
says Buckner. "I needed someone to push me and not let me loaf."
Buckner's on-court improvement since coming to Clemson, he
estimates, is about "200 percent." Off the court, says Tigers
assistant coach Larry Shyatt, "his turnaround in terms of
maturity has been 180 degrees." During his freshman year Buckner
had so much trouble adjusting to college that he seriously
considered quitting school, but instead he stuck with it and led
the young starting lineup (four freshmen and a sophomore) to 18
wins and Clemson's fifth NCAA appearance. Buckner, a management
major, made the honor roll last semester and hopes to go to
dental school someday. "I have to give Coach Barnes a lot of
credit," he says. "He made me do it, and for that I thank him."
The last few years have represented something of a turnaround as
well for Barnes, a native of Hickory, N.C., who before returning
to the South spent six years at Providence battling the ghost of
former Friars coach Rick Pitino. Though Barnes took Providence
to three NCAAs and two NITs, his style never really clicked with
the fans. "He was a 35-ish guy trying to prove himself," says
Shyatt, who has assisted Barnes with both the Friars and the
Tigers. "He was extremely intense. I feel sorry for the players
at Providence who didn't get to play for Rick the way he is now."
When it comes to basketball, Barnes is still an exacting
perfectionist. "If he wants something done on the court, he is
not the reasoning type," says Code. "But off the court, he's a
Barnes is not just a kid. He's Bart Simpson in sweats,
short-sheeting players' beds, applying toothpaste to his
assistants' telephone receivers, popping out from behind filing
cabinets to scare sports information directors. "When I came
here I decided the one thing I was going to do was have fun,"
says Barnes. "I definitely don't take myself too seriously.
After all, this isn't about coaching. It's about the players."
And that realization, you could say, has been the key to his