By Lindsay Parks Pieper
Tonight, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson University Fighting Tigers will fight for the college football championship trophy. The game marks the sixteenth time the two squads will square off and the first with a national title on the line.
Television personalities have discussed the matchup for weeks. Will Alabama be able to limit Clemson’s talented dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson? Will the Tigers offense be able to generate rushing yards against the Crimson Tide defensive machine? Will Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry dominate? Will Shaq Lawson play (probably)?
Unfortunately for Clemson fans—and for my department chair, a Clemson grad and a huge fan—experts have largely picked Alabama as the favorite to win and the spread favors the Tide by a touchdown. Also, if history is any indication, the Tigers face an uphill battle tonight. Alabama holds a 12-3 lead in the overall series.
The Alabama-Clemson rivalry can be viewed as a microcosm of three important moments in the history of college football. First, in the early nineteenth century, the two schools competed in 1900, 1904, 1905, 1909, and 1913 against a backdrop of opposition. Many people disdained the inherent violence of the sport and called for its abolishment. After surviving the progressive era’s efforts to end football, Alabama and Clemson next met during the Great Depression. In 1931, 1934, 1935, and 1936 the squads competed on the gridiron while concurrently dealing with significant financial strains. Finally, notable social changes marked the next round of matchups—1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1975—as the two southern schools struggled with the demands of the civil rights era.
For over a century, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers competed on the gridiron, consequently making and representing football history.
The Origins of Alabama and Clemson Football
Football, an American creation that combined rugby and association football (soccer) in the late nineteenth century, started in the north and quickly spread to southern schools, including to the University of Alabama and to the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina. UA student William G. Little transported the activity to Tuscaloosa from Massachusetts in 1892 and taught his fellow classmates the rules. An Alabama team formed that year and competed in its first game, defeating a squad of local high school students, 56-0. The sport grew and gained participants, fans, and financial support.
Four years after UA’s launch into football, Walter Merrit Riggs, the “Father of Clemson Football,” brought the game to Clemson from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (Auburn). In 1896, the Tigers defeated Furman in its first game, 14-6. Notably, the 1900 season marked a milestone for the Tigers as they went undefeated under legendary coach John Heisman. Clemson repeated this accomplishment again in 1906, 1948, 1950, 1981, and, of course, 2015.
Although football spread rapidly across campuses, not everyone readily embraced the gridiron game. The brutality of football, compounded by fears of questionable recruiting tactics and the professionalization of the coaching staff, led many people to call for reform. As Andy D. Linden and I discussed in a previous post, the crisis of public confidence reached an apex in 1905. Newspapers printed sensationalized accounts of football-related deaths. For example, the Washington Post wrote that, between 1900 and 1905, at least forty athletes died on the field. Along with reports of bloodshed, President Teddy Roosevelt joined the chorus calling for reform. In 1905, he invited representatives from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to discuss possible rule changes.
Alabama and Clemson faculty members also expressed misgivings. UA professors requested that the university surgeon be on site for all football games in 1895, fearful of the likelihood for catastrophic injury. More significantly, the administration attempted to reduce injuries by limiting the number of contests. As historian Andy Doyle explains, Alabama Governor William C. Oates pressured the university to restrict the team to on-campus games. Starting in 1896, the UA administration prohibited the squad from traveling to other schools. Therefore, for the 1896 season, the team played the Birmingham Athletic Club, Sewanee, and Mississippi A&M on the Quad in Tuscaloosa. In 1897, Alabama defeated the Tuscaloosa Athletic Club, 6-0, in its only game of the year. The school did not field a team in 1898 due to the ban. As UA’s student paper, the Crimson White, reported, “We have seen that it is useless to attempt to put out a football team so long as we are compelled to play all our games on the campus.” Student outcry eventually convinced the administration to lift the ban; football resumed with on and off campus competitions in 1899.
The anti-football hysteria also spread to South Carolina where some schools banned the sport outright. For example, Wofford eliminated the football program from 1897-1899, and Furman introduced a one-year postponement in 1894, only to return to a three-year-hiatus in the late 1890s. Clemson never embraced an outright ban, however, the Tigers did experience some backlash following a 1902 matchup against cross-state rival South Carolina. After the annual contest, during which the Gamecocks defeated the heavily-favored Clemson team, 12-6, a riot broke out. According to sport scholar John Nauright, the Clemson cadets, offended by the South Carolina fans’ boisterous celebrations, marched from the fairgrounds to the edge of campus, armed with bayonets and sabers. In defense, thirty Gamecock fans erected barricades and gathered pistols and shotguns. Only the quick response of the police calmed the situation. “While Clemson officials dismissed the incident as a usual ‘boys will be boys’ episode,” writes Nauright, “the South Carolina officials reacted decisively and cancelled games between the two schools.” They would not resume the rivalry until 1909.
As concerns of football violence intensified, Alabama and Clemson met on the gridiron five times. The 1900 game marked the first matchup. On a Thanksgiving Day game in Birmingham, the Tigers defeated the Tide, 35-0. According to Alabama’s “1900 Season Recap,” the Tide was “hopelessly outclassed by Clemson” as the “lighter Alabama team” was unable to stop “the powerful line plunges and the speedy end runs of the Clemson team.” Four years later, the two again met in Birmingham. The Tigers defeated the Tide, 18-0. Although “Alabama presented a stubborn defense,” notes the season’s report, “Clemson was too powerful.” The third matchup, played the following year in Columbia, also saw a Clemson victory, 25-0. The postseason report explains that Alabama was “powerless” to stop the Clemson backs and also appeared “lacking in aggressiveness.” The lack of bellicosity seemingly changed in 1909 when the Tide earned its first victory over the Tigers, 3-0. Played at the Birmingham Fairgrounds, Alabama “completely upset a heavier and favored Clemson team” with a first half field goal. The final matchup of this era was played in Tuscaloosa in 1913 and saw Alabama uphold a two-game winning streak, 20-0. The Tide has maintained this streak through the present day.
Both Alabama’s and Clemson’s football teams withstood those who protested the sport. After the 1913 contest, the two would not appear on the same field for eighteen years. However, when the Crimson Tide and Tigers resumed competition in 1931, a different obstacle threatened the longevity of football.
The Crimson Tide, The Tigers, and the Great Depression
On October 24, 1929, Clemson faced the University of South Carolina in the annual “Big Thursday” matchup. Over 14,000 fans watched as the Tigers eked out a win over the Gamecocks, 21-14. Clemson supporters celebrated as the victory continued the school’s undefeated streak and seemingly decided the Southern Conference champion; however, their animated happiness proved short-lived. Not only did the Tigers go on a three-game losing streak immediately after, but the Stock Market crash—started the same day as the Big Thursday game—flagged the beginning of the Great Depression, which eventually overshadowed the remaining wins and losses of all gridiron teams.
Many historians argue that the Great Depression exacerbated an existing decline in agriculture, which created a tremendous financial blow to an already poverty-stricken south. For example, the price of cotton—the primary industry for many in Alabama and South Carolina—fell from thirty-five cents per pound in 1921 to less than five cents per pound in 1932. Consequently, the annual income in Alabama fell from $311 in 1929 to $194 in 1935; the per capita income for South Carolinians dropped from $261 in 1929 to $151 in 1933. As historian Tara Mitchell Mielnik explains, the Great Depression merely intensified the worsening conditions felt by many southerners.
Yet, sport fared better than most other segments of the economy. Community and college sport, in particular, served as escapes from the harsh realities of the Depression. Ticket sales still fell, though, and universities did cut sports and fire coaches. But as historian Mark C. Bondanza puts it, “Despite the dearth of cash, enthusiasm for [football] did not abate” (xxii).
The gridiron game therefore continued in Alabama and South Carolina, although it was tempered by the dismal economic situation. In 1931 the UA administration enlisted the Crimson Tide to compete in two charity games after the season’s conclusion. Over 3,000 spectators watched the team defeat the University of Chattanooga, 39-0. One week later, an all-star team of former Alabama players assembled and played against George Washington University, Catholic University, and Georgetown University in three, twenty minute contests. The two games raised money for unemployment relief.
Clemson also felt the impact of the Great Depression. As journalist Gilbert M. Gaul explains, the school pioneered the “college football as charity” ideal. In the 1920s, the Tigers were a mediocre opponent, amassing a 41-47 overall record. Things worsened when the team went 1-6-2 in the 1931 season. After losing to a smaller and less accomplished Citadel squad, Clemson head coach Jess Neely argued that Clemson needed more financial support to compete. He suggested that improved funding would create an improved football team. In response, Dr. Rupert “Rube” Fike, a radiologist and ardent Clemson supporter, proposed the IPTAY Club: “I Pay Ten a Year” to support the team. In the first year of the program, fans contributed $1,600, as well as non-cash gifts including milk, potatoes, and turnip greens. In 1934, Clemson again returned to a winning record.
College football survived and Alabama and Clemson battled four times in the 1930s. In 1931, the teams traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, and the Crimson Tide trounced the Tigers, 74-7. “Alabama’s Crimson horde ran rough shod over Clemson’s gallant band today to pile up one of the highest Southern Conference scores in years,” explained the Tuscaloosa News. Alabama continued to dominate Clemson throughout the decade; in 1934, the Tide won, 40-0, and the following year again shutout the Tigers, 33-0. In the final contest of the era, the 1936 matchup, Alabama rolled Clemson, 32-0. “The much-improved Crimson Tide battered Clemson College,” wrote reporter Jay Thornton, and “the superiority of Alabama’s comparatively inexperienced team was conspicuous from the outset.”
While Alabama dominated Clemson on the gridiron during the Depression, the south was hard hit by the economic downturn. Eventually, when the Tide and Tigers next squared off, social anxieties of the 1960s replaced the economic worries of the 1930s.
Southern Schools and Desegregation
At the end of the 1939 season, Clemson received an invitation to participate in the 1940 Cotton Bowl against future conference rival Boston College. Several post-season contests originated in the 1930s: the Orange Bowl (1935), Sugar Bowl (1935), Sun Bowl (1935), and Cotton Bowl (1937). Played in the south, these southern bowl games instituted a policy of segregation through the “gentlemen’s agreement.” This agreement stipulated that if an integrated northern team accepted an invitation to participate against a segregated southern team, the northern team agreed to bench any black athletes for the intersectional games. For the 1940 Cotton Bowl contest, Boston College left Lou Montgomery at home in accordance with the arrangement.
With the gentlemen’s agreement, the Crimson Tide and Tigers skirted the issue of desegregation for much of the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, administrators from both Alabama and Clemson opposed the addition of black students to the school and forbid the inclusion of black athletes to athletic teams. When an Alabama court ordered the University of Alabama to admit black students Vivien Malone and James Hood, Alabama Governor George Wallace—who infamously declared “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever! in his inaugural address—blocked their entry into a campus building. He only begrudgingly yielded when President Kennedy mobilized Alabama’s National Guard to ensure Malone’s and Hood’s enrollment. Clemson similarly fought desegregation by rejecting black applicants in the 1940s and 1950s. Only when a court ordered the school to enroll Harvey Gantt in 1963 did administrators acquiesce.
Clemson and Alabama both reluctantly desegregated in 1963; however, it would be almost a decade until black athletes appeared on either squad’s roster. Therefore, the two teams contested four times between 1966 and 1969 with all white squads. The Crimson Tide won all four contests. Alabama defeated Clemson, 26-0, in 1966, then followed up the next year with a nail-biting, 13-10, finish. In 1968, the Tide won by a touchdown, 21-14, then ended the 1960s series with a 38-13 thrashing of the Tigers. “Alabama came back from the ranks of those supposedly dead to methodically and quickly stop Clemson’s Tigers,” reported Leslie Timms. Although both team escaped the 1960s without desegregating, change was forthcoming.
The desegregation of the Alabama Crimson Tide occurred under legendary coach Bear Bryant. Bryant assumed the reigns of the team in 1958 and for over a decade fielded all white squads. Even had he wanted to add black athletes to his team, Bryant experienced pressures from the UA administration and fans alike. On the one hand, writes sportswriter Allen Barra, Governor Wallace “was especially watchful of the University of Alabama and let it be known . . . that funds would be cut if [UA] crossed swords with Wallace on racial policies.” On the other hand, UA fans did not want integration. As historian Patrick B. Miller explains, “the Crimson Tide was a natural rallying point for the embattled white South” and “a potent symbol of pride and cultural vitality” (pg. 248).
In addition, Bryant had little internal pressure to desegregate in the early 1960s. Under his tutelage, between 1961 and 1966, the Crimson Tide went 60-5-1, which included three national championships, four SEC championships, and two undefeated seasons. However, when other teams desegregated and Alabama slid into mediocrity at the end of the decade, Bryant recognized the need to expand his recruiting pool. In 1967, the University of Kentucky fielded the first integrated SEC team, followed by Tennessee in 1968, and Auburn, Florida, and Mississippi State in 1970.
Revisionist history suggests that Bryant intentionally sought to bring racial equality to Alabama and Crimson Tide football. Such tellings argue that he scheduled a two-game series against the University of Southern California to purposefully pit the stronger, desegregated USC squad against the weaker, segregated UA team. In the 1970 opener, the Trojans, led by running back Sam Cunningham, walloped the Tide, 42-21. Later celebratory accounts—such as Against the Tide and former UA assistant Jerry Claiborne’s rumination that Cunningham “did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King had done in 20 years”—infer that Bryant knew his team would lose and scheduled the game to show Alabama fans the virtues of desegregation.
Scholars have pointed out the fallacy of this tale. One year before the USC-UA game, the desegregated Tennessee Volunteers defeated Alabama, 41-14, in Tuscaloosa. Furthermore, months before the Trojans traveled east, Bryant had added Wilbur Johnson to the roster, but he was ineligible to play because of NCAA freshman regulations. Thus, while many applaud Bryant’s stance, in actuality, “the Bear was very late to the dance,” argues journalist David Halberstam. “We know that he was a divided man on this, and we know that he was slow, much too slow to act.” Regardless of Bryant’s intentionality, though, the USC game did upset—then motivate—the Alabama populous. According to historian Charles H. Martin, “the USC loss clearly shocked many white fans and made many of them more willing to accept Bryant’s new policy of recruiting African Americans. White Alabamians’ desire to win football games would subsequently triumph over their historical preference for maintaining the whiteness of the Tide football team” (pg. 277). Bryant added two black athletes to the squad the following season.
The Tigers also proved slow to desegregate. Prior to the 1950s, Clemson simply refused to compete against any squad that fielded black players. However, integrated northern schools eventually started to disassemble the gentlemen’s agreement by refusing to bench black athletes, which challenged Clemson’s segregationist stance. For example, after winning the ACC title, the Tigers earned an invitation to compete against the University of Colorado in the 1956 Orange Bowl. The bid placed the team in a conundrum: decline the invite or play against a desegregated Colorado team. South Carolina Governor George B. Timmerman, Jr., a staunch segregationist, eventually provided his approval for Clemson to compete against Colorado. Clemson’s participation, notes Martin, “testified to the strong grip that the sport retained on the hearts and minds of white South Carolinians” (pg. 144).
The desegregation of the Maryland football squad again forced the issue upon the Tigers. When the Terrapins added Darryl Hill to the team in 1963, Clemson and South Carolina threatened to leave the conference. The threats proved empty and Maryland, with Hill, traveled to Clemson that season. “Many Tiger fans were outraged over what they viewed as the desecration of their sacred playing field,” writes Martin, “and they, along with Coach Frank Howard, gave Hill a hostile reception” (pg. 145). Reportedly, chants of “Kill the N*****” sounded throughout Death Valley, leading Clemson President Robert Edwards to commandeer the commentator’s microphone and admonish the crowd. Furthermore, when Hill’s mother was denied entrance to the game, Edwards escorted her to the president’s box to watch.
Other ACC schools followed Maryland’s lead and desegregated, including Duke (1966), North Carolina (1967), North Carolina State (1967), South Carolina (1969), and Wake Forest (1964). Seemingly recognizing the need for racial equality, Edwards stressed the “absolute necessity of our recruiting student athletes on a non-discriminatory basis” in a 1967 Clemson athletic council meeting. Two years later, Craig Mobley suited up for the basketball team, becoming the first black athlete at Clemson. Then, in 1970, Marion Reeves joined the Tigers football team. Interestingly, writes Martin, one decade after Reeves joined the squad, Clemson went undefeated and won a national title, with fifty percent of the roster comprised of black athletes. “This dramatic change in the racial composition of the Clemson football team surprised many fans who remembered the university’s earlier resistance to integrated competition,” he points out (pg. 145).
With both Alabama’s and Clemson’s football teams desegregated, the Tide and Tigers met again in 1975. The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers, 56-0. “Alabama mugged Clemson with every move, dealing the worst whipping in the local arena in 18 games,” wrote sports editor Mike McKenzie.
Almost three decades after the two desegregated teams squared off, Alabama faced Clemson in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The Crimson Tide quickly jumped ahead and went into halftime leading, 23-3. Clemson’s only touchdown resulted from a kickoff return and the Crimson Tide trounced the Tigers, 34-10. “We obviously didn’t know it at the time, but this game set the wheels in motion for both Clemson and Alabama to reach the 2015 national title game,” argues sportswriter Bill Connelly. According to Connelly, Alabama’s 2008 victory verified Nick Saban’s coaching prowess and cemented his position in Tuscaloosa. Since that game, the Crimson Tide have gone 97-12. From the Tigers’ vantage, he suggests, the 2008 loss “was a blessing in disguise.” Tommy Bowden eventually resigned and Clemson promoted “the excitable, charismatic receivers coach,” Dabo Swinney. Saban and Swinney have lead their teams to the game tonight.
From the first matchup in 1900, to the last contest in 2008, the Alabama-Clemson series represents important points in the history of college football. Tonight’s championship, the first time the two Squads face one another after navigating a playoff bracket, is perhaps the next moment of a new historical era.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.