T. Kyle King, the former site manager at SB Nation's Dawg Sports, is the author of Fighting Like Cats and Dogs, the game-by-game history of the Clemson-Georgia football rivalry, which recently was published by the Clemson University Digital Press and is available for order here.
In perhaps the most highly hyped clash of college football season's opening weekend, the Clemson Tigers and the Georgia Bulldogs are scheduled to square off in a night game televised nationally on ABC. Anticipation is high, since both clubs enter the autumn as top-10 teams after posting double-digit victory tallies the year before.
For many younger fans accustomed to the ever-expanding Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences of the last two decades, such titanic non-conference showdowns seem novel, but, as an historical matter, this is nothing new; the Classic City Canines and the Fort Hill Felines have traveled this road previously.
The year was 1982, and the occasion was the first contest played under the lights in Sanford Stadium in more than three decades. Then, as now, Clemson and Georgia were coming off of top-10 seasons and were deemed frontrunners in their respective leagues. In that autumn, as in this one, their confrontation was slated to be aired throughout the country before an ABC audience. When the seventh-ranked Bulldogs and the ninth-ranked Tigers squared off on Labor Day night 31 years ago, it represented the first season-opening clash between the two previous champions since college football became a national sport.
Though that epic 1982 showdown was the biggest game that had yet been played between the ancient rivals, Clemson and Georgia had met on the football field 50 times prior, and that evening's contest in many ways embodied the unique features that had made the series special for generations.
It was, for instance, something of an oddity that the game had been moved from its usual spot on the schedule, as the two teams had met on a Saturday in mid- to late-September every season since 1976, but the Monday night clash actually was in keeping with a much older tradition in the series: 16 of the 62 series meetings between the Bulldogs and the Tigers have taken place on a weekday, including four Thursday clashes on Thanksgiving Day.
Likewise, Herschel Walker's last season in a Georgia uniform marked the first year since Charley Trippi's last season in a Georgia uniform that the Red and Black began the fall with a game against the Orange and Purple. There, too, the deviation conformed more to the norm, both before and since. The first three series meetings, from 1897 to 1899, took place in the autumn's first contest, and when the rivalry last was rejoined in 2002 and 2003, Clemson and Georgia kicked off their respective campaigns in late August affrays against one another.
The 2013 and 2014 clashes also will occur at the outset of the autumn, all of which ought to give hope to the Bulldog faithful: Georgia's last four seasons to begin against Clemson (in 1946, 1982, 2002, and 2003) produced two division titles, three conference championships, and four top-10 seasons of 11 or more victories for the Bulldogs.
Granted, the night game was a bit of a novelty; a dozen poles elevating 420 metalhalide bulbs 150 feet above the field made it possible for that Labor Day evening to be "the night the lights went on in Georgia," although there, too, the Classic City Canines and the Fort Hill Felines had some history: Clemson previously had traveled to Athens for a date under the Friday night lights on All Hallows' Eve in 1947. This year's 8:00 p.m. Eastern start time for the Bulldogs' clash with the Tigers, accordingly, is uncommon, but far from unprecedented.
Finally, the 1982 showdown stood as a testament to the regularity of the series, representing the 10th straight season in which the Orange and Purple knocked helmets with the Red and Black. After meeting only intermittently during the 1950s, Clemson and Georgia had resumed routine hostilities in 1962, the first autumn of a 26-season stretch during which the Bulldogs butted heads with the Tigers 24 times to cement the resumption of a rivalry that, from the beginning, had been the most reliable fixture on either squad's slate. Between 1897 and 1916, the only team Clemson played in all 20 seasons was Georgia, and the only team Georgia played in all 20 seasons was Clemson.
More than just geography dictated from the beginning that the two teams would be rivals, though the spirit of animosity between them certainly was stoked by the fact that scarcely 70 miles separate the Athens and Clemson campuses. The history of the series stretches back to the earliest days of both football programs, which sprang from a common fountainhead: Walter Riggs, who founded Clemson football, learned the sport as a student at Auburn, where he played for George Petrie, who learned the sport as a student at Johns Hopkins, where he acquired his passion for the game with classmate Charles Herty, who founded Georgia football.
That shared heritage and close proximity have combined to produce many family ties connecting the neighboring programs. Tavarres King and Jay Rome are two of several Georgia players whose fathers played for Clemson, whereas Tiger quarterbacks Cullen Harper and Jon Richt were the sons of Bulldogs lineman Jeff Harper and Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt, respectively. In one instance, a president of what was then Clemson College (Patrick Hues Mell, 1902-1910) was even sired by a chancellor of the University of Georgia (Patrick H. Mell, 1878-1888). To complicate matters still further, football players Jimmy Orr (who transferred from Fort Hill to the Classic City) and Wynn Kopp (who transferred from the Peach State to the Palmetto State) each attended both institutions.
No less an authority on the subject than former Clemson head football coach Danny Ford identified the common characteristics on both sides of the Savannah River that made the Bulldogs' and the Tigers' rivalry so natural and inevitable:
I think it has grown because, one, their fans are similar to our fans. Both like football. Two, they are side by side, and they brag on each other and fuss with each other in a sportsmanlike way. Three, both schools are willing to have first-class athletic programs. One is always trying to outdo the other. They feel they can recruit players in South Carolina, and we feel we can go into Georgia and do the same. They don't like us coming down there, and we don't like them coming up here.
Ford certainly knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as he was one of several coaches at the two schools whose hiring was attributable at least partly to the rival institution. Georgia skipper Vince Dooley's dominance of Florida throughout the 1970s led to the firing of Gators head coach Doug Dickey, and, when Florida thereafter poached second-year head coach Charley Pell from Fort Hill, Ford was tapped to succeed Pell at Clemson.
Ford, who had served as the Tigers' offensive line coach before taking over the program beside Lake Hartwell, became the youngest head coach in Division I football when he ascended to the top spot at the age of 30. One of Ford's prominent predecessors at Clemson, John Heisman, also had taken over at Fort Hill as a 30-year-old, but the Red and Black had been a critical factor in his subsequent departure.
A 1903 wager between Georgia players and their Clemson counterparts inspired the Tigers to deliver a 73-0 thrashing to Georgia Tech, prompting the Yellow Jackets to lure Heisman to Atlanta with a more lucrative contract offer. The Jungaleers exacted their revenge by hiring away Georgia head coach Frank Dobson following the 1909 season.
More recently, the Tigers hired Tulane head coach Tommy Bowden following the 1998 season, creating a vacancy with the Green Wave that was filled by bringing Georgia offensive line coach Chris Scelfo to New Orleans. Without the longtime assistant he had brought with him from Marshall, Jim Donnan faltered in his next two seasons, leading directly to the hiring of Mark Richt in the Classic City.
When Dooley's Bulldogs, winners of the 1980 national championship, faced off with Ford's Tigers, winners of the 1981 national championship, to open the 1982 campaign, it marked perhaps the high water mark of the most heated period in the history of the rivalry. That autumn, for the third straight year, the winner of the Clemson-Georgia game would end the regular season ranked No. 1 and attend the bowl game at which the national title was decided. As of the end of the 1983 season, the Bulldogs had posted a four-year record of 43-4-1 and the Tigers had posted a three-year record of 30-2-2; both represented the best ledgers in the country for those periods.
Unsurprisingly, those high-stakes showdowns produced a remarkably even series while the rivalry was being played at the uppermost level. Clemson and Georgia went 5-5-1 against one another between 1977 and 1987, with nine of those eleven confrontations being decided by margins of a touchdown or less.
Both programs charted similar courses to the top, as well, with each relying upon solid special teams, rock-ribbed defense, ball-control offense, and the proper pair of pants; the Bulldogs rebounded from a 6-5 season in 1979 to go 12-0 in 1980, the season that saw the return of the silver britches to the Georgia uniform, while the Tigers similarly went 6-5 in 1980, adopted the practice of wearing orange uniform pants for big games, and proceeded to go 12-0 in 1981.
It was during this period that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Ivan Maisel wrote that "the rivalry has grown big enough [for Clemson] that quarterback Homer Jordan can say, ‘It's getting bigger than the South Carolina game' and no one blinks an eye." It was during this period that the Greenville News-Piedmont's Dan Foster observed: "Before the game, when he feared the worst, one University of Georgia athletic official said, ‘I think now the Georgia Tech game is the one we'd hate most to lose, but the Clemson game is the one we most want to win.'" It was during this period that "Mr. College Football" Tony Barnhart summed up the rivalry by stating that "the Georgia-Clemson series has been compared to war. In some respects rivalries such as this may be even more intense. If the definitive history of college football in the South is ever written, the Georgia-Clemson series will comprise a prominent chapter."
So was the stage set for a 1982 season opener in Sanford Stadium between the Orange and Purple and the Red and Black that looked an awful lot like the forthcoming clash in Death Valley to kick off the 2013 campaign. Of course, the two games are not precisely parallel, as the earlier confrontation generated a combined 490 yards of total offense, 24 first downs, and 20 points, with each team's lone touchdown resulting from a turnover deep in the opponent's territory. Both teams should be a good deal more explosive this year, since Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Georgia's Aaron Murray both finished among the top five quarterbacks nationally in pass efficiency in 2012.
Still, it isn't as though shootouts are entirely unheard of in this storied series; both the 1986 and 2002 games produced 31-28 final margins, so a barn-burner in 2013 would hardly be groundbreaking. This is the beauty of a gridiron rivalry that has it all, one that has been a neutral-site rivalry (played at the Georgia-Carolina Fairgrounds at Augusta annually from 1907 to 1913, and at Cater Park in Anderson in 1916) and a home-and-home arrangement, and that has been a conference rivalry (dating back to the days of the SIAA and the Southern Conference), a non-conference rivalry (Clemson and Georgia are charter members of the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conferences, respectively), and even a quasi-conference rivalry (Georgia counted Clemson as an SEC opponent in the mid-1960s, after Georgia Tech left the league on short notice).
As attested to by the many down-to-the-wire battles that have occurred between the Bulldogs and the Tigers since 1977, the Clemson-Georgia rivalry is as rich in history, pageantry, and intensity as any college football series in the country. It is about Vince Dooley and Danny Ford, about Scott Woerner and William Perry, and about Kevin Butler and David Treadwell. It is about the Orange Pants and the Silver Britches, about the Rock and the Arch, and about Fort Hill and Old College. It is about "Glory, Glory" and "Tiger Rag," about the Classic City and Lake Hartwell, and about the Dawg Walk and the Run Down the Hill. It is about Heisman and Herschel, about "Welcome to Death Valley" and "Between the Hedges," and about the Paw and Uga.
Most of all, though, it is about time these two old rivals squared off again as a pair of evenly-matched and highly-ranked teams competing under the brightest of lights on the grandest of stages. As the Clemson Tigers and the Georgia Bulldogs prepare to do battle once more, though, we should pause to remember the storied lore of which this latest confrontation is a part.
Though it has been a decade since last these two border foes met on the gridiron, we have passed this way before, and college football is much the better for it.
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