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June 24, 2014

All Joking Aside, Georgia-Clemson is Just 67 Days Away...

Only 67 days until Georgia tangles with
Clemson...  In '67, it was Lawrence racing
past the Tigers with this tumbling, tie-
breaking and game-winning touchdown.
I grew up in a time when there was no Georgia football opponent perhaps more despised by the Bulldog Nation than Clemson.  And, such hate likely spawned a number of memorable jokes I can still recall 30 years later about "Auburn with a lake," as the late, great Lewis Grizzard labeled our loathed foe 75 miles to the northeast.
Admittedly, the jokes resulted because maybe we had a case of sour grapes in 1977 after the Tigers beat the Bulldogs in Athens for the first time in 63 years, or beginning with Georgia's loss in Death Valley in 1981the only regular-season defeat suffered by the Bulldogs over the course of four entire years.  Whatever the reason for the taunting and whenever it began, "Clemmons College" simply seemed quite inferior to the reputable University of Georgia, at least it did to me at the time.
Perhaps I was young or ignorantprobably both.  However, in my defense, when a child hears that someone, namely Grizzard, witnessing protesting farmers stage a tractorcade at a state Capitol, hadn't seen that many tractors since the last time Clemson played in Athens, or Craig Hertwig in 1982 declare, "Clemson ain’t nothing but an imitation. ... I even hear they’re going to put up imitation grass in the stadium up there so the homecoming queen won’t graze on it," the belief that Clemson is all-around inadequate, although apparently suggested in jest, can be fixed in the mind of the young perceiver.
Since then, there have obviously been even more Clemson jokes, like Grizzard's tale of the foolish former Tiger football player-turned-pessimistic-paratrooper, but I've grown wiser as I've gotten older.  From what I understand, Clemson is actually a rather reputable university; plus, I recognize that the three people I personally know that graduated from the school are all smarter than me.  Any thoughts of Clemson having inferior academic standards disappeared a long time ago, or had they?
I was on Clemson's campus not too long ago, interviewing a school historian for a magazine article I was writing.  We soon got on the subject of the Bulldogs-Tigers football rivalry.  I brought up the fact that it hadn't really been much of a rivalry until the late 1970s (I swear, I was just making conversation.).  He promptly countered with a story from amidst all those Clemson setbacks to the Dogs.  He laughed as he spoke of the 1967 meeting in Death Valley, and the winning touchdown scored by a South Carolina native that couldn't get into Clemson because of his entrance exams, so he went to UGA, at least that's what Sports Illustrated said.  
The historian must have seen the disbelief on my face that a Bulldog couldn't actually academically qualify at "Clempson." 
"You never heard that story?" he asked me.  "I thought you're supposed to know your Georgia football.  You should go look the article up."  So, I did.
Writer Joe Jares of Sports Illustrated was indeed on hand for the '67 game.  He reported the important stuff: the favored Bulldogs led 17-3, but the Tigers stormed back to tie it.  A few minutes into the final quarter, Kent Lawrence, who ironically hailed from nearby Central, SC, tallied the game-winning touchdown from 14 yards out.  The "local-boy-makes-good" Lawrence, according to Sports Illustrated, sailed into the end zone literally upside down for the score.
However, buried in the article is the remark that "some folks in Pickens County say Kent sprinted down to Georgia because his college entrance-exam figures were not up to ACC standards," and mentions the widely-publicized nickname Clemson head coach Frank Howard had at the time for the SEC because of the conference's supposedly lower standards: the "Knucklehead League."
Well, as they say, I guess you do learn something new everyday.  I would have never guessed that Clemson, of all schools, could make up for its much inferior football program of the time by hanging its hat on lofty academic standards.  So, how did the apparent then-Harvard of the South become the butt of jokes just 10 to 15 years later?
For what it's worth, the Bulldog who wasn't up to ACC standards, he wound up doing just fine.  Lawrence would eventually serve as chief of the Clarke County Police Department and later a prosecutor.  He recently retired from his post as Clarke County State Court Chief Judge  after more than a quarter-century of serving on the bench. 

As far as the originator of the term the "Knucklehead League," Howard would retire from coaching just a couple years following the '67 game as one of the most legendary college coaches in southern football history.  The late tobacco-chewing, quick-witted coach is still considered one of the most entertaining and unique figures in the history of the sport (and maybe one day I'll have enough courage to post the story his son told me involving Howard, an opposing coach, General Douglas MacArthur, and a glass or urine).  However, and with all due respect to the revered Howard, he somewhat exhibited what can be common of some intellectuals: although he could dish out the joking, perhaps he couldn't take it all too well.

You see, within days of the '67 Georgia-Clemson contest, Howard and his southern drawl was quoted, sort of, from the head coach's broadcast of "The Frank Howard Show"  by a writer from The Athens Daily News.

"I'll jest tell you, Verner (Verner Tate, the TV station's sports director), that there Georgie team is as gud as any you kin find anywhar. ... And they got these heah big ole' tackles, one by the name of Stan-fill and anuddin' by the name of Chandler.  You ain't goin find none better'n them two...," was just a small sampling of the writer's entertaining portrayal of Howard.  However, the Clemson coach was not amused.

Howard soon threatened to turn the matter over to his attorney for possible legal action against the newspaper.  On the other hand, the writernone other than Lewis Grizzardmeant no disrespect and was only "attempting to depict [Howard's] colorful image," while demonstrating that finding humor in Clemson, its players, coaches, and fans, occurred long before the jokes about "Auburn with a lake" became routine.

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