Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Flip Week: Clemson
By Brian Bennett
Clemson fans take the field at Memorial Stadium after the Tigers' win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 14.
Editor's note: During Week 12, 10 ESPN.com reporters changed conferences to experience college football in unfamiliar territory. Here is what they learned from the experience.
I had a choice to make when the Georgia Tech-Clemson game ended.
Once the crowd cleared out, I made my way up to the top of "The Hill," the famous incline where the Tigers enter before games. I wanted to get an up-close view of Howard's Rock and see the field from that vantage point.
Then it was decision time. Should I run down the Hill, as Clemson players and coaches do, and risk making a fool of myself by tripping? That sucker's pretty steep, and it undulates. Plus, my out-of-shape sportswriter quads were already burning from traversing the hilly terrain around Memorial Stadium for several hours while visiting tailgaters. When you're in a place called Death Valley that's situated below a cemetery, it doesn't take much to get you contemplating your own mortality.
But I'd also heard so many people in the previous two days talk about how special that entrance was, how much the rock and the running down the hill meant to them. How students like freshmen Austin Stevenson and Connor Sweeney camped out for a full week just to sit on the hill for the Florida State game. How, as fan Ricky Thompson told me, "It brings you chills every time they do it." I had witnessed just how special that tradition was a few hours earlier.
So in the end, there was really no choice at all. How many times would I get a chance like this? So I rubbed the rock for good luck, and I ran, quite unathletically, down that hill.
There were no spills. Just thrills.
Here are some other highlights of my "flip week" experience at Clemson:
A Clemson fan has a unique way of showing his devotion to the Tigers with a "Paw Bearer" vehicle.
Best meal: Sorry, Midwesterners, but it's true: Barbecue just tastes better in the South. So I wasn't going to miss a chance to hit The Smokin' Pig in Pendleton on game day. It's open only Thursday through Saturday, so I got there just after the doors opened at 11 a.m. Good thing, too, because the line was out the door by 11:15 a.m. I asked my waitress whether it was so crowded because of the Clemson game. She replied, "Honey, it's like this every day." As I inhaled my chopped pork plate and tested out the homemade sauces, I easily could understand why.
Must-see sight in Clemson: They call the Tigers' entrance to the field "the most exciting 25 seconds in college football." It actually lasts a bit longer than that, as the video board shows the team arriving via bus from its locker room on the other side of the stadium and the crowd starts to go nuts. Thanks to Clemson giving me a photo vest, I got to stand at the bottom of the hill as the team touched Howard's Rock and ran down right past me, to eardrum-splitting noise. It was every bit as cool as advertised.
Biggest surprise: How incredibly friendly and outgoing everyone at Clemson was. I thought there might be some insecurity over the whole "Clemsoning" thing, but Tigers fans simply love their team and their school and are happy to share it with outsiders.
Biggest difference from the Big Ten: Clemson has a definite out-of-the way, small-town, close-knit atmosphere that you don't get in many Big Ten towns, except for maybe State College, Pa. Midseason Thursday night football also provided a much different environment than the Big Ten, which cherishes its Saturday afternoons. Clemson canceled classes on Thursday to accommodate the game, and I can't imagine many -- if any -- Big Ten schools going for that. On the field, the biggest difference was the Tigers' speed and athleticism at receiver, with Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Most Big Teams are lucky to have one guy like that at wideout. Nobody has two.
They said it: "You can bring some people here who've never been before, and it will turn them all the way around." -- Clemson fan Kevin Nettles.
If I could go back: I'd go for a Saturday game. The Thursday game was unique, but because so many Clemson fans travel long distances to games, Memorial Stadium was not close to full. That's wildly unusual for some of the most loyal fans in the country. There was basically no game-day eve atmosphere on Wednesday night, and I was told that tailgating was much sparser than normal on Thursday afternoon. On the plus side, you actually could move around inside the ESSO Club and find places to eat without waiting. But someday, I'd like to enjoy the full Clemson game-weekend experience.