Clemson’s football program has been around for 116 seasons and played 1,050 games. It all started in 1896 when Coach Walter Riggs, a former Auburn player and native of Orangeburg, SC, led to the program to a 2-1 season.
The Tigers have had 24 other coaches since 1896. Some have struggled, and some have excelled, but there are four that have grown to become Clemson legends. In this article, we discuss a handful of coaches from the first two categories before evaluating and ranking the four greatest coaches in Clemson football history.
Josh Cody (1927-1930): Josh Cody came to Clemson from Vanderbilt, where he was an assistant. In his four seasons at Clemson he went 4-0 versus the Gamecocks and compiled and impressive 29-11 record. He left Clemson to return to Vanderbilt and his home state of Tennessee to again be an assistant football coach and head coach of their basketball program (something he also did at Clemson). Coach Cody is in the College Football Hall of Fame – as a player.
Jess Neely (1931-1939): Jess Neely followed Josh Cody in Clemson’s succession of coaches. Clemson hired Neely away from Alabama, where he was an assistant. At Clemson, Neely coached Hall of Famer Banks McFadden, helped start IPTAY, and led the Tigers to their first bowl game (Cotton Bowl win to conclude the 1939 season). He also coached baseball during his time at Clemson.
In a move that is a sign of the times, he left Clemson for the Rice job following the 9-1 Cotton Bowl season. He’d eventually win an Orange Bowl there. He had brought coach Frank Howard onto his Clemson staff and would be succeeded by him following his departure to Rice. Jess Neely is in the college football Hall of Fame as a coach.
Hootie Ingram (1970-1972): Hootie is one of the many Clemson coaches with Alabama ties. Born in Tuscaloosa, AL, he was a All-SEC defensive back for the Crimson Tide (1952).
Ingram had the unenviable task of following the legendary Coach Frank Howard. He led the Tiger program from 1970-1972 and posted the lowest winning percentage of any coach to coach Clemson for more than one season at .364 (12-21). The Tigers were members of the ACC and playing 11-game seasons at the time, but won just three, five, and four games in his three years Clemson. Interestingly, the Tiger paw logo was introduced during his first season (1970).
Clemson would be Ingram’s last stop as a head coach, but he served as the AD for FSU during the 80s and returned to Alabama as their AD from 1989-1995 – leading the athletic department during the time that Dabo Swinney was a player there.
Hootie Ingram was replaced by Red Parker in 1973 who only lasted four seasons himself (17-25). Red was replaced by Charlie Pell. The Tigers have not had a coach with a losing record over the course of their tenure since Red Parker departed (six coaches). One came close though…
Tommy West (1994-1998): Ken Hatfield followed National Championship Head Coach Danny Ford. Hatfield won 10, 9, 5, and 9 games during his time at Clemson, but resigned after the administration failed to give him an extension. The fans and administration paid dearly for the lack of support for Hatfield when Tommy West took over the program.
West never won more than eight games and went 1-3 in bowl games with the lone win coming in his first game in 1993. It finally crashed and burned in 1998 when the Tigers won just three games. By the time he left, FSU had taken firm control over the ACC, winning the conference every year he was at Clemson. Much of the program building done under Pell and Ford was now dismantled.
Fun Fact: Tommy West attended Gainesville High School, the same as Deshaun Watson.
On to the legends…
4. John Heisman (1900-1903): Walter Riggs led an effort to raise enough money to bring John Heisman to Clemson in 1900 (from Auburn). He made an immediate impact. The 1900 Clemson Tigers went 6-0 and won the SIAA Championship. In 1902, the Tigers finished 6-1 and won the SIAA. Their lone loss that season came in Columbia. A fight broke out during the game and the Palmetto Bowl rivalry was suspended until 1909. In 1903, they’d again win the SIAA with a 4-1-1 record. They beat Georgia Tech 72-0 that season, but the Yellow Jackets would hire him away after that season.
John Heisman coached at eight different schools, but stuck with Georgia Tech the longest (16 years). He won his National Championship there in 1917. He was an innovator of the game, inventing the “hike” call from the QB, and pushing for the legalization of the forward pass and the move from two halves to four quarters.
3. Frank Howard (1940-1969): Howard was starting Guard on Alabama’s 1930 #1 Rose Bowl team. He came straight to God’s country where he became a line tutor under Coach Jess Neely. He’d hold that position until 1940 when Neely left for Rice and Howard became the Head Coach.
Coach Howard would manage the athletic department and fundraise for scholarships all while leading the football team. In 1948, his ninth year as the Head Coach, the Tigers had a breakout season. They finished 11-0 with a SoCon Title and a win over Missouri in the Gator Bowl. In 1950 they defeated Miami in the Orange Bowl to finish 9-0-1.
All this success helped lead to the Tigers being a charter member of the ACC in 1953. He’d coach the Tigers in the ACC for 17 seasons and win six conference titles. From 1956 to 1959, the Tigers won the conference three out of four seasons played in an Orange Bowl (L to Colorado), a Sugar Bowl (L to Miami), and a BlueBonnet Bowl (W over TCU). There were only eight bowls in 1959, so winning one meant a great deal.
During his tenure, Howard coached a much higher proportion of his games on the road, than the coaches that would follow him. They played at GT every year (eventually leading to the $2 bill tradition) and played “Big Thursday” in Columbia each year against the Gamecocks.
Coach Howard is the longest tenured (30 years) and winningest (165 wins) coach in Clemson history. He took Clemson from the SoCon to the ACC, created the tradition of rubbing the rock and running down the hill, and had Death Valley built (something Jess Neely advised against). While Walter Riggs is the first coach of the Clemson Tigers, Frank Howard brought the program into the modern era and was a rock of stability for three decades. It’s fitting that Howard’s Rock is named in his honor as is the field the 2016 National Champions play on.
2. Danny Ford (1979-1989): Coach Ford, for three and a half decades, was the only coach to bring a National Championship to Clemson. He is famous for his 1981 squad that went undefeated and upset Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl to claim the National Championship. The Tigers were no one hit wonder under Ford though. In his 11 seasons at Clemson, the Tigers won the ACC six times (though 1983 is not recognized due to probation). From 1981 to 1983 the Tigers went 19-0 in ACC play.
Unfortunately, allegations of impermissible benefits sent the Tigers to probation, causing lean years in 1984-1985. They’d quickly recover and win the ACC every year from 1986-1988. No Clemson coach has won the ACC three consecutive times since Ford’s ’86-’89 threepeat.
While the administration and NCAA may be partially (or largely) culpable, the negative turn the program took at the conclusion of his tenure prevents him from being considered the greatest coach in program history. Another NCAA investigation was about to begin and tension between Ford and the administration had risen too high. They let him go before the 1990 season hiring Ken Hatfield as his successor.
They went 19-4-1 over the next two seasons and won the conference in 1991. Still, many were upset that Coach Ford was not still coaching the program. FSU joined the ACC in 1992 and immediately took control of the conference winning it their first nine years as members. When Hatfield left after 1993, the Tigers hired the aforementioned Tommy West. The Tigers fell behind on facilities and won just one ACC title in the 20 years immediately following Ford’s departure (1990-2010). Clemson largely failed to build upon the progress Ford had made
It wasn’t all forgotten though. Upon winning the 2017 National Championship, current Head Coach Dabo Swinney cited the 1981 team as a source of hope and proof that Clemson could win it all.
Dabo Swinney (2009-Current): Tommy Bowden, one of the coaches we haven’t talked about, took over the Tiger program after Tommy West. He brought them back to respectability, but was never able to become elite or really compete for championships. Despite getting an extension in the offseason prior, he was dismissed when the 2008 season went sideways. Coach Swinney became the interim and after beating the Gamecocks, was named the full-time head coach.
In his first year as the head coach, the Tigers won the ACC Atlantic Division for the first time (there had been four previous ACC seasons with split divisions). They’d fall to Georgia Tech in that Championship game, but that appearance marked step one in climbing the mountain. 2010 went very poorly as the Tigers finished 6-7, but failures from that season precipitated changes that would lead to a long and rich run of success which Tiger fans are still enjoying. Since the 2010 Meineke Car Car Bowl loss, the Tigers have done the following:
- 2011: 10-4 (ACC Champions)
- 2012: 11-2 (Chick-fil-A Bowl Champions)
- 2013: 11-2 (Orange Bowl Champions)
- 2014: 10-3 (Russell Athletic Bowl Champions)
- 2015: 14-1 (ACC & Orange Bowl Champions
- 2016: 14-1 (ACC, Fiesta Bowl, & National Champions)
- Total: 70-13
This six year stretch is easily the greatest in school history. It has come against the toughest competition both in the ACC (FSU won a National Championship and accounts for over 23% of Clemson’s losses over this stretch) and out of conference (LSU, UGA, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama) Clemson has faced.
There have been other great stretches in Clemson history, but none like this:
- Charlie Pell and Danny Ford combined for a great run from 1978-1983 (55-12). Like Dabo’s six year run, it included three ACC titles and a National Championship, but it also includes an 8-4 season (1979) and a 6-5 season (1980) and ends with NCAA probation which would hurt the program in the subsequent years.
- Frank Howard had a few great stretches too. A four year run of success from 1948-1951 (31-7-3) included an 11-0 season, but that run was book-ended by losing campaigns. A successful six year run took place in 1955-1960 (44-17-2), but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Dabo’s past six teams have accomplished.
It’s not just the past winning that makes Dabo Swinney the greatest in school history. Coach Swinney has built a sturdy foundation for Clemson football that they should continue to build upon. While the last six year’s have been the best Clemson has experienced, there’s no reason to think regression is coming. Facilities, resources, and branding are all sharply headed upwards.
Maybe the greatest thing and the reason why I don’t hesitate to rank Coach Swinney #1 is culture. Swinney has eschewed the”win at all costs” mentality which is ever-present in modern sports (see the current Ole Miss scandal). His emphasis not just on following the rules, but growing kids into successful young men leading fulfilling lives makes Clemson’s on the field success all the more special. Clemson avoids “processing” under-performing players, honors scholarships, and punishes rule breakers, yet wins at the highest level.
In his eight full seasons at Clemson, only 2010 was wholly unsuccessful. Coach Howard had losing seasons in five of his first eight. Even Coach Ford was just 14-9 in his first two seasons. With the future bright, the brand strong, the culture a shining light, and a full trophy case with more on the horizon, there’s no doubt Coach Dabo Swinney is the grandest legend in Clemson sports history.
“The best is yet to come.” – Dabo Swinney