Clemson University

Labor Day Night -- 25 years ago

Rick Bagby, director of video services at Clemson, removes a protective cover for Howard's Rock. Clemson players rub Howard's Rock prior to football games because of the mystical powers it is supposed to give them.
Rick Bagby, director of video services at Clemson, removes a protective cover for Howard's Rock. Clemson players rub Howard's Rock prior to football games because of the mystical powers it is supposed to give them.

Labor Day night.

More than 80,000 zealots packed into the stadium.

The tailgate crowd arrives ridiculously early, electricity ricochets from all angles, and flashbulbs sparkle like a sea of diamonds to record the scene.

Two teams with lofty ambitions set to square off, television cameras ready to beam the action to the nation and players squirm with antsy anticipation in looking toward the evening kickoff.

Clemson and Florida State on Monday, right? A concrete canyon called Death Valley, right?

Yes.

No.

Yes: The description fits the scene that will unfold Monday night at Clemson.

No: This is not the first time the Tigers basked in the spotlight like this.

Instead, return to another era, a time that televised games still commanded a special aura, and discover a special duel.

That one featured Clemson and Georgia in a showdown between the past two national champions. Heavyweights with grudging respect for the opponent and some little-known, behind-the-scenes friendships would knock heads. The neighborhood rivalry could be likened to playing the Super Bowl on opening day.

Then, like now, sub-plots created fodder for pre-game debate; questions without answers flowed freely.

At last, a summer of anticipation ended, the moment arrived and the teams put on a show worth the wait.

Perhaps the Tigers and Seminoles will do the same Monday night, but to match the magic of a quarter-century ago will be a tall challenge.

Clemson and Georgia, Labor Day night, 1982: A game to remember.

THE HYPE

Remember, this is 25 years ago, and college football games every night of the week to satisfy television's thirst for programming remained far in the future.

ABC's Monday Night Football NFL package created the Georgia-Clemson opportunity. The pros started their season after Labor Day and the thought occurred: Why not a college game?

Georgia and Clemson made sense. The Bulldogs had won the 1980 national title, the Tigers the 1981 championship. Both returned a posse of veterans and, best of all, they had a September game scheduled.

Officials simply needed to agree to switch the date.

"Coach (Vince) Dooley broke the news during spring practice that we had agreed to play a Labor Day night game on national television, and all the players went nuts," remembers John Lastinger, who would be taking over at the starting quarterback for role at Georgia.

"Everybody got all excited and I thought, 'Oh, my Lord, Coach, you didn't check with me.'f"

Clemson's defense prompted those kind of negative thoughts in opponents.

"Georgia wanted (the Labor Day game) and we didn't have much choice," says Bill McLellan, then Clemson's director of athletics. "But I don't remember any objections on our end."

Indeed, the Tigers and the Bulldogs had turned their then-annual battle into must-see competition.

"My freshman year (1978), I remember standing on the sidelines, watching the hitting going on on both side, and thinking, 'This is what college football is all about,'f" says Jeff Davis, Clemson's All-American linebacker who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.

Davis, the ringleader of the Tigers' 1981 championship team, had left for the pros, but the legacy of recent games remained vivid in both camps.

The Tigers had upset Georgia 7-6 in 1977, then the Bulldogs handed Clemson its only loss, 12-0, a year later. Clemson won 12-7 in 1979 and Georgia 20-16 in its championship season. The Tigers returned the favor, 13-3, on their way to the 1981 title.

"Georgia had become 'the' for us," Dan Benish, Clemson's all-star defensive tackle, says. "The game could make our season.

"The Monday night game . . . nothing could be bigger. We had grown up with the Monday night pro games and now we would be part of it."

The coaches, Georgia's Dooley and Clemson's Danny Ford, defined conservatism, but the players did not mind sounding off.

"A lot of bulletin-board stuff on both sides," Benish says. "That's the time that (Georgia star) Herschel (Walker) had a hand injury and they said he wouldn't play. Well, we said that he was too scared to play us.

"It was all of us having fun with them and them having fun with us."

A mostly unknown factor centered on the friendship between opponents. Many players had been recruited by both schools.

"(Clemson quarterback) Homer Jordan is from Athens and knew a bunch of guys on our team," Lastinger says. "He spent more time in our dorm that he did at his in Clemson."

The game, on Sept. 6, would be serious business.

THE PREPARATION

Walker's injury provided plenty of speculation. Would he play or wouldn't he?

The Tigers fired their "scared" volleys and naturally mystery shrouded the Georgia camp. Dooley ruled the All-American definitely out, then conceded "he might play."

"We had never been involved in a game like that in terms of publicity," Charley Whittemore, then a Georgia assistant coach, says. "A regular-season game never got attention like that in those days.

"I doubt if Clemson thought Herschel was hurt, but he had a dislocated thumb and wore a big, old cast. No way he could play at full speed. We had to use him for a decoy."

Understanding their top gun would be muffled and that Lastinger, their quarterback, would be making his first start, the Bulldogs went into the game with no proven offensive playmaker.

"We wanted to keep the game close with our defense and do something to turn the tide," Whittemore, now an assistant athletics director at Georgia, says. "We knew we had to make something happen, and we worked on blocking a punt."

Meanwhile, Clemson planned on Walker's playing and focused on a way to exploit the Bulldogs' aggressive defense.

"We put in a halfback pass," says Jeff McCall, the Tigers' fullback. "I was the best passer among the running backs, and I was going to make the throw.

"We knew the game would be a defensive battle, and our coaches looked for an edge."

One plan worked. One did not.

THE GAME

Walker did not start, but he played, carrying 11 times for a net of 20 yards. His total suggests the obvious: defense dominated.

The Bulldogs faked to Walker on his first play and ran a reverse that Tron Jackson took 41 yards to the end zone. A holding penalty nullified the play.

A missed block wiped out Clemson's "trick play," that halfback pass.

"The coaches called it at a perfect time," McCall says, "but we didn't execute."

The Tigers did not execute on a punt, either, and that play made the difference.

"Their punter (Dale Hatcher) was a great one; we had tried to recruit him," Whittemore says. "We knew we had to make something happen defensively and hoped we could put pressure on him early."

They did. Defensive end Dale Carver broke free to block a second-quarter punt. Stan Dooley grabbed the ball and stepped two yards into the end zone. In a flash, the Tigers' lead had been erased.

"The whole first half was a total blur," Lastinger says. "I didn't settle down until the second quarter."

His fumble set up a quick Clemson touchdown, then Georgia got even on the blocked punt. Lastinger completed a pair of passes to set up a field goal to give the Bulldogs a 10-7 halftime lead.

"We had a first and goal at the 3 and couldn't punch it in," Lastinger says. "They were obviously a pretty staunch opponent."

Walker proved no factor running the ball, but Benish remembers one meeting with the Georgia star.

"The Georgia game always seemed to be our hardest-hitting game," he says. "On a screen pass, nobody blocked me and I went for the runner and almost got my lights knocked out. Herschel got me and I never saw him coming."

That type of hitting dominated, and in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Bulldogs celebrated could celebrate a 13-7 victory.

THE AFTERMATH

The game proved the adage that one game does not make a season; both teams came back to win conference championships.

Georgia finished 11-1, losing only in the national championship game to Penn State. Clemson posted a 9-1-1 record, eighth in the national polls.

"Jimmy Harrell, my roommate, and I were sitting up at 3:30 in the morning after the Clemson game and wondered if we would ever get to sleep," Lastinger says. "We were wound up so tight we couldn't go to bed, and we knew we had to practice on Tuesday.

"It took us two or three days to recover mentally, and we had to face Steve Young on Saturday. We had to kick a field goal late to beat them."

The moral from that Monday night opener?

"We had a tie with Boston College, then won our last nine," Benish says. "It's hard to pick up after losing a game like that, but we did."

Lastinger found the pre-game anticipation more difficult.

"The waiting for a 9 o'clock kickoff was the worst part," he says. "Starting my first game and with so much at stake, that was the longest day of my life."

Nevertheless, on both sides, the game was worth the wait.

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