Sunday, July 19, 2015

In 1981, eventual national champion Clemson came calling, and Wofford answered

Wofford, as is the case with a bevy of other programs competing in the aggressive FCS tier of Division I football play, has often served as a kind of extempore scheduling afterthought. While the unexpected shift may, in some important respects, irk the smaller outfit, that's the just the nature of the sport.

Fresh case in point, the opening slot of the Terriers' 2013 campaign was originally occupied by an excursion to Tallahassee, Fla., to lock face masks with Florida State. The non-conference tilt with the Seminoles, which would have just as well served as rematch of the 1949 Cigar Bowl -- the two squads hadn't played since 1952 -- was slated to bring a payout of nearly half a million dollars back to Spartanburg.

Unfortunately, akin to the performance dealt out by Terriers of old more than 75 years removed -- tradition hints that a toilsome scrimmage along the way and a long night in Tampa may have played more than a supporting role in Florida State's eventual thirteen-point "upset" triumph -- none of that materialized. There was no scattered reminiscence, no accommodating consolation, no trip to Doak Campbell Stadium this time around.

Instead, the FCS school was rather understandably dropped in favor of the shining financial promises displayed in the form of a nationally-televised Labor Day bout with Pittsburgh. Apparently, no considerable amount of money was exchanged between Wofford and the eventual-BCS title claimants, and the Terriers were left with an FBS-sized hole at the front end of their calendar.

The Terriers stumbled off the potential ACC foe's agenda at the right time, however, as Baylor -- which was abandoned by in-state opponent SMU -- found itself in search of a final game to round out the year's schedule. Although the on-field result was a bit disorienting -- the Bears prevailed with a massive 66-point rout -- the whole ordeal brought back an interesting memory for Terrier fans.


STEP PEPPERED WITH feverish animation, Bill McLelland dashed to the telephone. As shafts of warm morning sunlight peeked into the Clemson athletic director's office, he established a brief connection with Wofford coach George "Buddy" Sasser, longtime benefactor of college football in the state of South Carolina. The message conveyed in the call was simple: Sasser, who also served as McLelland's counterpart within the Terrier realm, had something the Tigers were in desperate need of -- an NAIA club suitable enough with which to open the 1981 campaign.

Clemson was hardly looking forward to patching up an unforeseen issue such as this. After all, the year's slate had already been set, and the Tigers were expecting to meet up with Dick Bedesem's gritty Villanova outfit, the latest installment of a program that had long been among the independent ranks, to begin the season. A problem popped up with that, though, as the Wildcats were abruptly axed by the university administration following a 6-5 run in 1980. 

Luckily, McLelland knew that some sort of aid in such a scheduling plight may come from an hour up the road, in the form of little Wofford College, which at the time supported a well-to-do football program chugging along in the NAIA, occasionally making a statement with larger opponents such as the Southern Conference's Furman, which the Terriers played to a 14-14 tie a year prior.

The two programs had not met on the field in over forty years, with two of the last four tilts (Oct. 18, 1929; Nov. 11, 1933) actually being staged in Spartanburg. In the latter instance, Wofford, skippered by Thomas Scaffe, a leader in the last season of his seven-year stint at the Terriers' helm, grabbed a one-point decision that helped to salvage what was left of the 3-6 campaign. Interestingly enough, all three Terrier triumphs that year were decided by a single point.

Clemson's Cliff Austin (7) rushed
for 95 yards on the Terrier
Clemson University
When the time arrived for the 1981 Terriers to enter Memorial Stadium -- a venue deferentially known as "Death Valley" by locals -- hearts were not stirred by the swirling torrent of orange-clad fans, skills not dulled by the immense pressure and suffocating humidity that seemed to permeate the area, confident dispositions not fully interred by the deafening roar that rose up from the stands that bright September afternoon.

Ever scrappy, the Wofford outfit allowed future Tampa Bay Buccaneer placekicker Donald Igwebuike's commencement boot to tumble into the end zone for a touchback, setting the stage for the Terriers' initial eight-minute drive. Dropping a decided hint of surprise in the sultry late-summer air, Sasser's group advanced the ball to the Tiger seven-yard line before being stymied by a Clemson defensive front that featured familiar names like senior Jeff Davis and freshman William "Refrigerator" Perry, both eventual professionals.

Despite the relative cessation, the drive gave ample favorability to the leg of senior Don Hairston, who split the uprights on a 24-yard field goal attempt, granting the Terriers an extremely early 3-0 advantage. Energized, Wofford's defense disallowed Perry Tuttle's 38-yard return of the ensuing kickoff from setting a positive tone on Clemson's first possession of the interleague contest.

Yet, although the Tigers were unable to extend their preliminary crack very far past midfield -- instead, Igwebuike's kicking strength was relied upon for a massive game-tying 52-yard field goal -- things began to click into place for the home team. The game's placid pace, knotted at three points apiece, was rather precipitously broken up a few minutes into the second quarter, as Clemson quarterback Homer Jordan connected with Perry Tuttle on a mesmerizing 80-yard scoring strike.

"Wofford had the best gameplan for us of any opposing team since I have been at Clemson," head coach Danny Ford sternly remarked, his words conveyed via a postgame press release. "They ran us ragged in the first half with the misdirection plays." Ford's bunch punched it in once more prior to the halftime horn, leaving the Terriers holed in a fourteen-point deficit.

The Tigers would earn a pair of touchdowns in both the third and fourth quarters, effectively keeping Wofford away from the scoreboard until late in the contest, when the visitors pounced on a loose ball at Clemson's 39-yard line. A couple plays after that, Barry Thompson found Dirk Derrick in the end zone for an enfeebled scoring grab; Clemson, which would finish the year undefeated and top Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, did not allow a touchdown in four consecutive games after the Terriers made the trek back to Spartanburg.

"They did a super job. That is a tribute to Coach Sasser and his staff," continued Ford, referencing a group of Wofford assistants that included current head coach Mike Ayers, "[and to] the young men who are playing for him."

On that arduous, steamy day in early September of 1981, David met Goliath, and came up a couple stones too short. But for the folks who braved the heat and challenged the eventual national champions, it was a job well done. 

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