Gift from Death Valley became "Death Valley" tradition

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Ohio State dots the "i." Tennessee runs through the "T." Texas A&M has midnight yell practice. Florida State has Chief Osceola, Renegade and a flaming spear.

But few college football traditions generate as much excitement and pageantry as Clemson's players rubbing Howard's Rock and running down the Hill before each home game at Memorial Stadium.

"It's very emotional going up there," Tigers running back C.J. Spiller said. "You know it's game time when you get on the bus and go up there and rub that rock."

The Tigers began the tradition of running down the Hill, which sits above the east end zone, in 1942. The tradition began because of necessity more than anything else. The shortest walk from the team's dressing room in Fike Fieldhouse to the stadium was to walk down Williamson Road and enter a gate underneath, where the stadium's large scoreboard now stands.

Legend has it that in either 1964 or 1965, S.C. Jones, a Clemson alumnus, made a trip to California. While driving through Death Valley, he stopped and picked up a large, white flint rock.

Earlier, Presbyterian College coach Lonnie McMillan had described Clemson's Memorial Stadium as "Death Valley," because that's where his teams annually went to die. Tigers coach Frank Howard began using the same moniker to describe his home field soon thereafter.

Jones brought the rock back to Clemson and presented it to Howard. The rock sat in Howard's office for a couple of years. While cleaning out his office before the 1966 season, Howard saw the rock and told Gene Willimon, executive secretary of the school's booster club, to "take this rock and throw it over the fence, or out in the ditch … do something with it, but get it out of my office!"

Instead, Willimon arranged for the rock to be put on a pedestal at the top of the hill above the east end zone. The rock was unveiled on Sept. 24, 1966, and the Tigers rallied from an 18-point deficit with only 17 minutes to play to beat Virginia 40-35.

The following season, Howard told his players "If you're going to give me 110 percent, you can rub that rock. If you're not, keep your filthy hands off of it."

The rock soon became "Howard's Rock" and a Clemson tradition was born.

"It's special because you can feel the tradition," said fullback/tight end Alex Pearson, who grew up in nearby Greenville and whose parents each attended Clemson. "When you rub the rock, you can picture everybody else who's done it in the past doing that. Personally, it's something I've dreamed about my whole life. So it's a dream come true for me. You can just feel the history when you touch it."

The Tigers will run down the hill and rub the rock for the 322nd time before Saturday's home game against Furman.

Clemson has done it prior to every home game except during 2½ seasons in the early 1970s. When Hootie Ingram succeeded Howard as coach prior to the 1970 season, Ingram decided his teams would make their entrance out of the west end zone, instead of running down the hill.

The Tigers followed Ingram's route before each home game in 1970 and 1971 and the first four home games in 1972. Clemson went 6-9 at Memorial Stadium during that stretch. Clemson's players voted to run down the hill prior to the South Carolina game in 1972, and they beat the Gamecocks 7-6.

The Tigers have been running down the hill ever since. Clemson has won more than 70 percent of its home games.

"Clemson's record at home is not a coincidence," former Tigers All-America kicker David Treadwell once said. "Running down the hill is a part of that record. You get so inspired, and so much of college football is about emotion. You get out of that bus and you hear the roar of the crowd and it gives you chills up and down your spine."

After warm-ups, Clemson retreats to its locker room in the west end of the stadium for final instructions from coaches. About 10 minutes before kickoff, the players climb aboard two buses and make their way around the north stands to the east end zone.

The Tigers then crowd the entrance to the stadium and more than 80,000 fans rise to their feet in anticipation. The public address announcer tells the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness … the most exciting 25 seconds in all of college football."

A cannon booms, the players descend down the hill, each one touching Howard's Rock, and they run through two lines formed by the school's marching band.

"It's definitely different when you're playing," Tigers quarterback Cullen Harper said. "As a redshirt freshman, I was just out there excited and having a good time. But as a player, you rub that rock and it definitely means a lot. The tradition behind it, knowing guys in the past [have done it]."

Spiller says it's a tradition like no other in college football.

"I'm usually the last one that rubs the rock," Spiller said. "It's something that I always did in high school, being the last one on the field. The rock is a tradition here. It's been here for a long time, and to be part of that tradition is great. Other colleges don't have that."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.