Honoring the past in college football

Clemson has kept a graveyard honoring big wins since 1989. Courtesy Bradley Moore

CLEMSON, S.C. -- The point of Brent Venables' meeting with the media last December was to tamp down the rivalry between Clemson and Oklahoma -- his current employer and his previous one -- before their matchup in the 2015 College Football Playoff. Venables touted his affection for Sooners coach Bob Stoops, hyped the talent on the Oklahoma roster and downplayed his departure from the school following the 2011 season.

No, Venables assured, there would be no extra motivation.

Then he remembered the steely gray grave marker planted just a dozen or so yards from where he was standing at the entrance to Clemson's practice facility.

The tombstone read: Dec. 29, 2014, Russell Athletic Bowl, Clemson 40, Oklahoma 6.

Yes, this probably provided a sour taste for the Sooners.

"He'll be playing up the graveyard and last year's game," Venables said of Stoops' likely motivational tactics.

Sure enough, a handful of the Oklahoma players noted the gravestone as a slap in the face, but at Clemson, this is tradition. And a few months later, the Tigers made room for another marker, this time commemorating their 37-17 Capital One Orange Bowl win over the Sooners that propelled them into the national championship game.

The idea of death is ever-present in college football. There are the figurative references: Losing teams are "killed," plays are "blown up," seasons are left "on life support." There's the history, from the caretaker at Knute Rockne's gravesite to Jim Harbaugh crushing of a buckeye on Bo Schembechler's grave before Michigan's showdown with Ohio State. There are the real monuments, like the mascots entombed at Georgia and Texas A&M, and the ironic euphemisms, like former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart's quip that Georgia's all-black uniforms, worn for a 2008 game against the Crimson Tide, were in preparation for a funeral. Smart, of course, is now Georgia's head coach.

Even before the grave markers were planted outside Clemson's practice facility, death loomed over the program. There's a cemetery up the hillside next to Memorial Stadium, and before the upper deck was added, the graveyard offered a pristine view of the field. It was enough to earn the Tigers' home the nickname "Death Valley."

But these gravestones -- the ones that earned the Sooners' ire -- are about something else. They're about remembrances.

That's actually how this tradition got started.

There's a piece of Death Valley now buried in Tallahassee, Florida. It was dug up after Florida State upended Clemson in the famed "Puntrooskie" game at Memorial Stadium in 1988 and buried in FSU's famed Sod Cemetery alongside grass and turf from every other "sod game" the Seminoles have played since 1962.

The idea came from a former dean at Florida State's school of social work, Coyle Moore, who urged players to bring back some sod from Sanford Stadium following a Seminoles win over Georgia. The tradition blossomed from there. Each time Florida State won on the road as an underdog, earned a victory at rival Florida's home field or secured an ACC championship or bowl victory, more sod was added. There are currently 101 markers that players walk past each day on their way to the practice fields.

"It's a celebration of Florida State's football team going on the road, against the crowd, against the odds, when people didn't think you had a chance," said Doug Mannheimer, a Tallahassee lawyer who took over as "the keeper of the sod cemetery" when Moore died in 1989. "It's a celebration of the most difficult parts of athletics."

The celebration isn't meant to offend the defeated, Mannheimer notes. Typically just a small piece of sod or a few blades of grass are gathered in a plastic bag, which Mannheimer collects the following Monday from the football manager, and when the monuments -- flat stones manufactured by a company in West Virginia -- finally arrive, they're buried without ceremony.

There are exceptions, of course. After FSU beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl in 1988, Odell Haggins carved out a piece of turf measuring more than one square foot.

"They didn't like the too much," Mannheimer said. "We got a $600 bill that seemed like a lot, but we probably deserved it, and we gladly paid it."

But it was that other sod game from 1988, Florida State's miraculous win over Clemson, which set the tone for the Tigers' graveyard.

"That was a devastating loss," said Robert Ricketts, Clemson's former associate athletics director for facilities. "And turning around to go to Florida State the next year, the coaches were looking for incentive. And the first permanent headstone is the [1989] Florida State game."

After that, each road win over a ranked foe is marked with a granite headstone in the small patch of dirt just outside the entrance to Clemson's practice facility. Originally the stones were purchased by the school from a manufacturer in Easley, South Carolina, but after a few years, a local Clemson fan -- Van Kornegay, owner of Kornegay Funeral Home -- offered to donate the markers. The placement, Ricketts said, is purposeful.

"It says, this is for the guys who pay the price and sacrifice on those fields to play the game," Ricketts said. "Placing it as they go to and from practice each day, it provides incentive and pride and creates a legacy for you and your team to pass on to the next group."

That's exactly how Eric Mac Lain views it, too.

When he arrived at Clemson in 2011, he didn't know much of the history of the gravestones, but when the Tigers upended Virginia Tech on the road that season, the impact began to sink in. Since then, the Tigers have added five more headstones.

"It's probably more popular now than it was when I got here," Mac Lain said. "It's awesome to just leave your legacy."

The celebrations are earned on the days the sod games are won, Mannheimer said about Florida State's cemetery, but fans still return before each Seminoles home game to remember. FSU has a program where stars from each game come back to campus to talk about the win with fans who still recall fondly the plays that took place on the field that's now buried amid the Tallahassee dirt. Stars like Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn have been popular speakers, while Ron Simmons -- the Seminoles great-turned-pro wrestler -- enjoyed a dramatic entrance before recounting his nine sod games.

Players fought -- not in the way often described with awkward war analogies, but still shedding real blood and sweat and tears. The gravestones mark that sacrifice and the fans come to pay tribute. Or, as Ricketts notes, it's a place for those players to bring their families years later to remember their on-field accomplishments. In that sense, the cemetery analogy seems apt.

"You literally etch in stone what occurred that day, and it's long-lasting," Ricketts said. "It has impact for many years to come."

Clemson's burials are a bit more formal, though they feature none of the typical somber tones of a funeral.

This year, Dabo Swinney and a handful of his seniors marched into the small patch of land and surrounded two new markers, draped, like funeral bunting, with orange Clemson T-shirts. Swinney -- a coach who's invested heavily in tradition at Clemson -- welcomed the crowd for what was now an annual affair.

"This goes way back at Clemson," Swinney said. "It's really difficult to go on the road and beat a top-ranked opponent, and I'm proud of these guys, who've been a part of several of these."

Before whipping off the shirts, Swinney paused for another moment. One of the shirts was emblazoned with a logo commemorating a Clemson fan who'd died in a car accident. Then Swinney mentioned his father, who died just before the start of the 2015 season.

Even here, in a moment of celebration of wins, it was hard not to think of the losses amid the gravestones. This is, after all, a place to remember.