There are memorable, historic bowl games that Clemson has been a part of throughout their football history: the 1978 Gator Bowl win over Woody Hayes’ Ohio State team. The 1981 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska to secure the school’s only national championship. Back-to-back Citrus Bowl wins in 1987 and 1988 against Penn State and Oklahoma.
For some players, these games forever define their legacy and place in Clemson success, but there is one bowl game that has become an afterthought in the history of Tiger athletics.
Danny Ford was forced to resign following NCAA recruiting violations in 1990 and Ken Hatfield was selected to be his replacement. Hatfield was not welcomed by the Clemson family as players threatened to boycott the 1990 season, fans protested on president Max Lennon‘s lawn, while season ticket sales and IPTAY membership dropped at a historic rate.
This was undoubtedly this darkest place that the fans had ever gone to. Despite accumulating a 32-13-1 record as the Tigers’ head coach, Hatfield was not given a contract extension for the second straight season, which infuriated the coach. Never feeling accepted, Hatfield took the opportunity to walk away from the program four days after defeating South Carolina at the end of the 1993 regular season.
Clemson had finished with an 8-3 record, but were without a head coach for the bowl game. Fans never took to Hatfield because he was anything but Danny Ford in terms of style and personality, so the administration decided to make a hire that would bring back the spirit of coach Ford.
Tommy West was a linebackers coach at Clemson under Ford from 1982-1989. Fans immediately rejoiced when the announcement was made that West would become the new head coach of Clemson. After all, few men were as keen as West when it comes to Tigers football lore.
In an unprecedented move, West decided to coach the Tigers in the 1993 Peach Bowl against Kentucky. A new-found confidence was felt by the Tigers faithful with the hiring of a Ford disciple. Fan support instantly returned to the program and the Peach Bowl was seen as the first stop on the road back to the glory days.
However, the game did not go according to plan for the first three quarters. Clemson was down 13-7 before they started their final drive and had only totaled 170 yards, 98 of them coming on the opening possession of the game. With about three minutes remaining, quarterback Patrick Sapp found Emory Smith, the younger brother of Emmitt Smith, on a screen pass that covered 57 yards.
The first down play set off a frenzied celebration in the Clemson section of the Georgia Dome. A Tigers touchdown was sure to follow and a Peach Bowl trophy would almost certainly be making the trip two hours north on I-85, but then the emotional roller coaster took off.
With under a minute left, Sapp was intercepted by Kentucky’s Marty Moore, who started to run for pay dirt instead of just falling down and preserving the win. Luckily for Clemson, lineman Stacy Seegars made the ultimate hustle play as he tracked down Moore and jarred the ball loose, allowing Clemson’s Brent Lejeune to fall on it for the recovery.
Clemson had one more chance, and they cashed in. With 20 seconds remaining in the game, Sapp bought time in the collapsing pocket before he found Terry Smith on a drag-route for a 21-yard touchdown pass. The ensuing extra point split the uprights and the Tigers walked out of Atlanta with a 14-13 win.
Clemson finished 9-3 with a No. 23 ranking in the final AP poll, but much more was accomplished that night than just a win.
The Hatfield-years, for whatever reason, brought out a dark side in Clemson fans that had never been seen before, and have not been seen since as boycotts and protests became bigger than the games being played in Memorial Stadium. But, the 1993 Clemson Peach Bowl team and Tommy West were able transform the Clemson fan base back to the passionate and supportive group that they usually were.
The 1993 Peach Bowl symbolized the end of the ugly post-Ford years and the beginning of a new day in Clemson football history. On paper, it was not the biggest bowl win for Clemson, but as the cliched saying goes, “the game is not played on paper.” The 1993 Peach Bowl remains one of the biggest wins in school history because of the symbolism and transformation that it represents.
Travis Patterson, Writer for ACC Rantsports.com. Football Writers Association of America. Follow on Twitter @tpat20. https://twitter.com/tpat20