Tommy West’s Final Ride For Clemson Tigers In 1998
In less than two weeks, Clemson and South Carolina will meet for what will be the biggest game of the rivalry’s history. The two old foes have only met five times, when both teams have been ranked in the top 25, with the most recent coming in 2011 and 2012. The Battle for the Palmetto State is at an all-time fever pitch, with Dabo Swinney and Steve Spurrier inflaming the hatred even more. This is one of the most underrated rivalries in college football, despite being played more times than Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama. The two schools couldn’t be more different, with Clemson being tucked away in a small town and South Carolina residing in the middle of downtown Columbia. There are numerous moments from this annual game that will last forever with the fans and players.
This is a rivalry where respect does not make an appearance. The hatred between Clemson and South Carolina was on full display in 2004, when the game was called early due to a massive brawl that broke out between the two teams in Clemson Memorial Stadium. Even in down years, this rivalry has left the fans with images and iconic moments that will never be forgotten.
The 1998 Clemson-South Carolina game might have been the most emotional of all, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the records. During the week leading up to the game, Clemson head coach Tommy West was fired after a 2-8 season, but was granted one final game against the Gamecocks. South Carolina had controversy swirling around their program as well, as Brad Scott had coached his team to a 1-9 record entering the Clemson game. The 1998 finale was expected to be Scott’s last game as the Gamecocks head coach.
When the sun fell and the lights came on in Death Valley, the crowd was ready to send West off a winner. As the Tigers congregated in the east end zone, the Tigers’ faithful were screaming as if they were 10-0. Wearing the magical orange pants, Clemson took the field with raw emotion on display.
The air was quickly sucked out of the building, however, as South Carolina marched 80 yards on their opening possession and scored on a 4-yard Anthony Wright touchdown run. However, Clemson was able to reel off 21 unanswered points, with the first two touchdowns coming from Jevis Austin. Clemson held a 14-7 halftime lead with South Carolina receiving the ball after intermission.
After a few plays, the Tiger defense, who played inspired all night, showed even more life in the form of Howard Bartley. Bartley jumped in front of a Wright pass and intercepted the poorly thrown ball. But he was not done; after he gained control of the ball, he rumbled 47 yards for a touchdown and put his team up 21-7 early in the third quarter. Death Valley was rocking until South Carolina trimmed into the lead on a Steve Mixon 1-yard touchdown run, although the Gamecocks missed the extra point.
A nervous energy was sprinkled throughout the sea of orange whenever South Carolina made it a one possession game, especially since the Tigers had been victims of close losses all season. Then, an unheralded freshman got ahold of the ball. Travis Zachery‘s 26-yard touchdown reception put the Tigers up 28-13, and West’s team was able to hang on for the 28-19 win. An undistinguished head coaching career for West at Clemson, at least for a few minutes, was suddenly irrelevant. His wife and 10-year-old son made their way down to the field as the final minutes ticked away. When it was all said and done, West was hoisted up on his players’ shoulders and carried off the sideline where he had coached for 13 seasons.
There will always be unsatisfied fans who will not appreciate what West did for Clemson University, but it’s not all about wins and losses. West was instrumental in helping the Clemson fans move on from the Ford resignation and the sad years that followed. Tommy West was, and always will be, a Clemson man.
Never was that more apparent then when he took off his ball cap and saluted the Clemson faithful one last time.
Travis Patterson, Writer for ACC Rantsports.com. Football Writers Association of America. Follow on Twitter @tpat20.
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