Auburn sports publicity director Bill Beckwith wrote about his employer’s rivalry with Clemson in the 1951 game program.
“You remember the first football game you ever saw Clemson and Auburn play and the first time you ever walked across the campus,” Beckwith wrote. “Everything’s bigger and everything’s changed but there’s nothing greater than this reunion.”
Current Auburn fans would echo Beckwith’s sentiment when talking about Alabama. Others might put Georgia and the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in those same terms, but Clemson probably wouldn’t even make a list of Auburn’s top 10 rivals.
When the two teams clash Saturday in the season-opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium, it will be the 50th meeting between the programs, which share a surprising amount of history going back more than 100 years.
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The connections between Auburn and Clemson go back to the inception of Clemson’s football program.
Professor W.M. Riggs, an Auburn graduate, helped organize Clemson football as the team’s first coach in 1896 and later became college president. Riggs' connection to his alma mater is how the two programs ended up with the same nickname and similar color scheme.
“I’ve heard three of four theories on how Clemson got its nickname and the one I always go with is the first football team wanted to honor coach Riggs,” longtime member of Clemson’s athletic communications office Sam Blackman said in a phone interview this week. “They wanted to pay tribute to the Auburn grad.”
The ties between the programs continued through the turn of the 20th century with Clemson’s first four coaches all having ties with three of them (Riggs, William Williams and John Penton) graduating from the school.
The fourth was former Auburn coach John W. Heisman, who helped establish Clemson as a national contender.
In doing research for the book Blackman co-authored “Clemson, Where the Tigers Play,” the Clemson alum came across the story of how Riggs originally tracked Heisman down when the administrator was trying to find the coach for Auburn.
“He was raising tomatoes,” Blackman said. “He wrote about it in a letter, how Riggs asked him to coach at Auburn and he just said, “well, I’m not making any money doing this.”
Clemson and Auburn ended up playing annually from 1902 through 1929 with few exceptions.
The series restarted after World War II with the teams playing every year from 1946 to 1955. The two programs remained mainstays on each other schedules all the way through 1971.
The similarities between Auburn and Clemson extend to the campuses themselves. Famed Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard described Clemson as “Auburn with a lake,” a description that makes sense when you compare the universities’ signature buildings.
Clemson’s Tillman Hall and Auburn’s Samford Hall — built five years apart by the same architecture firm — look identical.
Clemson viewed Auburn as one of its most important rivals when the schools restarted their football series coming out of World War II.
The game was circled on the calendar for the Frank Howard led program as it often was a make or break game on the schedule.
“For quite some time it really determined the fate of the teams,” Brent Breedin said.
Breedin covered Clemson for the Anderson Daily Mail in the early 50’s before taking a job as the program’s Sports Information Director.
“It’s funny because Frank Howard took over (in 1940) and always put Auburn on the schedule for late in the season, but they had a habit of screwing up his season,” Breedin said.
It didn’t start out that way for Howard.
The former reporter, who keeps detailed notes on the history of the program, covered Clemson’s most successful stretch against Auburn, going 5-0-1 from 1946 to 1951.
Clemson’s wins over Auburn in 1948 and 1950 preserved undefeated seasons. Clemson’s 41-0 win on the Plains in 1950 was one of the more memorable games Breedin covered.
“It was cold, cold, cold,” Breedin said laughing. “It was freakish.”
The Nov. 25 date in 1950 remains the coldest recorded temperature in Alabama for the month to this day, but Howard couldn’t let his team focus on the weather with the game set to decide his team’s postseason fate.
“They were undefeated, but the only way they were going to make the Orange Bowl is if they scored 40 points,” Breedin said. “There were only four or five bowl games at the time. It wasn’t like it was today.”
The coach sent out his assistant coaches to buy long johns for the whole team the morning before the game.
It’s the last time a Clemson team came into Auburn and won. A win for Clemson at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday would end the 66-year drought.
Any rivalry between Auburn and Clemson had all but vanished by the time former Auburn safety Johnny Simmons played in the early 70’s.
The member of The Amazins started two games against Clemson and was on the bench as a freshman for a third.
“I don’t want to slight them, but it was just another game for us,” Simmons said. “Georgia Tech was even a bigger rival for us back than.”
Simmons felt the same way before he even put on an Auburn uniform as a fan.
“There were very few games my dad and I missed,” Simmons said. “Clemson was that second tier type of game. I’m not trying to belittle anyone, but back in those days they weren’t as good.”
One of Blackmon’s first memories of Clemson’s football team is the 44-0 loss in 1970.
“Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley just tore us apart,” Blackman said. “We were sitting right next to Auburn’s band. I was seven years old and it was the loudest thing I ever heard. I didn’t understand why they kept playing and my dad had to tell me it was because we couldn’t stop them from scoring.”
When Simmons’ 1971 team beat Clemson, it was Auburn’s 11th win in a row in the series. The streak lasted another four decades until Clemson beat Auburn in 2011.
“Auburn was always one of the top two teams we played, but I’m not sure they ever took us a real threat,” Breedin said. “In the 60’s it kind of went back to the way it was in early years of the rivalry (1902-1926) when Auburn won just about every game. You just don’t play a team you are able to beat up on all the time.”
Auburn’s own sports historian has a similar view.
“I can’t say it was a great rivalry in the 60’s and 70’s,” former Auburn athletic director David Housel said, echoing Simmons comments. “When they came to town, we were expected to beat them.”
The Auburn alum spent most of his adult life working for the university in some capacity, starting out in the athletic department’s ticket offense. He nearly spent a decade as a professor on the Plains before transitioning back into the athletic department where he was named the school’s 13th athletic director in 1994.
Housel tried to bring the programs back together in his role as athletic director, but wasn’t able to make it work.
“I always thought Clemson could be a natural rival for us,” Housel said. “We talked to them and another SEC team about doing a series with Clemson and Georgia Tech, alternating years against each team. We get never got it off the ground.”
Housel sees the current home and home series between the schools as a new chapter in the storied history. The teams have played memorable recent games from the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl to Auburn’s 27-24 overtime win over Clemson in 2010 on the way to a national championship.
When the teams play at Memorial Stadium in South Carolina next September, Clemson could have a three-game win streak over Auburn.
“I think it has the chance to be a great rivalry,” Housel said. “I think Dabo Swinney has really spiced things up.”