Clemson fans cut a rug with 'GameDay'

A raucous crowd welcomes ESPN, and Digger Phelps' antics, to campus

bgillespie@thestate.comJanuary 24, 2010 

Duke Clemson Basketball

ESPN's Dick Vitale poses with the Clemson Cheerleaders before the start of the NCAA college basketball game between Duke and Clemson Saturday, Jan. 23, 2010, at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

MARY ANN CHASTAIN/AP

CLEMSON - ESPN's "College GameDay" checklist Saturday morning at Littlejohn Coliseum:

Loud, raucous crowd of about 4,000, decked out in all manner of orange: check.

Clever signs held aloft for the cameras (best: a cartoonish Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski clad in his underwear with the caption, "Even Coach K wears Trevor Booker 'Tighty Whities' "): check.

Football star and recent graduate C.J. Spiller attempting a half-court shot (and hitting the right side of the rim; "didn't put enough on it," he said): check.

ESPN analyst/icon Digger Phelps showing off his fancy footwork, paired with a blonde co-ed: check and check.

Saturday's ACC showdown between the Tigers and the Blue Devils was more than 12 hours away when the first 300-400 "Littlejohn Loonies" arrived around 8:30 a.m. They came to be a part of the first visit by the feisty little brother of "College Football GameDay", to yell, to scream and to make a little arena history.

And - yes - to see Digger dance.

"It's crazy out there," Tigers guard Demontez Stitt said, watching from the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. "I've been here since 9 rehabbing (his left ankle), and this is about as loud as I've heard Littlejohn. They're saying it's as loud as they've heard GameDay get."

He grinned. "Crazy," he repeated.

By the time the show went live at 11 a.m., fans were in midgame form. Who needs Krzyzewski when you've got Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Jay Bilas and, of course, the nattily-attired former Notre Dame coach?

"We came in to warm up, and it was the best," Phelps said of his rock-star welcome. "They put their energy into it; sometimes (the on-air personalities) can't hear each other. It's great for Clemson."

And, he said, well-earned. Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, his team 15-4 and ranked 17th, said the show's presence is a sign his program and its fans have arrived.

"Unbelievable," Purnell said, after his own arrival 45 minutes into the hour-long show produced the most ear-piercing roar of the day. "It was very hard to hear, but that was great.

"I told the (ESPN) guys I hoped they were having fun, because I was having fun watching our people get involved and being a part of it. This has become one of the toughest home courts in the country, with some of the best fans, and it's good to see them get this kind of exposure."

More than his own cameo, Purnell relished what GameDay can mean for his up-and-coming team. "Only eight (NCAA) teams in the country get this kind of exposure this year, and you're always looking to expose your program as many ways as you can," he said.

"Recruiting ... fund-raising ... academics ... all those things are helped by this kind of exposure."

The same, alas, couldn't be said of Phelps' ballroom skills. "My optometrist tells me I'm in danger of permanent retinal damage if I look at it too often," Rece Davis said.

"I didn't see it," Purnell said, grinning, "but I heard the reviews. Bilas' exact word, I think, was 'creepy.' "

But then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or sometimes the artist. Phelps and his dance partner, Clemson "Rally Cats" member Mallory Mitchell, warmed up for an hour prior to unveiling their duet, which was accompanied by Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away."

"I wasn't nervous until my friends talked about being on TV and YouTube," the Greenville senior said. "But Digger likes to cut a rug; he busted out some spontaneous moves. You couldn't help but laugh."

Phelps had planned their spotlight moment since ESPN selected the Clemson-Duke rematch. He contacted Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret, a 1978 Notre Dame graduate, telling him to find Digger a partner.

"(Bourret) knows I like to make big basketball moments happen," Phelps said.

Digger's dancing career dates back two years, when his spontaneous hoofing with a Kansas cheerleader to a Bon Jovi tune earned him a SportsCenter moment.

"Next thing you know, it's on YouTube," Phelps said. "By (that) Monday, it had 22,000 hits," a number that has since grown to 170,000. Repeat performances at California and West Virginia also have found Internet fame.

Now, Rece Davis said, Phelps basks in his newfound audience. "Digger didn't know what YouTube is until Kansas. Now he's always asking research, 'How many hits?' "

Don't tell Phelps he can't dance, though. Anyway, it doesn't matter; he said he's not bucking for a different network's primetime show.

"It's just another gimmick," he said. "You can have 'Dancing with the Stars,' or 'Dancing with Digger.' "

By noon Saturday, Clemson fans had voted with their cheers. For the 9 p.m. game, "It will be the loudest it's ever been in Littlejohn," Purnell predicted.

Even louder than for Digger's dance.

Reach Senior Writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

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