Howard’s Rock at Clemson is at the top of the pile in college lore

Special to The StateJune 13, 2013 

— Johnson Link hopes that owning a fist-sized piece of Howard’s Rock won’t be enough.

After all, what would be the value of vandalizing one of the most iconic symbols in college football if you can’t tell someone?

“I’m the eternal optimist,” Link, chief of Clemson University police, said Thursday. “Chances are good that they’ll tell somebody and that person will tell us or tell somebody else who will.”

At the moment there are no suspects, he said, and Clemson officials are careful not to characterize the culprit guilty of an act similar in malicious intent to the poisoning of Toomer’s Oaks in Auburn, Ala., by an Alabama fan.

Longtime sports information director Tim Bourret said this is the second time the rock has been assaulted, the first in 1992 before the South Carolina game. Since then, members of the Clemson ROTC guard it round the clock during the week preceding the annual state rivalry.

“We believe it was planned,” Link said. While there are cameras in the stadium, he said, none are aimed at the rock. “It’s frustrating that someone would go to this extreme,” he said.

A protective shield was pried from the stand on which the rock rests just inside a Memorial Stadium gate atop the hill in the east end of the stadium and tossed aside. According to an incident report, a partial print was taken from the pedestal, but fingerprints might be worthless given the 46-year-old pre-game tradition of rubbing the rock before home games.

The tradition remains intact, Bourret said, though the rock may be roughly 15 percent smaller.

“We’re not going to stop rubbing the rock,” he said. “It’s not like they took the whole rock.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it is “very disappointing that someone would disrespect our unique tradition to this extent.

“I know our coaches and players look forward to rubbing Howard’s Rock, running down the hill, and furthering one of the great traditions of college football when we open the season against Georgia on August 31.”

Traditions typically have interesting back stories, and Howard’s Rock bears retelling.

Longtime coach and athletic director Frank Howard was given the rock in the 1960s by friend Samuel Columbus Jones, who retrieved it during a trip to Death Valley, Calif. Howard used it as a door stop in his office, and it eventually landed in a closet collecting dust.

Legend says Howard decided to discard it while purging his office in September 1966, handing it to IPTAY executive director Gene Willimon with the directive to, “take this rock and throw it over the fence or out in the ditch... do something with it, but get it out of my office.”

Instead, Willimon had the rock placed on a pedestal atop the hill where it was generally ignored until the next season when Howard told his team before a game that touching it would unleash mystical power, hence the tradition of rubbing it before running down the hill.

Link said the suspect who vandalized the rock might face several charges. The report described it as “petit larceny” and “malicious injury to state property.” Link said he might add trespassing, larceny and malicious entry.

“The stadium is supposed to be secured and locked,” he said “Either they went through a gate that wasn’t locked or climbed a fence.”

Bourret said Clemson intends to find more secure measures for protecting the rock.

While there have been other rocks offered to the football team including another from the California desert that was used briefly as a “road rock,” a replica was chosen by the College Football Hall of Fame for its new home in Atlanta.

A display planned for the museum will feature a tunnel to a mock field. Three iconic symbols were chosen to be displayed: the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign from the Notre Dame locker room, the Michigan “Go Blue” banner and Howard’s Rock.

“That,” Bourret said, “is where Howard’s Rock is in that type of lore.”

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