CLEMSON — ABOUT A DECADE ago, Buddy Pough and his South Carolina State football program began begging for a game against an FBS program. Finally, in 2007, Air Force granted S.C. State’s wish and agreed to play the Bulldogs.
Since then, S.C. State has played at least one game a season against a big-name opponent, always taking on the likes of Central Florida, Arizona, Indiana and Texas A&M on the road. They are called payday games, whereby the lower-division program collects a nice check — sometimes as much as $600,000 — to lose a game and generally be intimidated by the opponent and it surroundings.
“Now, we should be used to these games,” Pough told his team Friday night at the Marriott Hotel in Greenville on the eve of S.C. State’s game at Clemson. “Walking around and looking around at the stadium and fans isn’t going to get it anymore. We’re past that stage.”
S.C. State certainly was not intimidated by playing the nation’s fourth-ranked team in front of 81,428 fans at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The Bulldogs just could not match the talent of Clemson, which coasted to a 52-13 victory.
“I saw something in us today that I think we can work with. ... I want to thank you for giving it your all,” Pough said to his troops in the S.C. State locker room afterward. “The one thing I can tell every living soul in here is that I don’t think I saw a person on that football field who didn’t give it their all. To be honest with you, that’s all I can expect out of you.”
A BUDDY TO ALL
Early in the week, the S.C. State coaching staff and team had a difficult time turning the page on the previous week’s heart-breaking 27-20 home loss to Coastal Carolina. The Bulldogs were driving for what appeared to be a game-clinching field goal. Instead, Coastal Carolina blocked the attempt and returned it for a touchdown and S.C. State never recovered.
Pough figured the team hung its collective head through Sunday, Monday and even into Tuesday. By Wednesday, its attention had fully turned to the monumental task ahead, the visit to Clemson.
Following excellent practices on Wednesday and Thursday, the team convened for the trip to Clemson at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the Washington Dining Hall on the school’s Orangeburg campus. Pough addressed the team, noting at the outset that freshmen and junior-college transfers were making their first foray on the road.
Pough said it was important for everyone, particularly the newcomers, to pay attention to details. He singled out a player seated in the rear of the room who, obviously, was not paying attention to enough details because he was wearing a white S.C. State golf shirt, the only one among the 70 not donning the required gray Bulldogs T-shirt.
Pough also said it was important to be prompt. In fact, he suggested that all players should arrive 10 minutes early for every event listed on the weekend itinerary that each possessed. Sure enough, later in the day the three team buses pulled out of the Marriott Hotel parking lot in Greenville for the cross-town trek for dinner at 5:19 p.m., one minute before the listed departure time. No one missed the bus.
Pough is in his 12th season as coach at his alma mater, a spectacular run that has elevated S.C. State to the premier program in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. With 88 wins at age 60, Pugh is likely to overtake legendary coach Willie Jeffries (128 wins) for the most in S.C. State history.
Pough’s teams own an 88-40 record, including 68-19 in the MEAC, where the Bulldogs won or shared championships in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010. He is, perhaps, the most respected coach in the conference, and it is equally as easy to see why he is revered by his players and coaching staff.
“Your team takes on the personality of the head coach,” said Steve Bird, the first-year wide receivers and special teams coach who joined the staff after spending the previous three seasons on Skip Holtz’ staff at South Florida.
“When you watch him walk around,” Bird said of Pough, “everybody knows he’s in charge. The players aren’t nervous around him. They’re like him, relaxed and confident.”
Besides flashing a broad smile that lights up his round face, Pough has a way of disarming folks with a terrific sense of humor and a manner about him that makes everyone believe he is just one of the guys. The entire room laughed uproariously late Friday when Pugh inadvertently cursed while introducing a chaplain.
That is Buddy, living up to his name. He seldom, if ever, puts himself above or ahead of anyone else. He greeted every person in the school cafeteria, from students to the ticket puncher to the staff manager, as if he was meeting a long-lost friend. You can be certain that every player and coach took note when Pough grabbed a bucket and wet rag during brunch and began wiping down the salad bar.
He was the last person to leave the cafeteria, making a final check to see that the tables and chairs were in order and that the room “was just as it was when we got here.” At brunch, and later at dinner, Pough organized the procession to food bars, calling out each group by class with “5s” or fifth-year players going first, followed by “4s”, etc. He was the last person to eat both meals. He led the blessing before every meal all weekend.
While Pough might be hands-on with much of the operation of his team, he is comfortable in turning the bulk of the on-field coaching duties over to his 11 assistants, a capable group that is fiercely loyal to its head coach.
The assistants also are dedicated to their respective units, to the team, the program and the game of football. How else to explain that defensive coordinator Mike Adams, in his eighth season at S.C. State, spends five nights a week sleeping on a pullout couch with an air mattress in his office. He said he cannot afford to give up the one-hour drive each way to his Columbia home.
How else to explain that assistant coaches Bird, Joe Blackwell and Chris Cook share an off-campus apartment in Orangeburg during the season. Cook is single. Bird’s wife and family live in Tampa, Fla., and Blackwell and his family live in Myrtle Beach.
“You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love what you do,” Adams said.
Most of the coaches stay in shape by running the steps each weekday at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium. They also generally watch carefully what they eat, usually sitting off to the side to consume salads and pasta while marveling at the amounts of food their players devour.
Domanic Wilson, a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman from Lake City, easily lived up to his reputation Friday as the biggest of the squad’s big eaters. He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs a well packed-on 300 pounds, so he has a lot of body to nourish.
To fully appreciate Wilson’s appetite, his food consumption must appear in list form. For brunch in the school cafeteria:
White cake with icing
That meal was consumed at 11 a.m. Eight hours later, at the Greenville Golden Corral, he ate:
Four, six-ounce steaks
Two pieces of fried chicken
Twelve jumbo shrimp
Three yeast rolls
Two pieces of fried catfish
Macaroni and cheese
Two helpings of corn
Multiple pieces of bourbon chicken
Peach cobbler with whipped cream garnished with gummy bears
For a late-night snack at 9:30, Wilson split a large sausage pizza with his roommate, redshirt freshman Javarius Leamon.
WATCH THE SPENDING
S.C. State deviated from its normal Friday night meal on the road. The club usually dines at the hotel where it is lodging. On this night, the players boarded the three buses and headed on a 30-minute ride across Greenville to the Golden Corral.
The change was made for economic reasons. The Marriott asked $50 per plate to serve the team. S.C. State was happy to accept the Golden Corral’s Friday night buffet special offer of $13 a head. You do the math. Instead of paying $4,500, S.C. State doled out approximately $1,300 for the one big meal of the weekend.
“The kids loved it,” Pough said afterward, “although they probably ate some things they shouldn’t have.”
Gerald Harrison is the team’s defensive line coach, but his greater charge as football operations director is making certain that a road trip has no bumps in the road. Buses must be on time. Meals must be ready to serve on time. Hotel accommodations must meet the head coach’s satisfaction.
Harrison, in his 10th season at S.C. State, also must take every measure to ensure S.C. State’s game — or games — each season against FBS programs such as Clemson garner a maximum profit.
A season ago, S.C. State deposited close to $1 million in its athletics department bank account by playing back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Arizona. For FCS schools, playing such games go a long way toward funding the entire athletics department. S.C. State, for instance, has a football operating budget of a little more than $2 million.
For Saturday’s game, Clemson paid S.C. State $250,000. The final profit margin can move because, as part of the deal, Clemson also gave S.C. State 3,000 tickets. With a face value of $35 per ticket, S.C. State increased its profits for each ticket sold and could have realized an additional $100,000.
‘KEEP YOUR WITS’
Even though all parties concerned understand these games are played for the money, S.C. State prepared all week as if it deserved to be on the same field with Clemson. The Bulldogs, no doubt, were inspired by the fact that eight FCS programs defeated FBS programs during the season’s opening week.
Although there is no official betting line for games between the two levels of college football, various ratings services listed the point differential between S.C. State and Clemson as somewhere between 52 and 56.
That point difference was not lost on Pough, and he addressed the issue while talking to the squad, first as he sat on the stage at the Fine Arts Center on campus Friday afternoon, then in the Mariott’s Champagne Room that night. Both times, he prefaced his comments by saying he was not going to “pull the wool over your eyes” or “jack you up” into thinking the two teams were on the same talent level. Still, 50-plus points?
“Look, both you and I know there is no reason in this world for that to possibly be,” Pough said of the point difference during the afternoon team meeting. “You’ve got a chance to participate in the largest crowd in a non-conference game in this state. ... Can you imagine the opportunity to play for South Carolina State in front of 86,000 people?
“We’re going into a situation where the most important thing is keeping your wits about you, keeping your poise.”
Then, that night in what has become the traditional pregame pep talk for most college football coaches, he continued to attack the psyche of his team.
“You go out and stay within yourself,” he said. “You go out and never lose your cool. You go out and play the way you know how to play, and you will be shocked. Amazed. This team is going to be pretty darned good. I’m looking forward to watching you work (Saturday).”
Pough had left most of the technical aspects of preparing his team to his assistants. At the Friday afternoon walk-through at the stadium in Orangeburg, the offense went play-by-play through the first 15 scripted calls. The defense was quizzed constantly on how to adjust to various Clemson formations.
In three games studied on videotape by Adams, the defensive coordinator, he found that Clemson used 84 different formations. He expected to see another 13 new ones on Saturday. Adams said any other opponent might show 30 different formations over a three-game stretch.
Because of that, Adams scheduled an extra walk-through session Friday night at the hotel, to supplement the third one Saturday morning in the same ballroom. Adams and every assistant coach also distributed a written quiz to his respective unit. Those tests were graded late Friday to make certain every player knew his assignments.
Another big concern for S.C. State was Clemson’s rapid pace on offense. The Tigers do not huddle and aim to run 100 plays every game. It creates a nightmare for opposing defenses who cannot substitute and have a difficult time signaling plays from the sideline.
“We may be in two-minute defense for three straight hours,” Adams said to his unit. Two-minute defenses normally are employed only when an opponent’s offense uses the same hurry-up strategy at the end of a half or game.
Pough reminded the team it had worked through 156-snap scrimmages in the preseason, so fatigue should not be a concern with 100 plays by Clemson. The Bulldogs never looked particularly fatigued, but they were no match for the overall talent of a bigger, faster and stronger Clemson.
The mismatch first showed moments before kickoff when S.C. State entered the Memorial Stadium field through a tunnel formed by 11 cheerleaders and a mascot. Players rubbed the head of “Spike,” a small concrete bulldog that traditionally travels with the team. At the other end of the field, Clemson rubbed Howard’s Rock, then bolted down the hill through students, the band waiting on the field and a hundred or so cheerleaders and dance team members carrying a flag roughly the size of what seemed like a city square block.
It might not have seemed like it to anyone who saw the final score, but there were S.C. State highlights, even in a first half that saw Clemson build a 38-7 lead, a comfortable enough margin for the Tigers to bench all their starters for the second half.
By halftime, S.C. State had produced a fourth-down stop of Clemson 13 yards from the end zone, a 63-yard touchdown pass from Richard Cue to Tyler McDonald, and 10 tackles by defensive back Kimario McFadden, who finished with another five.
Immediately after Clemson had registered the 39-point victory, Pough met and shook hands with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney at midfield. Then he listened as the S.C. State band struck up the alma mater in the stadium’s west end zone.
A few minutes later, as he waited for the team to meander into the locker room, Pough joked to those standing around him that “At least I don’t have to jump off the press box.”
The night before Pough had promised his club of those consequences if it did not cover the 50-plus point spread. Even in the worst of circumstances, Pough’s comments drew smiles from those standing around him.