Members of '91 Tigers team see parallels
12/05/2009 12:00 AM
03/14/2015 11:56 AM
TAMPA, Fla. - While visiting his father in Columbus, Ga., last month, Brentson Buckner dusted off the memorabilia box.
As a senior defensive tackle on Clemson's 1991 ACC title team, Buckner saved a program from every home game, correctly presuming many of the players featured on the cover would have esteemed NFL careers (himself included).
He also took home his helmet from that year and was allowed to keep his purple jersey, as the Tigers had worn purple that year for the first time since the 1940s.
"That was my one crowning glory," Buckner said.
Buckner is among those sharing the disbelief that it has been 18 years since Clemson's last crowning glory.
The 25th-ranked Tigers (8-4) take on No. 12 Georgia Tech (10-2) in tonight's ACC championship in Tampa, Fla., with the winner earning a BCS berth in the Jan. 5 Orange Bowl in Miami.
Six of the league's other 11 teams have raised the trophy since 1991, a drought exacerbated by the fact Clemson treats football with the reverence most of the league schools reserve for basketball.
Which makes the memories of the Tigers' last conference title all the more salient - both for how it was viewed at the time, and the impact a championship this year would have.
"I just wish we would have enjoyed it a little more than we did," said Levon Kirkland, the star senior linebacker on the team and the university's director of minority recruiting the past five years.
That year was coach Ken Hatfield's second season, and despite going 10-2 in his inaugural campaign, Hatfield still was not Danny Ford, who was forced out after the 1989 season by administration.
In the third game of 1991, Clemson clipped defending co-national champion Georgia Tech 9-7 when Yellow Jackets kicker Scott Sisson missed a game-winning 44-yard field goal with 8 seconds left.
The good vibes were short-lived; the Tigers got beat soundly at Georgia the next week, then had to rally to tie a Virginia team that had snapped its 29-game losing streak to Clemson the season before.
"That was our Maryland game," Buckner said, referring to the 24-21 defeat to the Terps this season that spawned Clemson's six-game win streak.
Likewise, the '91 Tigers rattled off six consecutive triumphs, starting with a purple-clad 29-19 win at unbeaten No. 10 N.C. State, which entered with the nation's top-ranked scoring defense.
Three games later, Clemson clinched the ACC title by walloping Maryland 40-7, even though regular season contests remained against USC and Duke (in Tokyo).
Kirkland remembers giving Hatfield a Gatorade bath, but that was about it in terms of revelry. The Tigers had won the title in 1986, '87 and '88, so the moment marked more of a return to the level people felt the program belonged.
"We just kind of knew we were going to win it," Kirkland said. "We had been champions so many times the previous few years, there was just a confidence we were going to take it."
But Clemson's dry spell began as Florida State joined the league in 1992. Hatfield was fired after 1993, and Tommy Bowden replaced Tommy West after the Tigers spiraled down to eighth place in 1998.
Buckner believes Bowden managed to return Clemson's recruiting to a caliber comparable to its heyday, but only with Dabo Swinney's promotion did he start seeing signs of the mental and physical toughness of its past champions.
Of course, Buckner qualified, the '91 squad did not have anyone with the offensive flair of C.J. Spiller, instead relying on a conservative running game.
"If our offense scored 24, we celebrated like we'd scored 50," Buckner said. "But we went out on the field with all intents and purposes of intimidating you. You didn't want to look us in the eyes, and I think you've started to see that come back a little bit under (coordinator) Kevin Steele.
"Winning this championship would go a long way in getting this program back where it deserves to be."
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