Ted Balk makes this point clear, he’s been a Clemson fan since birth. That it took a few years to get there was merely a formality.
Balk was a senior in the stands in 1977, the last time the Notre Dame football team and its famed golden helmets made the trip to face the Tigers. Tuesday afternoon he sits over lunch at the famed Esso Club, a bar small and dark in all the best ways that bills itself as “Clemson's oldest place to drink beer.”
Balk has seen more than a few game weeks in his near-four decades since graduation, and he’s seen the atmosphere around town building in a big way.
“The buzz is pretty excited this year,” Balk said, harkening back to the ‘77 matchup. “Here we are, God knows how many years later, it’ll be pretty exciting. I know Notre Dame always brings a big crowd. It’ll be a big day here.”
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Even though Saturday’s forecast calls for up to 6 inches of rain -- starting in the morning and running throughout the day across the Upstate -- Clemson officials say the show will go on.
“At this time, everything is scheduled as planned and we intend to continue on that path unless authorities advise us otherwise, in which case we'll inform our fans, guests and students immediately,” Clemson athletic department spokesman Joe Galbraith said in a statement issued Thursday.
Just getting in the gate will cost $126 through StubHub and the priciest ticket is listed at $1,450, even with the threat of rain. It’s the sort of week where Tigers coach Dabo Swinney found himself on the receiving end of a dissertation at the Smok'n Pig in Pendleton, S.C., assuring him the restaurant had not been rented out to Notre Dame fans.
Fighting Irish fans had already started trickling in by Tuesday, getting their bearings, and hotel rates are climbing higher than they were for the 2013 showdown with Florida State.
“You can feel it all around,” said Lacy Spearman Randles, a manager at Clemson apparel store Mr. Knickerbocker. “Our phone orders and mail orders have hyped up since Gameday said they were going to be here. And our gameday shirts, our Notre Dame gameday shirts are selling like crazy.”
The addition of College Gameday, ESPN’s three-hour outdoor pregame show, adds a whole extra dimension to the day. Gameday twice came to Death Valley in 2013 (Florida State and the much-hyped Georgia game) and Balk recalled it adding to the congestion.
ESPN GameDay trucks rolled onto campus Wednesday.
Fans waiting in line to fill out the crowd behind the Gameday set can start lining up as early as 5 a.m. on Saturday. ESPN SportsCenter airs from 7-9 a.m. and GameDay from 9 until noon, so with an 8 p.m. kickoff, that already-primed crowd will have a long time to tailgate and mill around town.
Cameron Farish, one of the owners of the Tiger Town Tavern in downtown Clemson, said he’s already been asked about where to park, and his advice was simple. If you don’t have a reserved space, get there early. Once a car finds a spot, it won’t move because there’s not much chance of finding another one. Every church or closed business should be charging for every spot it has, as crowds, the Clemson faithful and Notre Dame’s massive contingent overwhelm the small town.
Farish’s comparison: the Georgia game two years ago.
“There were so many people in town, cell phones quit working,” Farish said. “We just hope to have enough french fries and burgers left over to open up on Sunday.
“We’re shoehorning beer in every corner we can get it. I’m shoving kegs everywhere I can put a keg. If I run out of it Sunday afternoon, I don’t care so much. But I’ve got to have it to open up so I don’t look like a fool.”
He said businesses are bracing to such an extent he is sharing a refrigerated trailer and truck with competitors because he’s got the only lot where it could be parked. He’s already checked on getting extra trash and recycling pickup, and guessed things would ramp up Thursday.
That’s just build-up to the long grind across Saturday.
Balk remembered the buildup in 1977, when word got around Notre Dame was in line for the silent treatment. Fans made no noise in the stadium, feigning clapping motions all throughout pregame. The band marched out, trombones pumping silently in a mock rendition of “Tiger Rag”.
“Then when the cannon went off and the team started running down the hill, it exploded,” Balk said. “It was the loudest thing that stadium had heard ever, and the roar did not stop until the game ended.”
Perhaps Saturday night, the Clemson faithful can wake up a few echoes of their own.
TIGERS vs. IRISH
Who: No. 12 Clemson (3-0) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Also: ESPN SportsCenter airs live at Clemson from 7 - 9 a.m. and GameDay from 9 a.m. til noon.