Weezie Gibson of Lady’s Island will rub Howard’s Rock before little ole Clemson takes on mighty Ala-Damn-Bama for the national college football championship Monday night in Arizona.
It worked its magic against Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve, so the little keepsake memento her mother bought will stay out of storage one more time.
This way, Weezie can touch an almost sacred tradition in the small town of Clemson, where she grew up on campus in a house with an orange door and orange telephone. From there she could hear the college cows that helped produce Clemson’s famous ice cream and blue cheese.
The great tradition is when Tiger players touch the real Howard’s Rock at the top of the hill overlooking the football stadium they call Death Valley. It comes before a cannon blasts, orange balloons fly into the blue sky and the Tiger football team runs down onto the field to the roar of 80,000 fans and the band blaring “the song that shakes the Southland” – Tiger Rag.
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It’s been called the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.
But it would never have happened if not for Weezie’s daddy.
Gene Willimon was so honest, says his son-in-law Jim Gibson, “if he told you a rooster was dipping snuff, you could look under its wing for the can.”
Willimon was a 129-pound blocking back on a woeful Tiger team in the early 1930s. On the night they lost to The Citadel, everything changed.
A meeting held in the parking lot afterward led to Clemson’s famous IPTAY club. It stood for “I Pay Ten a Year” and it enabled the faithful to pool their Depression resources for athletic scholarships.
Over time, that meeting also would bring Weezie and her family to Clemson, where her father ran the IPTAY club from 1950 to 1977. He put in motion the system of districts and county clubs, stitching together a fan base as tight as the small town in the South Carolina foothills they’d all fallen in love with.
Weezie’s daddy visited every hamlet in South Carolina. He ate more barbecue and went to more funerals – and raised more money – than anyone in the Southland.
For transforming Clemson’s athletic fortunes into an entity that now rakes in $10 million a year, the university dedicated the signature 17th hole at its Walker golf course – the par-3 over Lake Hartwell that looks like a Tiger paw – to Gene and Louise Willimon.
But his real legacy is in an unwanted rock that almost got thrown away.
Frank Howard was the round, tobacco-chewing, blunt-talking face of Clemson University in his 29 years as head football coach, and legend.
“I had a lifetime contract,” he once said, “but the administration declared me dead.”
He was teased as the Bashful Baron of Barlow Bend, a small town in Alabama he said was “three wagon-greasin’s from Mobile.”
About a game like the one against Alabama, which the gamblers and pundits think is a shoo-in for the Tide, Howard would say, “I don’t want the best team to win. I want my team to win.”
One day he told his friend and colleague Gene Willimon to throw away an old chunk of stone an alumnus brought him from Death Valley, Calif.
Willimon knew better. He took the rock from a corner of Howard’s office. He studied Clemson carefully. And he placed the rock on a pedestal at the top of the hill where the players pour down onto the field named for Howard.
Clemson came from behind to beat Virginia on the rock’s first game. Howard realized its magic. He told his boys they could henceforth rub the rock if they promised to give 110 percent, and if not to keep their filthy hands off it.
It’s called Howard’s Rock.
Tonight Weezie and Jim Gibson will sit in front of the television and rub their little piece of the rock. It will be the most exciting 25 seconds that almost never happened.