Clemson had its eyes on Notre Dame since the 1960s

Tim Bourret
Special To The Tribune

Page 16 of the Notre Dame pregame media notes for this week lists the games the Irish have played and will play under the agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The contract began in 2014 and games are scheduled until 2037.

Clemson played Notre Dame just once in the first six years of the agreement, but the two schools will play three times between 2020 and 2023, this weekend and in 2022 at Notre Dame, and at Clemson in 2023. The teams also will play in 2027, 2031 and 2037 at Clemson, and 2028 and 2034 at Notre Dame. That 2031 game will open the season at Clemson on Labor Day night.

The contract with the ACC makes it easy for Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich when it comes to scheduling games with Notre Dame, but it was not so easy for the legend who held that position between 1940-69.

Frank Howard was the head coach and athletic director at Clemson from 1940-69 and stayed on as AD for two years after he retired from the sidelines. As athletic director and football coach, Howard controlled the football schedule.

Unlike a lot of coaches today, Howard had job security and preferred to schedule games against nationally prominent schools outside the ACC. For instance, in 1966, Clemson’s non-conference schedule included games against No. 9 Georgia Tech, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Southern California, all on the road. The Tigers lost all three, but were competitive and when it came to playing games in the ACC, the Tigers thrived. Clemson finished 6-4 that year, but won the conference with a 6-1 league mark.

The other motivation for Howard in playing these games was the budget, which was important in his role as athletic director. He was able to get a good guarantee from Georgia Tech, Alabama and Southern California that year.

While Howard was successful in getting nationally prominent games on the Tigers schedule, the one jewel he coveted was Notre Dame. He attended the national convention each year and would seek out Moose Krause to see if he could get a game or two with the Irish.

But, year after year Krause, then Notre Dame’s AD, said he didn’t have an opening. Notre Dame has always played a national schedule, but most of the games on the road were played relatively close to major cities where many Notre Dame alums resided. Clemson, South Carolina is hardly a haven for Notre Dame graduates and the city of Clemson is two hours from Charlotte and Atlanta.

In 1968, Colonel John Stephens joined the Notre Dame athletic department and eventually became Krause’s right hand man. He had instant respect because of military accolades that included the Legion of Merit, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. I worked for Roger Valdiserri in the sports information office from 1975-78 and got to know him through my work and through his son John who lived down the hall from me in Morrissey Hall.

Colonel Stephens accompanied Moose Krause to the athletic directors conventions and became friends with Frank Howard. Both loved to kid each other. Howard told me he used to call Colonel Stephens, “Moose’s little brother,” because Stephens was not quite 5-7 and looked even more diminutive when he stood next to Moose, who was among the biggest players Knute Rockne recruited at 6-3 and 220 pounds.

That friendship helped Frank Howard finally land a two-game series with Notre Dame.

“Colonel Stephens put in good words for me with Moose and that is how we got those games with Notre Dame,” Howard told me years before he passed away in 1996.

At the 1970 NCAA Convention, Krause gave Coach Howard two hand-written dates on a piece of paper. The first was Nov. 12, 1977 and the second was Nov. 17, 1979. The first date had the note “at Clemson” and the second had “at Notre Dame.”

Howard was very excited, but knew he had some work to do. ACC teams usually play their non-conference games in September. Howard had the advanced Clemson schedule for those two seasons and the Tigers were supposed to play Maryland on those dates, both at Clemson.

But, with his years of experience and respect within the league, Howard was able to get permission from the ACC office and able to convince Maryland football coach Roy Lester to move those two games to September.

Howard called Krause back and the games were announced seven years before the first one was to be played.

When the games were scheduled Notre Dame was in the middle of a great run under head coach Ara Parseghian. The Irish had won the National Championship in 1966 and finished in the top five of the final AP poll every year between 1966-70. Clemson was in the middle of a 17-year run without going to a bowl game (1960-76).

That changed in 1977 when the Tigers had a 7-1-1 record entering the game with Notre Dame at Clemson. Clemson was ranked 15th in the nation and Notre Dame was fifth.

Notre Dame would go on to win the 1977 national title, but Clemson nearly stopped the run, something Krause and Howard never could have foreseen. Clemson led 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, but Irish quarterback Joe Montana scored two touchdowns in the final period and Notre Dame won, 21-17.

Both teams benefitted from this game. Obviously, Notre Dame beat a top 15 team on the road, which helped its resume when it came time to pick a national champion at season’s end as it had to jump from fifth to first on Jan. 1, 1978 to win the title.

Clemson gained national respect for staying with the Irish the entire game.

It was also an impressive performance for Clemson recruits. Among the future Tigers on official visits that day were Terry Kinard and Jeff Davis, who both helped Clemson to the 1981 National Championship, and are now in the College Football Hall of Fame. It is the only recruiting class in ACC history with two future College Football Hall of Fame inductees.

The 1979 game was not as meaningful, but Clemson again gained national attention by winning at Notre Dame stadium. Danny Ford, who was in his first full season as Clemson head coach, won that game at age 31, still the second youngest opposing head coach to win in Notre Dame Stadium.

The three games the two schools have played in the past six years have had an impact on the National Championship and it appears those games in the upcoming years will as well.

Today we thank Frank Howard, Moose Krause and Colonel Stephens for getting it all started.

Tim Bourret is a Notre Dame graduate and former sports information director for Clemson University.

Notre Dame’s Chris Brown (2) has the ball poked out by a Clemson lineman in 2015. The seeds of a Clemson-Notre Dame series were planted in 1970.