Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) scores a touchdown during the second half against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Tigers won 24-22. Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame-Clemson: More Drama to Come

The Notre Dame team buses arrived at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium about 11 a.m. on Nov. 12, 1977. The Irish were to face a surging Clemson team that had lost just one game and was ranked 15th in the nation. The Tigers had not been to a bowl game in 18 years and the locals were in a frenzy.

I was on the first bus, seated near the front next to legendary Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri, my boss at the time. I was the only graduate assistant in the SID office and this was my first trip with the team. Assistant SID Bob Best had told me on the Monday before the game he was behind on finishing the basketball media guide and that I was going to Clemson.

In those days, the visiting buses pulled into Memorial Stadium next to the locker room door. Roger and I looked through the front window of that first bus and the famous hill at Clemson was already packed, two hours before kickoff.

Roger looked at me and said, “What in the world are we doing here?” I laughed. It felt like we were about to be ambushed.

As if the Clemson crowd would not be excited enough, Notre Dame coach Dan Devine had added fuel to the fire during the week with some comments about his concern over Clemson crowd noise and the willingness of the Atlantic Coast Conference officials to keep the atmosphere civil while the Irish were trying to run a play.

His concerns deepened the night before the game when Clemson fans continually called his room at the Clemson Holiday Inn at 2, 3 and 4 a.m. For some reason the front desk kept putting calls through to his room.

The Irish were ranked fifth in the nation and were on a roll behind junior quarterback Joe Montana, three-time All-America tight end Ken MacAfee and a defense led by Ross Browner and Luther Bradley. MacAfee and Browner are now in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Bradley should be.

Notre Dame had won six in a row, including the last four by an average of 36 points per game. That included a 69-14 win over a Georgia Tech team that had beaten the Irish the year before in Atlanta.

Clemson had a talented team as well. Quarterback Steve Fuller was the ACC MVP as a junior and went on to be the backup quarterback of the 1985 world champion Chicago Bears.   

The Tigers also featured wide receiver Dwight Clark, who would combine with Montana to bring Super Bowl championships to the San Francisco 49ers. The Tigers also had future NFL Pro Bowler Jerry Butler and defensive tackle Jim Stuckey, who started for the 49ers in the Montana era.

Clemson took a 17-7 lead into the fourth period behind Fuller, Stuckey’s defensive efforts and a touchdown by running back Lester Brown. Brown’s touchdown was scored when official C.C. Cummings slowed down and got in the way of Notre Dame defensive back Ted Burgmeier, who most assuredly would have kept Brown out of the end zone.

Montana was famous for his comebacks and this game is a part of his lore. The Irish got to within 17-14 on what might be the longest drive in Notre Dame history in terms of yardage. Devine was already upset with the officials after Cummings apparent “block” on Brown’s touchdown. After an illegal procedure penalty wiped out a long run by Vagas Ferguson, Devine came on the field and picked up the official’s marker and held it up for all to see.

The Irish coach received consecutive unsportsmanlike penalties. But Montana and MacAfee overcame the yardage deficit and got a first down. Montana later scored on a short sneak. Thanks to the penalties, the Irish gained 119 yards in total offense on the drive.

Later in the period, Fuller fumbled (the fifth Clemson turnover of the day), giving the Irish the ball back. Montana had been saving a screen pass against Clemson’s hard-charging front four and the play to Ferguson worked for a 36-yard gain. Montana scored again on a sneak and the Irish had a 21-17 victory.

Notre Dame had survived Death Valley and, with three more wins including a 38-10 pounding of No. 1-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1978, the Irish had their 10th national title.   

The win at Clemson was a season saver when it came to the national championship.

I made the trip to Dallas for that Cotton Bowl, the last time I have been to Dallas. It would be my final game as a Notre Dame student and graduate student.   

The following August when I was looking for full-time employment, I learned of a job at Clemson from John Heisler’s future wife Karen Croake, who was working at the University of North Carolina. Thanks to the recommendations of Valdiserri and others, I got the Clemson job.

I have been at Clemson ever since, working in the Clemson sports information office for 40 years, including 29 seasons as football communications director. I retired from a full-time role on July 13, 2018, but I still help the department in various capacities.

Clemson had its greatest season at the time in 1978, my first year. The Tigers finished 11-1 and tied for sixth in the final United Press International poll with … Notre Dame. It is the only time Clemson has finished in a tie with any team in a final poll.

The following year was the return game in the Clemson-versus-Notre Dame series. The two games came about because of the friendship between Moose Krause and Clemson coaching legend Frank Howard.

Howard was also the athletic director at Clemson and each year would see Krause at the NCAA Convention. Howard wanted to play Notre Dame and badgered Krause about it for years. Finally, at the 1970 convention, Krause gave Howard a piece of paper with two dates on it — Nov. 12, 1977, and Nov. 17, 1979.   

“Frank, if you can make it work on those dates, we will play,” said Krause.    

Howard had to pull some strings with the ACC office and cash in a favor with the University of Maryland, who was scheduled to play Clemson on those dates. But Howard got Maryland to move the games to September and the Clemson and Notre Dame games were announced.

The 1979 game in South Bend was very difficult for me. At the time, I was closer with players still on the Notre Dame team than I was those at Clemson. Rusty Lisch was the starting quarterback in 1979 and we had split a lot of late-night pizzas from Morrissey Hall Food Sales. I was commissioner of the Bookstore Tournament when Rusty was a star in that event and we played golf together at least twice a week on the Notre Dame course in the summer of 1978.

On the night of July 3, 1978, in near darkness, we went to the South Quad to see how many wedge shots it would take to get from the Rockne Memorial to O’Shaughnessy Hall. We figured no on else was on campus during the holiday, so we figured we wouldn’t hit anyone.

It took Rusty four and me five. Thank goodness there were no shanks and no broken windows.

I kept my mouth shut during that entire game in 1979, which you have to do in a press box anyway. Clemson scored the final 16 points of the game and won 16-10 to become just the second visiting team in the last 40 years to win on Notre Dame’s senior day.

Danny Ford was in his first full season as Clemson head coach and became the second-youngest visiting coach to win in Notre Dame Stadium (see list below). It was a huge win for the program and Ford two years later became the youngest coach in history to win the national championship, a distinction he still holds.

Youngest Opposing Coaches to Win at Notre Dame Stadium
Name School Game Date Coach DOB Opp-ND Yr. Mo. Days
Jack Chevigny Texas 10-6-34 8-14-1906 6-7 28 1 22
Danny Ford Clemson 11-17-79 4-2-1948 10-16 31 7 15
Pappy Waldorf Northwestern 11-9-35 10-3-1902 7-14 33 1 6
Noble Kizer Purdue 11-11-33 3-11-1900 0-19 33 8 0
Wayne Hardin  Navy 11-4-61 3-23-1927 17-31 34 7 12
Ara Parseghian Northwestern 10-24-59 5-21-1923 24-30 36 5 3
Lane Kiffin USC 10-22-11 5-9-1975 17-31 36 5 13
Wayne Hardin Navy 11-2-63 3-23-1927 14-35 36 7 10
Warren Powers Missouri 9-9-78 2-19-1941 0-3 37 6 21

The two programs did not meet from 1980 through 2014. Once in a while I would write a letter to the Notre Dame athletic director trying to stir up interest in a game. But from Notre Dame’s standpoint, Clemson was too far away from traditionally populated Notre Dame alumni bases. I understood that.

During that time period, Clemson in 2003 hired a wide receivers coach named Dabo Swinney who had been out of football for two seasons. He had played on a national championship team at Alabama in 1992 and stayed on as an assistant coach until 2000 when the entire staff was fired.  

At the end of the 2000 season, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Urban Meyer was hired as the head coach at Bowling Green. Swinney thought, “Wow, what would it be like to coach at Notre Dame?”

So, Swinney applied and had former Tide head coach Gene Stallings and Alabama athletics director Mal Moore (and a former Irish assistant coach under Gerry Faust) call then-head coach Bob Davie on his behalf. But he never got an interview. It was for the best because at the end of the 2001 season Davie was fired.   

In the winter of 2001 Swinney took a real estate job with the company of a former teammate and was away from football for the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

When the ACC and Notre Dame became conference partners with a special agreement for football, the door opened for a Clemson-versus-Notre Dame series.  

The first meeting that was part of Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement with the league (five games per year against ACC schools) took place at Clemson in 2015. I picked up a lot of Twitter followers when I determined and tweeted that when Notre Dame came to Clemson for the first time since 1977 it would be 1,977 weeks in between visits.

That was an epic game on Oct. 3, 2015. It was a stressful few months for me because I got ticket requests from friends of both programs.

A hurricane the week leading up to the game led to a steady downpour throughout the contest. It was such a story that Jim Cantori from the Weather Channel was the guest picker on ESPN College GameDay, which was held at Clemson’s Bowman Field.

There were 36 players from the 1977 Notre Dame-Clemson game who went on to play in the NFL, 23 from Notre Dame and 13 from Clemson. So far 35 from the 2015 contest have played in the league, 18 from Notre Dame and 17 from Clemson. But, obviously there will be more next year when the senior classes for both programs move on to the league.

Deshaun Watson had a 38-yard run on the first play of the game and led Clemson to a 21-3 lead early in the third period. It looked like the Tigers were headed for an easy victory.    

But Notre Dame’s Deshone (Kizer) started hitting crossing patterns to Torii Hunter Jr. and wheel routes to C.J. Prosise, who became the first Notre Dame running back with 100 receiving yards in a game in 45 years (since Larry Parker versus USC in 1970).

Kizer hit Hunter on a one-yard scoring pass with seven seconds left to bring the Irish within 24-22. Death Valley became silent.   

Notre Dame went for two to tie the game, but a Clemson defense led by Ben Boulware and current Houston Texan Carlos Watkins met the challenge of a Notre Dame offensive line that had four future NFL starters (three of whom would be top-10 picks) and stopped Kizer short of the goal line.

That win started a string of 58 consecutive top-10 rankings for the Clemson program, a streak that is still active and tied with Alabama for the longest in the nation.

It took 42 years for Notre Dame and Clemson to play four times, and now there will be four games in six years. (The two teams meet Nov. 7, 2020, and Nov. 5, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium and again on Nov. 4, 2023, at Clemson.) It appears those games will be national in scope and have significant impact on the football heritage of both schools.

Tim Bourret is a 1977 University of Notre Dame graduate who went on to earn a master’s degree in communications from the University in 1978. He worked in the Notre Dame athletics communication department as a student and a graduate assistant, then was named assistant sports information director at Clemson in the summer of 1978. Bourret, who spent 40 years on the Tiger media relations staff, probably boasts unmatched combined knowledge of the Notre Dame and Clemson football programs.