It was Dec. 1, 1976. Charley Pell had just been named football coach at Clemson University replacing Red Parker, the man who had brought him to the school. The team was in choas following a 3-6-2 season.
That night, Pell called Steve Fuller, a sometime starter at quarterback during Parker's last two seasons.
"Steve, you are my starting quarter back and we're going to the I-formation," Pell told the suprise sophomore.
"Yes, sir," Fuller answered, ending the conversation.
Almost two years have passed. Since then Pell and Fuller, with a good deal of help from their friends, have brought the Clemson football team from near ruin to a club with national ambitions.
"If we're going to get to step two, we have to get past step one and Maryland is step one," Pell said as he prepared the Tigers for Saturday's ACC title game against the Terps at Bryd Stadium.
Step two is a national championship. Those familiar with college football do not laugh when Pell suggests the possibility.
Clemson has 10,000 students and is located in a town that consists of little more than the campus and a few stores.
In this area of the country there is little to do when Clemson's athletic teams aren't in action and Tiger followers have long been known both for enthusiasm and their willingness to spend money to produce a winner.
In 1978 that willingness produced $1.7 million in contributions to the athletic fund raising program known.
"We have the potential to make this place the showplace of southern college football," Pell said as he drove by Memorial Stadium - better known as Death Valley - and glanced at the new upper deck which, when opened next week will increase stadium capacity to about 63,000.
The main reason the Tigers and their fanatic followers can harbor grandiose dreams is Pell, a drawling, poker-faced 37-year-old native of Albertville, Ala, who learned his football from Bear Bryant and still believes in many of that Alabaman's philsophies."The talent had always been here," , said Jerry Arp,who works with the IPTAY program. "Charley came in and found a way to make sure it got used properly. He laid down the rules and they've been followed."
Pell also installed the I-formtion to take advantage of Fuller's ability to run the option and throw on the run. Parker's veer was abandoned.
The results have been obvious. The Tigers were 8-3-1 a year ago, going to the Gator Bowl and will bring an 8-1 record to Maryland Saturday.
"Coach Pell is always straightforward," said Fuller, who probably will be the player of-the-year a second time although the school's bid to make him a Heisman Trophy candidate seems likely to fail."He demands respect and he gets it. He isn't a rah-rah coach, going wild on the sidelines, in the locker room or anything. We know what he expects.
Pell expects a lot of his players because he expects a lot of himself. Few expected him to succeed when he took over from Parker. Divisiveness had cripped the coaching staff while Parker had been extremely popular with some players, unpopular with others. The talent was unquestionably good, but their record was poor.
Pell never doubted his ability to succeed even under trying circumstances.
"The turning point for me came at Jacksonville State," he said. "Until then I wasn't sure of coaching was the right business for me.
"The situation there was terible. We had to start from scratch. When we succeeded there (33-13 in five seasons) we felt we were good enough to succeed as a head coach almost anywhere."
Pell coached a year under Bryant before going to Kentucky to join Charlie Bradshaw's staff for four years. There he met his wife Ward. From there it was on to Jacksonville, two years at Virgina Tech, then to Clemson in 1976.
Pell does not like totalk about 1976. "There's been a million words written about that situation," he said, dragging on a cigarette. "It's over. It's past. "We're trying to win a championship."
To win the conference title, Pell will have to get a sterling performance from Fuller. The 6-foot-4, 198-pound senior with the rifle arm, the 3.9 grade average and a Spartanburg, S.C., drawl that sounds like his coach's, says he is ready for Maryland's defense.
"This will be the biggest game of my career," Fuller said, "I know that. We all do. This game's going to get national attention. It's for the title. That's what you play for. We thought we should have beaten Maryland last year. We want them this year."
The Terps and Tigers played in Death Valley last year in Pell's first game as head coach. The Tigers led Maryland, coming off an 11-1 season, 14-7 in the third quarter before, reserve quarterback Larry Dick threw two long passes to beat them, 21-14.
"We lost, but we proved something to ourselves," Fuller said. "We proved we could play with a good team. That sort of got us started."
"I remember it vividly," Pell said, "We went in the locker room afterward and the players were all quiet. They were waiting to see what we would do.
"I just got up and said, "Gentlemen, you just came within five plays of beating a top 10 team. That's not too bad."
The rest - as the sayings goes - is history. Clemson has not lost an ACC game since. Pell knows keeping that streak intect Saturday will take a superb effort by his team.
"If you're going to beat Maryland you have to do a great job on your homework," he said. "Coach Claiborne always has them prepared as well as any team in the country. If you aren't ready, he'll find out where you're weak and exploit it."
The Tigers have few weaknesses, Fuller, running back Lester Brown, split end Jerry Butler (47 catches) and an outstanding offensive line make the offense go while a group of superquick linebackers key a defensive giving up less than eight points a game.
For Pell though, it is only a beginning.
"We're building a nucleus," he said. "We've got a lot of good young players and we're going to have a good recruiting year."
In two years, Charley Pell, "who got back to basics," according to Arp, has begun building a powerhouse. He doesn't joke often, but he has a quick smile as he walks the campus and that, combined with his record, has turned him into enough of a campus hero that Friday night the students staged a Charley Pell lookalike contest.
"I'm sure they've all got better things to do than that," Pell said with a laugh. Perhaps. But at Clemson, where football and Pell are what matters most, the students disagree. Pell is their hero.
"As long as we keep winning," he interjected. But even as he spoke, the look on Charley Pell's face indicated that the thought of losing had never entered his mind. Scrimmage Saturday
The University of Maryland basketball team will stage its annual redwhite scrimmage Saturday in Cole Field House immediately following the Maryland-Clemson football contest. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children and free for Maryland students.