Jerry Claiborne fought his way through the post game mob and asked the players for quiet. They fell silent.
"I just want to tell you men that you played a great game and you're real champions," he said. "The better team won out there today."
Claiborne wanted desperately to say those words to his Maryland football team yesterday, but he ended up in the Clemson locker room after the Tigers had come from behind to beat his Terrapins for the ACC championship, 28-24.
The Tigers forced Claiborne to make the long walk into the visiting dressing room by coming up with big plays that overcame big mistakes in an extremely emotional game.
"There were five big plays that decided this game, said Tiger coach Charley Pell, his voice almost gone. "Last year when they beat us (21-14) there were five big plays too, but they got all of them. This year we had three of them."
The big playmakers for the Tigers, as they have been during Pell's two years as coach, were quarterback Steve Fuller and wide receiver Jerry Butler. They hooked up five times for 140 yards, including an 87-yard pass in the third quarter that tied the game at 14-14.
"All we did on the long touchdown was run the same simple curl that we've been running all year," Fuller said. "If the line keeps me alive along enough to throw the ball and Jerry gets going, ain't nobody in the world who's going to catch him."
The other two big plays that went Clemson's way were a 62-yard touchdown strike from fuller to Dwight Clark and the Tigers' final defensive stand that ended in a Terp fieldgoal. The two that went Maryland's way were a blocked punt that the Terps turned into a touchdown and Steve Atkins' 98-yard touchdown run.
Fuller, who formally accepted the Gator Bowl bid for his team after looking over at Pell for approval, had never beaten Maryland in four tries.
"No question, this is the biggest win ever for me," Fuller said, while being pummeled by jubilant friends. "We knew this would be as physical a game as we played all year. But we didn't know it would be this emotional."
The Tigers purged their emotions quickly once they reached the dressing room, jumping on Pell and one another and barely standing still long enough to accept their bowl bid.
Even Pell, normally placid and unemotional, seemed caught up in the riptide of cheering and yelling.
The only Tiger who did not actively participate in the celebration was the man who scored the winning touchdown - running back Lester Brown.
Brown left the field with a dizzy spell after being hit during Clemson's final possession following Ed Loncar's field goal for Maryland.
"This was the hardest-hitting game I've ever been in," Brown said quietly. "I've never been hit as hard as many times in my life. They just hit you about three times on every play."
The rest of the Tigers had bumps and bruises but by the time Pell presented the game ball to University President Robert C. Edwards, they were all but forgotten.