As of the first Clemson-Alabama national championship game after the 2015 season, the Clemson roster had 124 players from 16 states, 106 of those from the four-state corridor between North Carolina and Florida, 62 of those from South Carolina, Clemson’s state. This season, which Clemson begins Thursday night against Georgia Tech as defending national champion and the obvious No. 1, its roster shows 116 players from 19 states, 81 from that four-state corridor, 40 from South Carolina.
For a microcosm, check California, that distant dreamland where language often expands.
“When I got out here in 2010, 2011, 2012, nobody talked about Clemson, nobody even mentioned them,” said Adam Gorney, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals and Yahoo Sports. Nowadays, with Coach Dabo Swinney’s Clemson teams omnipresent in the last four College Football Playoffs with two titles, even Californians sometimes speak the word “Clemson.”
It came up two winters ago, when Kris Richardson took a phone call 2,126 miles from Clemson at Folsom High near Sacramento. On the line spoke Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, saying, basically, Hey, I’m in town.
“I said, ‘Okay, all right,’ ” said Richardson, who had coached at Folsom for 23 seasons by then but had never heard from Clemson, even as he coached NFL-bound sorts such as Jordan Richards, Jake Browning and Jonah Williams.
Down the vast state, “Clemson” turned up again (and again) last fall 2,005 miles from Clemson at Bellflower, Calif., in southeast Los Angeles County, where DJ Uiagalelei has demonstrated the kind of quarterbacking that activates coaches’ and fans’ slobber glands.
“When you’d go to high school games a few years ago, you would never see a Clemson coach there,” Gorney said. “I think I saw [recruiting coordinator and quarterbacks coach] Brandon Streeter twice last year.”
In 2018, Folsom five-star wide receiver Joseph Ngata drew the longing of every university but the Sorbonne in Paris — and who knows, maybe even the Sorbonne. In 2019, the same went for Uiagalelei, including the five stars. In August 2018, Ngata eyeballed Clemson’s renowned penchant for fashioning brilliant receivers and became the first California player to choose Clemson since 1991.
In May 2019, Uiagalelei became the second.
In a country where football rosters and student bodies often widen together, so it goes at Clemson. “We used to be sort of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and, of all places, New Jersey, because we were the engineering school and there’s not enough space at Rutgers,” said Paul Christopher Anderson, Clemson’s university historian since May and a professor who joined Clemson in 2000. “Now the reach is kind of growing.”
He spots football among the catalysts.
“Greater familiarity with the name? Absolutely,” he said. “Familiarity with exactly where we are? No.” Duke University, which also has a name that doesn’t hint at its geography, has North Carolina eight miles away, so the ritualistic basketball contempt between the two help Americans recognize the location of Duke. Clemson doesn’t have a North Carolina eight miles away, which sometimes brings a question.
Where, and what, is this Clemson?
Clemson is a town in northwest South Carolina. It sits 124 miles northeast of Atlanta, 134 miles west-southwest of Charlotte and 30 miles southwest of Greenville. It hums along with about 17,000 citizens until its quiet, unobstructed midyears go interrupted each late summer when the university, also called Clemson, reconvenes with its 24,000-strong.
In recent years, that normal crowdedness has seemed to intensify.
“Yes, there’re more stoplights,” said Jerry Reel, the wit-rich former Clemson historian who arrived as in 1963 as a graduate student in British medieval history and remained until retirement and beyond. “And it’s slower to get through town.”
Asked if football fuels that, Reel said: “Well, it’s got to be traceable to something. I can’t think of any other reasons.”
Said Reel: “It’s interesting. Now, when I go to football games, I don’t sit in the stands. I get invited to the alumni box. I taught about 10,000 of these students, I think. And they put me in the alumni box because I know half of the people there already. And they don’t mind a few hot dogs spent on me. It’s crowded now. I’m happy to say that as we look out over the stands, there are a lot of young people in the stands, they’re young high school and college students. And that means a future for our audience.”
Anderson sees real estate doing what real estate does during good times and says, “It would be hard for me to say that it isn’t” football.
In the old applications game, the number rose from 15,542 in 2008 to 28,844 in 2018, an increase the 44-16 ransacking of Alabama last January doesn’t figure to stem.
Still, even the rare Californians bound for Clemson might wonder how Clemson got to be Clemson. It rose from a will.
The will came from Thomas Green Clemson (1807-88), who left the land and concept. Clemson University, founded in 1889, gets its name from a Philadelphian, French-speaking former diplomat to Belgium who went on to become steeped in the evil of owning and selling slaves, a fact the university has come to openly acknowledge in recent years.
“He was from Pennsylvania,” Reel said. “He was educated in France. And he never studied a whole lot of agriculture but became sympathetic to it when he married John C. Calhoun’s daughter” — Calhoun, the 19th-century U.S. vice president, senator and Secretary of State
— “whom he met in Washington, D.C. She was serving as her father’s secretary. Those were the days before Congress had an unlimited budget, and congressmen hired their family members to serve as secretaries and door openers and whatnot.”
After a time on Long Island and Philadelphia — “She didn’t like either one of them,” Reel said of Mrs. Clemson — the couple moved to South Carolina. Mr. Clemson helped pioneer science-based agriculture reform. Eventually, he left a will. Unforeseeably, his name has come to appear constantly on American TV with African American players leading the upsurge. In turn, Clemson’s football recruiters can lure even big-time Californians here and there.
Swinney visited Folsom eventually, which Ngata called “an honor” and told Lina Washington of the ABC affiliate in Sacramento, “He was so interested in the Johnny Cash,” who recorded his famed live album “At Folsom Prison” there.Richardson, Ngata’s prep coach who moved on to Sacramento State, says, “It just seems there’s a lot of love and camaraderie with the [Clemson] program.”
Uiagalelei, Rivals’ No. 1 pro-style quarterback, released a two-minute, 20-second video last May, announcing his decision at the 1:50 mark and including a mention of the Clemson program’s emphasis on Christianity, saying he hoped to “get more connected with God.” It ended with Uiagalelei and Swinney hugging in Clemson’s stadium, a sight unimaginable when the school promoted Swinney from wide receivers coach in October 2008 as an apparent stopgap.
And then: “If Joseph Ngata has a great freshman season, I think recruits in California will be more open to going and visiting,” Gorney said. After all, he said, “Kids now know you have to fly to Atlanta, get in a rental car to go to Clemson.”