The Lengths Clemson Has Gone to Lose

Throughout my life, I’ve heard that nothing is forever.

Nothing, that is, other than Clemson traveling to Chapel Hill to get beat in basketball.

Clemson made its 59th straight fruitless trip to play North Carolina this week. If that’s not forever, it’s the closest thing the game of college basketball has to offer.

If the Tigers, following last night’s 87-79 setback, managed to beat-feet it out of the Smith Center in rapid order, they may have even made it back down I-85 to the Upstate before the snow got too heavy to make it home.

Think about all the hours Clemson basketball teams have bused up and down I-85 when required to play at Chapel Hill. All of the trips were made in winter, so think of all the lengths the Tigers had to go and the conditions they had to brave.

All just to get beat in basketball.

Being the incorrigible wise-acre everyone knows me to be, I couldn’t resist checking Google map for the distance between Clemson, S.C. and Chapel Hill. The result was 271 miles, which, for these purposes, will be rounded off at 270.

Take 270 and multiple by 2. Teams traveling to Chapel Hill have to get back home.

Now take 540 and multiple it by 59. What we get is 31,860 miles.

The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles. So for all the miles Clemson traveled to play in Chapel Hill, the Tigers could have headed east and circumnavigated the globe once, and made it all the way to Beijing on their second trip around.

Instead they traveled those 31,860 miles up and down I-85 between Clemson and Chapel Hill. All just to get beat in basketball.

The streak was once far easier to understand than it is today. Throughout the early years of the ACC, Clemson remained little more than fodder for the big guns of the conference such as N.C. State, Duke and, yes, North Carolina.

But let the record book show that Clemson has also brought some good teams to Chapel Hill.

Bill Foster’s 1980 squad won 23 games and made it to the Final Eight.

Cliff Ellis’ 1987 team, led by Horace Grant, the ACC Player of the Year, finished 10-4 in the ACC and won 25 games.

Ellis’ 1990 team, anchored by Dale Davis and Elden Campbell, finished first in the regular season at 10-4, and beat BYU and LaSalle in the NCAA Tournament. I saw them lose to Connecticut 71-70 in the regional semis in the Meadowlands.

Rick Barnes’ 1997 team, featuring Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre, won 23 games and beat Miami of Ohio and Tulsa in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Minnesota in double overtime in the Sweet 16.

And all of Oliver Purnell’s last four teams – as well as Brad Brownell’s first – won at least 21 games in what was probably the program’s most sustained run of success. The 2008 team made it all the way to the championship of the ACC Tournament, for the first time since 1962 and only the second time in school history. Those of use gathered in Charlotte thought we were going to see some real history made.

But no. The Tigers lost the title game, 86-81 to who else but North Carolina?

And the Clemson faithful have to know that if all were fair in the world, the Tigers would have won in Chapel Hill. Truth is, they would have won more than once.

As a young pup just starting out, I witnessed two losses that rankle Clemson fans today – as they should.

All this took place in 1974 and 1975, my senior season in college (when I was already working part-time for the local paper) and my first year as a full-time sportswriter.

The 1974 loss was a real travesty. The Tigers were royally screwed in Carmichael Auditorium. They ended up losing 61-60 when, with the game on the line, Jo Jo Bethea was twice called for traveling and the Tigers, as a team, were twice called for three-second violations. The second three-second call was made on Tree Rollins before the Clemson advanced the ball past half-court.

The words Coach Tates Locke used in describing John Russell, one of the ACC’s first black officials, would cause even those reporters covering today’s White House to blanch.

Now anyone who knows ACC basketball knows that Tates Locke was a real beauty. With the help of a way-too-influential booster named B.C. Inabinet Locke cheated his behind off to make Clemson good in basketball. I know this to be true because Locke confessed it all in his autobiography, Caught in the Net.

The book also revealed that Locke was a basket-case coaching basketball by the time he brought his best team to Chapel Hill in 1975. He was chasing speed with scotch and beer, and his life was a wreck. Once, while vacationing on a house boat, he really lost it and ended up choking Charlie Harrison, an assistant coach.

“Tates was having a nightmare,’’ Harrison recalled to Rick Telander of Sports Illustrated. “But it scared me good.’’

The 1975 team might have been the best I ever saw play for Clemson. Rollins was a beast as a sophomore who averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds. Stan Rome, a freshman, was a talented 6-5 wing who averaged 10.4 points and 4.7 rebounds and shot 53 percent from the floor. Wayne Croft, Colon Abraham and Bethea were all really good players.

But the catalyst was Skip Wise, a burly, street-wise 6-5 freshman guard from Baltimore who tore up the league during his one pass before heading off the the ABA and, eventually prison for the distribution of heroin. Wise, who averaged 18.5 points, was the first freshman named first-team All-ACC.

What I remember best about the 1975 game was Wise backing freshman Phil Ford down in the paint and shooting over him for another basket.

But in the end, what happened was just another variation of what always happens when Clemson plays at Chapel Hill. Walter Davis drilled a 20-foot jumper with 15 seconds left and the Tar Heels pulled out a 74-72 victory.

My favorite recollection of the night occurred afterward, in a cramped hallway as I and other intrepid reporters made their way to the losing locker room to get reaction from Locke and his players.

Those from my era will remember that Carmichael Auditorium was a three-sided arena built into the side of Woollen Gym. The visiting locker rooms were actually in Woollen Gym, down the same hall where the pool was located. There were lockers on both sides of the hall, and benches bolted into the floor for students to sit on and change into their bathing suits with the chlorine fumes wafting all around them.

Even at 22, I thought I knew what to expect from Locke.

But it’s safe to say I was not prepared for the fireworks that followed.

The editor I was working for at the time, a good man named Howard Owen, was into recruiting big-time. And Clemson, at the time, was recruiting Larry Gibson, who, like Wise, was from Baltimore. Unbeknownst to me, Owen had written that Clemson’s chances for Gibson didn’t look good because of the reports coming out of the upstate how Locke and Wise were at loggerheads.

(Gibson, for those who have forgotten, did spurn Clemson to sign with Lefty Driesell and Maryland).

So here stands Tates Locke, jacked up on who knows what, and he has just had his heart ripped out of his chest and stomped a second-straight season in Chapel Hill. And just before he begins his address to all us scribes jammed in around him, he’s handed a clipping of Howard’s column.

Tates’ face gets redder and redder the deeper he reads. And then he asks, in a tone he somehow manages to keep conversational, “Is this man here?’’

I’m looking over Locke’s shoulder and I see Howard’s column mug staring up at me.

“No, he’s not here,’’ I offer.

“Is anybody from this paper here,’’ Locke asks.

Stupid me, but I answered “Yes. I’m from the Chapel Hill Newspaper.’’

“You’re excused,’’ Locke said, again his voice not that much louder than a whisper.

“Huh?’’ I ask.

“You’re excused,’’ Locke repeats, his voice rising like the needle of a thermometer on a Sahara sunrise.

Forty-tree years have passed, so I can’t remember everything Locke screamed at me as I walked back down the hall and around the corner. I do remember something about how Howard Owen had better not write anything like this again, and if he does, how Tates Locke was going to track him down and strangle him til his eyeballs popped out.

Again, I was 22 and in my first season as a full-time sportswriter. I didn’t know at the time what I was getting myself into, but I knew it wouldn’t be boring.

I also knew that some year some Clemson team was going to walk into Chapel Hill and win a game of basketball. I’m retired from the newspaper business these days, and I’m still waiting.

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