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August 31, 2013

Loran Smith: Howard brought humor to the job at Clemson

For 30 years, Frank Howard was the head football coach at Clemson — and he had a number of distinctions, one of which was his affection for the light side of life.

There has likely never been a more colorful coach in college football. He was a balding man with an outpouring of homespun humor and a chaw of tobacco stuffed in his cheek. He was a man of ample girth who segued from a Hall of Fame coaching career into a popular booster club speaker across the South.

What I always appreciated about Howard was that he could dish it out, but he could take it. All too often, the most accomplished practice jokers don’t laugh so loud when the joke is on them.

When the old Touchdown Club of Atlanta was in its prime years in the 1960s and ’70s, Howard and his close friend, Peahead Walker of Wake Forest, were always poking fun at one another. Verbally roughing up each other was a staple of the weekend. Ticket sales were limited for a noon luncheon on Saturday, during which Howard and Peahead would roast one another.

After a playing career at Alabama where he enrolled on an academic scholarship, Howard became an assistant to Jess Neely at Clemson.   When Neely left for Rice in 1940, a professor at the meeting of the athletic council nominated Howard for the job. In the back of the room, Howard shouted, “I second the nomination.” There was success after he became the head coach at Clemson, and Howard was always good for a laugh.

In 1951, Clemson played Miami in the Orange Bowl, an underdog victory in which Howard was faced with a crisis when three of his star players missed curfew.

“I waited on them past midnight,” Howard recalled, “and watched them slip through the lobby. I went to their rooms and demanded where they had been. They said the drawbridge got them. I really gave them hell and really had ’em worried. Trouble was, I was worried, too. What was I going to do?”

He told the miscreants they were “too sorry” to play for him and told them he was sending them home by bus. He ordered an assistant standing nearby to go purchase the bus tickets. The players begged for forgiveness and asked if he would consider letting the team determine their status by vote. Howard told them he would think about it overnight.

When the players moved out of hearing, he turned to his assistant, “Get with our boys before breakfast and make damn sure they know how to vote.” Following the 15-14 victory over the Hurricanes, he referred to the incident and said, “That’s what you call discipline.”

Once, a prospect who came from a devout Baptist family committed to South Carolina. But Howard told the recruit’s mother he wanted to come visit with her and the boy anyway. He began talking about the boy’s decision, noting that South Carolina was a “fine” school and that he and the Gamecocks’ coach were very good friends.

“He’s very religious, you know,” Howard said. “He’s a devout Catholic. Never misses Mass.”

The boy’s mother perked up and said, “You say he is Catholic?”

Howard responded, “Yes ma’am, and a good one.”

The boy changed his mind and signed with Clemson.

Once when he spoke in Dillon, S.C., Howard invited me to join him. Jimmy Carlen had just taken over as head coach at South Carolina.

There was nothing Howard liked more than to poke fun at his main rival. He explained to his eager audience that Carlen had been given the rights to his TV show. He took in all the sponsorship money and paid all the bills, which meant that he would likely make a lot of money.

“He’s got two big sponsors already,” Howard said. “Kentucky Fried Chicken and Schick razors. They gonna call his show the ‘Chicken Schick Show.’”

It took a while to calm the audience down.

I always enjoyed the colorful coaches, and when he and Walker and Georgia’s Wallace Butts were holding court, you never wanted the evening to end.

This afternoon when I get to Death Valley, I will meander over to Howard’s Rock and pause in memory of the Baron from Barlow Bend, which refers to his hometown in south Alabama.

Coaches are different today. Too serious, too uptight and no time to fraternize.

Believe it or not, coaches in the old days used to go out to dinner after playing each other in the afternoon.

Schedule dinner after the game today with some coaches and there would be a free-for-all.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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