Note: The following appears in the South Carolina Football Gameday schedule.


Editor’s Note – For each program in 2022, Tim Bourret chronicles a great individual achievement in Clemson history. Today is the seventh installment.


As hard as it is to believe, it’s been over 42 years since No. 14 South Carolina was favored at Clemson against a Tigers team that finished a .500 season to that point.

On November 22, 1980, the Gamecocks entered Death Valley with a bid already secured for the Gator Bowl. Along with a great season, the Gamecocks also featured George Rogers, who won the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later.

Clemson, on the other hand, had battled to a 5-5 record under sophomore head coach Danny Ford and suffered a 34-7 loss the week before in Maryland, the worst loss of Ford’s Tigers coaching career.

The Gamecocks might have had everything in the world to themselves when they came to Clemson on that cold, damp late November afternoon, but what they didn’t have was Tiger defenseman Willie Underwood.

Underwood joined Clemson in August 1977 from Fort Payne, Alabama. He was one of the top signers in Head Coach Charley Pell’s first class of recruits.

In March 1977, just a month after signing day, Jim Phillips, who aired Clemson games for 36 years, took a group that included Pell and several members of the media to a small honky-tonk in Myrtle Beach, SC. They were in town for the South Carolina Sportswriters met and made that detour to hear a new country music band.

“This band was playing, and all of a sudden the lead singer comes over and is talking to Coach Pell,” said Al Adams, who was Bob Bradley’s assistant at the time and was on the trip.

“The singer, also from Fort Payne, had attended Jacksonville State when Pell had previously trained there. He wanted to know what kind of player his home favorite Willie Underwood would be. Coach Pell gave him a ringing endorsement.”

The aforementioned lead singer was Randy Owen, and the budding band would become known as one of the greatest groups in all of country music, Alabama. They were also the first to know what all Tiger fans knew after November 22, 1980… Underwood was good.

Underwood played four times at Clemson and was the first strong safetyman in 1979 and 1980. His hard work and dedication was evident when he was named co-captain of the Tiger team in 1980. But for him, being the star of the game against South Carolina came as a bit of a surprise.

On November 22, 1980, there were surprises all around Clemson. As usual, the Tigers warmed up in pregame with their standard orange home jersey and white shorts. But when they returned to the dressing room before kick-off, Ford had the ultimate motivational tool. For the first time ever, Clemson wore orange from head to toe when they got to the top of the hill.

Rogers, like 1981 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, never scored against Clemson, but the Tiger with strong safety made a touchdown when he intercepted a Garry Harper pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Underwood also had a 64-yard return that added another score in Clemson’s 27-6 win over the Gamecocks. Even more notable was the feat in that these were his first two career interceptions in four seasons and 47 career games.

His 101 interception return yards that day still stands as a Clemson record in a single game.

In addition to his two interceptions, he was credited with a team-high and career-high 17 tackles for constantly emerging from his strong safety position to provide run support. It’s still the most tackles in a game from a Tiger who also had two interceptions. For his efforts, he was named National Defensive Player of the Week by Sports Illustrated.

Jeff Davis still remembers Underwood’s performance to this day.

“That couldn’t have happened to a better player,” Davis said. “Willie Underwood was committed in every way. Nobody on our team has surpassed Willie. It’s hard to believe he’d never gotten a pick up until then. The way he played the game made you feel like it was the last time he had that kind of performance in Death Valley.”

That was Underwood’s last game in a Clemson uniform, but he had an impact on the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team.

“That game was pivotal for next season,” Davis added. “It served as a stepping stone to what we could achieve. Much of that recognition goes to Willie Underwood.”

Source