It is close to midnight, and Clemson's Memorial Stadium is in darkness except for a light shining on Howard's rock, a holy football relic locked in a Gamecock-proof case under the east end zone scoreboard. As he stands before the rock in the January cold, Tigers basketball coach Rick Barnes describes for a visitor the wonders of football game day at Clemson: the band playing the Tiger Rag, the cheering student body, the purple carpet rolled out down the hill behind the end zone for the players' big entrance. "As they come down the hill, the players all touch this rock and...here, you can touch it yourself," he says. He pulls out a key ring and tries one, two, three keys on the lock. Nothing works. Howard's rock, it appears, is the only football stronghold on campus Barnes can't break into.
Otherwise, his infiltration is complete. After last Saturday's 76-70 win at Florida State, Clemson's basketball team is No. 3 in the AP poll (seven places higher than a Tigers team has ever been ranked), and the usual wintertime conversation around Lake Hartwell—football recruiting and upcoming spring football practice—is being drowned out by an unfamiliar buzz about hoops. Having beaten Kentucky on Nov. 15, Virginia on Dec. 7 and Duke last week, Clemson was 14-1 at week's end. The Tigers were also 3-0 and a half-game out of the lead in the ACC, behind No. 2-ranked Wake Forest and No. 11 Maryland (page 85).
In October, Clemson held Midnight Madness for the first time, and 5,000 Littlejohn Loonies showed up at the campus's old gym, Littlejohn Arena. A record 7,433 season tickets were sold for this year, and students are camping out overnight to buy the remaining 3,000 game-day tickets. "In the past I had only seen students line up to buy tickets when Clemson was playing a Number 1 team," says South Carolina native Bill Harder, a senior reserve guard and former Tigers ball boy who grew up in Clemson. "Now they're actually coming to see us."
That's remarkable, particularly when you consider that 1) Clemson's offense is of the soporific half-court, ball-control genre and 2) most of the Tigers didn't make big names for themselves in high school and very likely have no future in the pros. Of the five starters, only one, 6'8", 245-pound sophomore Harold Jamison, was heavily recruited—but he was more coveted as a defensive end in football. Sophomore point guard and North Carolina native Terrell McIntyre, who at 5'9" is the smallest scholarship player in the ACC since Muggsy Bogues left Wake Forest in 1987, commands respect everywhere he goes now, but he couldn't get a scholarship nibble from North Carolina or Wake Forest, the ACC teams he watched as a child. Junior forward Greg Buckner grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., and dreamed of playing for Kentucky or Louisville, but he finished seventh in the Mr. Kentucky Basketball voting his senior year. Harder, the one team member who did want to play for Clemson as a boy, was not recruited by Barnes's predecessor, Cliff Ellis. Harder gave up his scholarship at Furman to walk on with the Tigers as a sophomore. "Just the idea of it made my heart pound," says Harder. "And I'll tell you, it has been a thrill."
Clemson fans have been thrilled, too, and not just because the Tigers are winning consistently, something that hasn't happened in a while. They also like the new face that Barnes and his hard-nosed, no-name players have put on Clemson's basketball program and its oft-sullied athletic department, which was most recently tarnished by the suspension or dismissal of five football players amid allegations ranging from assault to drug possession. Though Tigers basketball has never enjoyed the success of Clemson football (national champs in 1981), it has endured similar embarrassments, most notably the rampant cheating in the early 1970s of then coach Tates Locke. His wide-ranging misdeeds, including academic fraud, payments to players and the creation of a phony black fraternity to lure African-American players to a campus populated almost entirely by whites, landed the Tigers on probation for three years.
"The image of the basketball program has changed," says senior guard Merl Code, who grew up in nearby Greenville. "People around here used to think that Clemson athletes were arrogant and not normal students. Outlaws, even. Now there is a greater respect for us as people. Coach Barnes really emphasizes our being one with the student body."
And in that the exuberant Barnes, 42, leads by example. Since arriving at Clemson 2½ years ago from Providence, he has embraced university life, including the football program. He speaks at pep rallies and Touchdown Club luncheons and serves as a cohost for the Clemson Football Network's pregame tailgate radio show, a job that entails his driving around the parking lot in a golf cart interviewing fans. "Hey, it's a great way for me to let them know about the basketball program," he says.
In reaching out to the community, Barnes has obliged every student group that has asked him to speak and has shown his appreciation for those camping out in the cold for tickets by buying them hot chocolate and pizza. But some of his most memorable gestures have come at courtside. During a game against North Carolina in the 1995 ACC tournament and again at a regular-season contest between the two schools last year, Barnes dared to shout down Dean Smith, a brazen act that Clemson supporters took as a message that the Tigers henceforth would back down from no one. "Those confrontations really galvanized the fans," says Harder.
Barnes's assertive attitude has carried over to his players, too. "If you were to do a little word association in the ACC," says Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, "you'd say, Wake Forest: Tim Duncan. Clemson: confidence. The Tigers really believe they're going to win every game."
Just two years ago few people thought Clemson would win even a handful. When Barnes took the job, in March 1994, athletic director Bobby Robinson was frank. He told Barnes that the Tigers might win only three games the following season and that he was quite possibly walking into the worst coaching situation in the country. Indeed, Ellis had left behind a mess, including a partial NCAA probation that would restrict Barnes's recruiting for a year, a decade-long legacy of low graduation rates and diminished spectator interest. "I thought that was a great situation to walk into," says Barnes. "There was absolutely no pressure."