"I had a lifetime contract," legendary Clemson football coach Frank Howard liked to say. "But the administration declared me dead."
Or you might believe that Howard retired for health reasons. "The alumni got sick of me."
These typically self-effacing quotes belied the clarity of Howard’s wisdom. But everyone knew who he was at Clemson. Two decades after his retirement, his office in Clemson’s athletic administration building bore the nameplate "Frank Howard, Legend."
Howard spent 65 years at Clemson. Upon his death on January 26, 1996, Clemson coach Tommy West told the Associated Press, "If you ever met coach Howard, you had great respect for him. And if you stayed around him for more than five minutes, you understood why he was a legend."
Larry Beckish, author of "I Believe in Cream, Apples, and Football —Thoughts for Coaches" got the message when he was a 24-year-old assistant on Howard’s staff.
During spring practice, Howard convened his coaches and asked, "How dem boys doin’ out there, men?" Each coach gave his report; then came Beckish’s turn. He proceeded to give a lengthy dissertation on all the shortcomings of his receivers.
When Beckish finally finished, Howard stared right at him and said softly, "Boy, that’s why they put coach in front of your name."
Howard never intended to be a football coach. Born on March 25, 1909 in Barlow Bend, Alabama ("three wagon greasins from Mobile"), he went to Alabama on an academic scholarship. He went out for football and wound up starting at guard in his final two years. He earned the sobriquet "little giant" on Wallace Wade’s 1930 Rose Bowl champions.
"I studied to be a CPA," he said in a 1989 interview. "But when I graduated from college, there wasn’t any jobs." So, he accepted an offer from Clemson’s Jess Neely to be his line coach. Among other things.
"I also coached track, was ticket manager, recruited players, and had charge of the football equipment," Howard often recalled. "In my spare time, I cut grass, lined the tennis courts, and operated the canteen while the regular man was out to lunch."
He signed a one-year contract, promptly misplaced it, and never signed another one. This prompted another Howard story. A Clemson president "called me up and said he didn’t want me to tell anybody what I made. I said, ‘Doc, you don’t have to worry. I am as ashamed as you are of what you pay me!"
When Neely moved on to Rice in 1940, the Clemson Athletic Council met to select a new head coach. Professor Sam Rhodes nominated Howard. Standing in the back of the room observing the discussion, Howard blurted out, "I second the nomination!"
And so, for the next 30 years, Frank Howard patrolled the sidelines as Clemson’s head football coach. He compiled a record of 165-118-12—still the most wins among Clemson coaches. When he retired after the 1969 season, he was the dean of America’s college football coaches, and one of only five active coaches with over 150 victories. Howard coached so long "I wore three college presidents out."
His teams won two Southern Conference titles, and six of the first 15 ACC championships. His 1948 team went 11-0, and beat Missouri in the Gator Bowl. His 1950 team went 9-0-1, beat Miami in the Orange Bowl, and finished ranked 10th in the nation.
His ’56 Tigers went 7-2-2, and lost in the Orange Bowl to Colorado. His ’58 team went 8-3 and lost in the Sugar Bowl to national champion LSU, 7-0. Both teams were ACC champs.
His 1959 team also won the ACC, and thrashed TCU, 23-7, in the inaugural Bluebonnet Bowl. Howard explained to Sports Illustrated how his Tigers pulled off the upset: "Those other boys were so big they tilted the field, and we had the advantage of playing downhill all the way."
In fact, the self-proclaimed Bashful Bard of Barlow Bend became a regular contributor to the They Said It section of Sports Illustrated. During spring practice in 1962, Howard observed of one player that "He’s not near as noticeable doing nothing this year as he was last season."
That fall, he described playing against Bobby Dodd’s team: "Georgia Tech is the kind of football team that won’t hit you hard enough to keep you from goin’ to a dance after the game, but they’ll beat you. N.C. State is the kind of team that will hit you so hard you’ll have to stay in bed two days, but you can beat them."
In 1967, he described his college roommate, Bear Bryant: "The Bear’s always been ahead of us humans. Even when we started the two platoon system, he was using three platoons: one on offense, one on defense, and one to go to class."
That fall, he told how he recruited his son: "I simply told Jimmy when he got out of high school I wanted him at a school where he could get a fine education, and play for the best coach in the country. So he enrolled at Clemson."
Howard also spent a number of years as Clemson’s athletics director. In November, 1967, he denied funding for a rowing team, declaring "Clemson will never subsidize a sport where a man sits on his butt and goes backwards."
Howard remains a vital part of every Clemson home game. Players touch Howard’s Rock, and then sprint down the hill to Frank Howard Field at Death Valley. "I told those football players, when you go down in the Valley, all of you going to give 110 percent can rub my rock." Otherwise, "Keep your filthy hands off my rock."
Howard’s buried on Cemetary Hill, just above the stadium, in a spot he picked out himself. "I want to be there so I can hear all them people cheering my Tigers on Saturdays.
"Then I won’t have to go to heaven. I’ll already be there."