Originally created 12/29/96

Clemson's woes, Howard's death, top SC sports stories



Losing was more than just a part of the game during 1996 in South Carolina.

Clemson's football team lost some of its star players even before the season opened, and Death Valley lost part of its spirit in the passing of former Tigers coach Frank Howard.

Jermaine O'Neal gave up his shot at college basketball stardom - trading it in for potentially bigger riches in the NBA - while racer Dale Jarrett slid on a small oil slick and lost a Winston Million.

Duce Staley almost lost one of the best rushing seasons in South Carolina history on a trick pass. Willie Varner, who won 10 state championships at Woodruff High School, lost the respect of the school board and, after 43 years, his job.

Not all losing was bad. Clemson's basketball team under coach Rick Barnes lost its fear of Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouses like North Carolina and made the NCAA tournament.

And Jeff Gordon barely lost an rpm after winning the 1995 Winston Cup championship. This year, he won the TranSouth 400 and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Nowhere did losing strike so hard than with Clemson's football team. The Tigers' problems and recovery were voted the year's top story by South Carolina Associated Press members.

Nine players, including stars Antwuan Wyatt, Raymond Priester and Tony Horne, were arrested between February and September. Wyatt and runner Anthony Downs were dismissed in July because of marijuana possession, while Horne, who punched a student at a campus party, was kicked off the team later.

The year began with Clemson's 41-0 dismantling at the hands of Syracuse in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day, which itself was voted 1996's sixth-biggest story.

And once this season began, coach Tommy West faced almost weekly worries - defensive end Trevor Pryce was suspended for two games by the NCAA for illegally using a university phone access card and West's salary was frozen for not reporting Pryce's infraction quickly enough. Prized linebacker recruit Idris Price left because of questions involving his transcript.

There were also the miserable early season losses by the Tigers, ranked in the preseason top 25, at North Carolina (45-0) and Missouri (38-24).

"This was a particularly long season," West said.

But the Tigers, like they did a year ago when they started 3-3 and won five in a row, rose again. They won five straight, and took second in the ACC for a Peach Bowl berth against LSU.

"When we were losing, this seemed like a long year," said Priester, who gained 1,000 yards for the second straight year. "When we started winning, things picked up again."

Everyone at Clemson carries a tear and a remembrances for Howard, who died Jan. 26 at 86. His death was voted the No. 2 story of the year.

He became coach in 1940 and his imprint is everywhere, from "Frank Howard Field" inside Death Valley to "Howard's Rock," the mystical motivational stone players rub before running into the stadium.

Fans, admirers, even coach West, now visit his grave in Cemetery Hill near to the stadium to speak with the beloved icon of Tiger football, who retired as coach in 1970.

Though Howard's grave lines up with about halfway between the end zones, former sports information director Bob Bradley recalls that Howard always wondered why people wanted to sit on the 50-yard line.

"No one's ever scored a touchdown from there," Howard said, according to Bradley.

O'Neal's choice of the NBA over college ball was the year's third top story. The 17-year-old Eau Claire star followed the lead of former Mauldin High School standout Kevin Garnett, who starred for the Minnesota Timberwolves the year after high school.

Even after declaring for the pro draft, O'Neal said that if he got his SAT scores high enough, he would still attend South Carolina, Clemson or Kentucky, three of the many school courting the 6-foot-10 center. But O'Neal showed up at the wrong test site for one exam, then failed to register for his last chance.

The Portland Trailblazers selected O'Neal No. 17.

South Carolina's role in the Olympics was the fourth-biggest story. Some American teams as well as some from Europe, South America and the Middle East made the Palmetto State their training bases before moving to Atlanta.

Jenny Spangler ran for an improbable win at Columbia's Women's Olympic Marathon Trials, but the Olympic torch was kept under wraps through much of Greenville County because of an anti-gay ordinance adopted by the county council.

Clemson's basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons, playing tougher and harder in Barnes' relentless fashion. The victory that likely propelled the Tigers to the Big Dance, and made them the year's fifth biggest story, was a 75-73 win over North Carolina in the ACC tournament.

Varner's dismissal at Woodruff was a surprise late in the year - even to him.

He helped Woodruff to 10 state football titles, was the fourth-winningest prep coach of all time with 384 victories and was one of the most respected men in the Upstate. But after consecutive four-win seasons, the school board said he should take an administrative job.

The board didn't even bother to call Varner about the vote until the next morning.

Varner's fall tied for seventh with the rise of Gordon, a 25-year-old NASCAR wizard. By winning three straight races at Darlington, Gordon tied a feat set by Dale Earnhardt, a nine-time winner at the egg-shaped track.

While Gordon won the Southern 500 in September, Jarrett skidded out of contention. A victory would have earned Jarrett the Winston Cup's $1 million bonus for winning three of the sport's four major races.

Jarrett, who used to live in Camden about an hour away from Darlington, was leading, but then crunched the wall and finished two laps down - and in ninth place as South Carolina's top sports story of the year.

At Williams-Brice Stadium, Staley rushed into the Top 10 stories, piling up yardage like 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, until Staley hit his own wall - a severe ankle sprain early in the game at Vanderbilt.

Staley went back to pass, his only try of the season, and was hit immediately. His right ankle was injured in the pileup of bodies. When South Carolina coach Brad Scott was asked how he'd use Staley on his return four weeks later, he said, "Well, we certainly won't let him pass."

Staley rushed for at least 100 yards in six of his first seven games, but then the ankle kept him out of almost three full contests until he returned to rush for 133 yards in a 34-31 victory at Clemson that South Carolina desperately needed for any chance at a bowl.

The bowl invitation never came, but Staley still finished as the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher with 124 yards a game, his 1,116 yards overall second to LSU's Kevin Faulk.

Staley was a first-team all-SEC selection by the writers and coaches and will play in the Hula Bowl.