Pranksters rehash the The Great Clemson Caper of 1961
The day was cloudy and threatened rain last Friday, September 16, but that didn’t stop more than 100 Sigma Nu fraternity brothers from across the state gathering at Sewell’s for a 50th luncheon reunion to reminisce about their glory days and relive what has become known as “The Great Clemson Caper of 1961.”
The USC chapter of the Sigma Nu Fraternity went down in history in 1961 when some of its members dressed up as Clemson University football players and actually got on the field and fooled the fans of both schools for a few minutes before they began kicking the ball backwards and then began performing crazy displays of clumsiness.
“We hatched the plan to do something at the Carolina- Clemson game, but we never dreamed we’d pull off such spoof,” said Caroll Gray, a business consultant now living in Charlotte. “Back then I was the sports editor of the Gamecock, and it was up to me to get the coach’s okay.”
Gray traveled with the football team, and he said he spoke to the then Carolina coach, Marvin Bass about the frat boys “doing a little something” before the big game. Once he got the coach’s permission, he said the plan “took on a life of its own.”
The fraternity borrowed uniforms from Orangeburg High School that Gray said didn’t look at all like the real Clemson uniforms, but they worked well enough to get the guys past security and on the field.
Lowery “Sack” McNeel said he remembered fooling fans as he and some of his “brothers” were under the stands on the way to the gate where the Clemson players were to run out.
“I saw some young ladies all dressed up in Clemson colors, and they were just thrilled to see us,” McNeel laughed. “I can still hear them as we ran by saying ‘Go Tigers.’”
The star of the caper was Ron Leitch, who dressed up like the then Clemson coach, Frank Howard. He broke out his costume one more time at the luncheon to everyone’s delight.
Shouts and applause went up when he arrived in the orange shirt, hat and tie, with pillows in his pants to bulk him up.
“People asked me all the time how I got picked to play Frank Howard,” Leitch told the crowded room. “Hell, I was a freshman pledge. They didn’t pick me. They TOLD me to do it. When you’re a pledge you don’t ask questions, you just follow directions.”
Jack McCathren was the pseudo-Clemson player who began kicking the ball backwards on the field. He said that was about when the fans began to catch on.
“I still marvel today that we kept the caper a secret,” he said. “At least 50 people had to be in on it, and no one ever told their buddies or their girlfriends or anybody. If one person would have talked the whole thing could have been ruined.”
The prank has gone down in history as probably the greatest one in Carolina’s history, but Leitch said once the fans caught on, it went from a prank to a riot as the Clemson fans poured out of the stands to “beat up” the imposters.
“The Clemson people were hitting our guys in the head, but they seemed to forget the Sigma Nus were wearing football helmets,” he said, bringing a huge laugh from the crowd.
The caper hit papers across the country and as far away as Los Angeles and Michigan.
Leitch said that years later he actually met the real Frank Howard and introduced himself as the guy who played him.
While Howard’s quote can’t be printed, suffice it to say that he told Leitch it was the best prank ever pulled at a Carolina- Clemson game, and the only thing that bothered him was that it was Carolina who pulled it off.
There were, of course, repercussions, one of which included Gray, who had originally asked the coach’s permission to “do a little something before the game.” Gray was called to his office as he was the only one he could connect with the caper.
“He [Coach Bass] didn’t exactly smile, but he did admit it was pretty funny,” Gray laughed. “But he let me know that we weren’t to ever do it again.”
Although the fraternity members were at the luncheon at Seawell’s last Friday to reminisce and laugh, one of the organizers Tryon Face, said he hoped that the real meaning of the gathering would reach people.
“A lot of fraternities today get a lot of bad publicity, and I think something like this shows the real reason to join a fraternity,” Face said. “Right here in this room today is a huge group of guys who knew each other and went to school together 50 years ago. We’ve all lived our lives, some married and had children; we all maintained our jobs and careers, but yet, here we are, reunited again with our brothers and talking like it was just yesterday.”
Several of the men brought their sons or nephews who were the new generation of the fraternity.
“I don’t know if we can do anything to top what these guys did,” laughed one of the current Greeks at the luncheon.
“I don’t know if you should try,” one of the older brothers chuckled. “We were lucky. You might not be.”