Clemson’s players came out of the tunnel to warm-up for Saturday’s game against N.C. State in their normal road attire: white jerseys and white pants.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The Tigers were about to take on an Atlantic Division foe, looking for their 25th consecutive win as a program and 10th victory of 2019.
What they weren’t aware of was what was going on at the same time in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Virginia Tech was pulling away for an upset of Wake Forest.
That meant next week’s game against the Demon Deacons, who suffered their second ACC loss 36-17, wasn’t going to be for the Atlantic Division championship after all.
Clemson could claim their fifth consecutive division crown with an outright victory over the Wolfpack in Raleigh.
That also meant breaking tradition. Or did it?
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said earlier in the week he didn’t think his team would be able to wear orange pants, something the Tigers started doing back in the Danny Ford era on special occasions.
“I didn’t say I didn’t think we’d bring them,” Swinney said after a 55-10 victory Saturday. “We just packed a separate case.”
Unbeknownst to the rest of the team, director of equipment Abe Reed had secretly stashed something special.
Since his interim coaching season of 2008, Swinney has bucked the fashionable trend of entertaining uniform combinations.
He’s kept it simple: orange jerseys/white pants at home, white jerseys/white pants on the road and purple uniforms on Military Appreciation Day.
The lone exception is orange britches.
“We appreciate Virginia Tech beating Wake Forest to give us a chance to win the division tonight. Because of that, the orange pants come out during championship opportunities,” Clemson linebacker Chad Smith said. “They’re special. We were pumped.”
The players had no idea while warming up that a change was coming, so it never crossed their minds until Swinney told them they were changing out of white pants and putting on the orange.
“The guys were fired up,” Swinney said. “They love those orange pants. It was pretty cool that it worked out that way.”
The tradition first took root in 1980, when the Tigers were 5-5 entering the season finale against in-state rival South Carolina.
Feeling the pressure of needing a big win, Ford got the idea of going all orange, and the players disguised it during pregame warmups. When they got to the top of the Hill for their entrance, the players were decked out in orange pants. It gave the team motivation and something to take the pressure off the stakes of the game.
It worked as the Tigers won the game 26-7 and continued on to go 16-2 under Ford in orange britches.
Saturday, Clemson probably didn’t need the extra motivation to knock off a 4-5 Wolfpack squad. It might not have helped Trevor Lawrence throw three touchdowns or Travis Etienne set another touchdown record, but it did help galvanize a team that’s on course for another special season.
“To have the opportunity to go back to Charlotte and represent the Atlantic, that’s obviously one of our goals every year,” Swinney said. “If we win that game that’ll be five (ACC) championships in a row and that’s never been done, so this team’s got a lot of great opportunities in front of them. Just a lot of good things this team has been able to accomplish.”