As we inch closer to the national title game on Jan. 13, there will be many debates around the fourth-ever meeting between LSU and Clemson. Who’s better, Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence? Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Travis Etienne? Purple as an accent to gold or purple as a partner for orange? Dabo Swinney’s sideline sermons or Ed Orgeron’s gumbo jokes?
But if you’re in a Bourbon Street watering hole on the eve of the big game and looking to get a throwdown started between a Tigers fan and a, um, Tigers fan, there’s only one question that will serve as the proper stick of flint to get the evening ignited:
“Hey, which one of y’all plays in the real Death Valley?”
Yes, LSU and Clemson are both the Tigers. Yes, they both play the “Tiger Rag.” And, yes, they both win lots of football games. But none of those parallels tweaks the nerves of those two familial fan bases like the competing passions for their shared stadium nickname.
The geographic settings are very different, but each is similarly intimidating for visiting teams.
In the place officially known as Tiger Stadium, fans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are greeted with a neon-bright gold “WELCOME TO DEATH VALLEY” sign and the atmosphere sends chills up spines as poetry — poetry! — is read over the public address system.
“It is a pantheon of concrete and steel … It is a Louisiana gumbo of humanity … It is the cathedral of college football … And it is Saturday night in Death Valley!”
Meanwhile, in Clemson, South Carolina, the building officially titled Memorial Stadium features more subtle signage, a plainly fonted “Clemson Welcomes You To Death Valley.” But then, the team stands atop The Hill and cascades down onto the playing field, rubbing a rock atop a pedestal that was brought from the barren floor of the Mojave Desert and Death Valley National Park, some 2,300 miles away:
They say it’s one of the most exciting entrances in college football. They say it’s a tradition like none other. @ClemsonFB is back in Death Valley today to take on #Louisville! #ALLIN🐅 pic.twitter.com/qY2dddvisn
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 3, 2018
“Both are amazing places to play college football. Great crowds. Big noise. The whole thing,” says Danny Ford, who has walked through both valleys of the shadow of death, first as an Alabama player and assistant coach and then as Clemson’s head coach for more than a decade.
“But — ” Ford pauses to reinforce his next point made. “But the real Death Valley sits right over here by my house.”
Ford lives in Clemson, so close to his former place of employment he can hear the roar of the 81,500 in attendance during the home games he chooses to sit out. It’s loud.
Which brings us back to this storied moniker for these two powerhouse programs: How, and why, did each one land on the name “Death Valley”?
You have to go back about 75 years for the story to start emerging.
Thurman “Crowe” Peele was born and made his name as an amateur boxer in the Carolinas, but he attended LSU, where he won the 1955 NCAA heavyweight title. He went on to post a 37-2 professional record, became the sparring partner for heavyweight legend Archie Moore and, in the 1960s, opened a gas station in Baton Rouge literally within shouting distance of Tiger Stadium. The crowds at LSU home games would shake the walls and rattle the glass of Peele’s service station, so he nicknamed the stadium “Deaf Valley.” Soon fellow LSU fans adopted the moniker.
For some, “Death” actually predated “Deaf” in Baton Rouge. On Jan. 1, 1959, when LSU and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon capped the school’s first national title with a 7-0 victory in the Sugar Bowl, some of those fans stole “Death” when describing the home valley. Why? Because they believed they had earned that right after defeating the team that was already using the name for its home stadium.
The first known “Death Valley” reference tossed Memorial Stadium’s way came more than 10 years before Peele’s nickname. In 1945, Lonnie McMillan, head coach of the rival Presbyterian College Blue Hose, had just endured a 76-0 rout at the hands of the orange-and-white Tigers. At the time, tradition held that PC and Clemson always played the season opener. And those games, in September in South Carolina, are essentially like playing football inside a pottery kiln, especially on Clemson’s home field, which sits in a natural gorge, built atop bedrock and surrounded by reflective white concrete.
According to the official Clemson history books, McMillan visited the Mojave Desert a decade earlier en route the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He compared the unpleasantness of that midsummer desert experience to his September visits to play the Tigers, saying Clemson was “college football’s Death Valley.” Frank Howard, the gregarious Alabama grad who had taken over as Clemson head coach five years earlier, loved the story and repeatedly recounted it. He told it so much, it eventually stuck.
Two decades later, Clemson alum Sam Jones was driving through that same desert and pulled over to pick up a big chunk of rock. When he got back to South Carolina, he presented it to Howard. Howard was so inspired by the gesture … he used it as an office doorstop.
After tripping over the stone, he told Gene Willimon, executive director of the Clemson athletic club, IPTAY, to “take this rock and throw it over the fence or out in the ditch — do something with it, but get it out of my office.”
Instead, Willimon had it placed atop The Hill as a memento from one valley now looking over the other. Howard’s Rock debuted Sept. 6, 1966, and has been there ever since, affixed to a pedestal that reads: “From Death Valley, CA to Death Valley, SC.”
While there’s no debate about the origins of the Death Valley title in Clemson, there is still some murkiness around its roots in Baton Rouge. It was still called “Deaf Valley” by most fans throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The name seemed to become forever cemented by the infamous Earthquake Game on Oct. 8, 1988. LSU upset No. 4 Auburn 7-6, and the crowd of 79,431 was so loud reacting to Tommy Hodson’s fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown pass, it triggered a seismograph in a geoscience lab 1,000 feet away from the stadium.
So, how did “Deaf Valley” finally evolve into “Death Valley”? Some attribute it to sports reporters using the latter more in the 1990s; one popular theory is the transition took place naturally, as Cajun accents pronounced “deaf” and “death” as essentially the same sound. The brand was pushed over the top when longtime public address announcer Dan Borne penned the “Saturday Night in Death Valley” poem in 2011 that has since been boomed through said valley before every LSU home game.
“That feeling you get when you hear that, what it does to the crowd, it’s hard to describe unless you have stood there in it,” explains Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, the 2011 LSU All-American safety now with the Kansas City Chiefs. “Death Valley means intimidation. It’s the place you don’t want to go because you aren’t going to make it out alive. The crowd is a part of what intimidates people. What makes it Death Valley.”
“Welcome to Death Valley, where opponents’ dreams come to die.”
– Coach O pic.twitter.com/milN26NRxr
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 13, 2019
Over in Clemson, they say the same about Howard’s Rock and their Tigers running down The Hill toward their opponent while the crowd noise closes in around them. While there appears to be no argument over which school used Death Valley first, there appears to be no end to the argument of which one is the most intimidating.
LSU has never visited the original Death Valley. Clemson has never set cleat into Deaf Valley. Their meeting later this month, like the three that came before, is a neutral-site postseason game. But they have scheduled a home-and-home series for 2025-26, finally giving each team of Tigers the opportunity to properly measure up the other Tigers’ den.
When reminded of that future series, running back Etienne started laughing. The Jennings, Louisiana, native famously announced in 2017 that he was signing with Clemson over LSU by saying he was going to “the real Death Valley.”
“Finally, we can really compare them, right?” said the soft-spoken junior, who should be in his sixth NFL season by then. “I’m going to have to see if I can save some eligibility and come back and play in those games.”