March 1, 2004 CLEMSON The rarest of creatures has popped up in Clemson from time to time this season. Let's call him Whiney Clemson Basketball Fan. The reason this creature is so rare is that most Clemson fans don't care about basketball. Just look at the attendance at Littlejohn Coliseum this season. No, don't look at the announced attendance figures. Count the actual orange-clad rear ends in the seats. Oliver Purnell and his team could have sued for non-support in 2003-04. The victory over North Carolina in Littlejohn was special for the coach and his team in part because it came in front of a crowd that was about 30 percent Tar Heels.
After several games, Purnell has been asked about the atmosphere in Littlejohn. He could have blasted the fans (and the students), because they've been lousy this season, but Purnell always has stayed positive. He knows ripping the few fans who did come to the games would accomplish nothing. His pat answer: It's going to get better in here.
As mentioned in the past, the only reason most Clemson fans go to basketball games in January is to meet with their buddies and talk about football recruiting.
What is wrong with our team? WCBF will blurt. I'm beginning to believe that Purnell is not the answer. I see the team making the same mistakes over and over. I don't think he knows what he's doing.
Yes, it's true. There are some fans who aren't happy with Purnell's first year at Clemson. But the fans who aren't happy are in an extremely small minority. Most of the hard-core Clemson basketball fans, those who have suffered for many years, recognize that the Tigers have improved under Purnell.
Fortunately, more help is on the way. A large part of Purnell's focus has been on recruiting, ever since he stepped onto campus. He is signing top-100 players and getting more highly rated prospects to look at Clemson. That's a major accomplishment. WCBF, take note.
Yes, the Tigers finished in their familiar place, at the bottom of the ACC standings. Did anybody really expect anything else? In a year that many observers considered the best in the ACC in recent memory, the Tigers came to a sword fight with a hickory switch.
Purnell's No. 1 accomplishment this season was teaching his new team to play hard. The Tigers proved three things all season long: They will defend, they will rebound and they will get on the floor after a loose ball. This team probably set the school record for floor burns. Even Chris Hobbs yes, that Chris Hobbs learned how to hustle after a loose ball. Hobbs even went George Karl in one game and dove over the press table.
Defense kept the Tigers in almost every game. Their defense allowed them to hang around and cut 30-point losses to 15-point defeats.
The Tigers got a good grasp on Purnell's defensive principles, but there's one thing they couldn't do this season: shoot. Except for the victory over UNC, when the planets aligned and they wore the Tar Heels out from behind the arc, the Tigers have been a lousy offensive team.
Hobbs and Sharrod Ford both are bad finishers. Olu Babalola escaped from his early season leash and was out of control for most of January and February. Chey Christie hasn't been seen or heard from this season, except when he blew the Virginia game at home on Feb. 21 by playing loose defense and committing a late turnover. Shawan Robinson had an impressive stretch as the starting point guard, but at best he's a role player.
Next year's team figures to be more athletic, better on the offensive end (that won't be difficult to do) and younger. Two years from now, the Tigers should be sophomore-freshman dominated. In other words, don't even talk about what kind of job Purnell is doing until at least his fourth season.
Rare Promotion Effort Fizzled
The Clemson way of promoting is to wait. And wait. And wait. Win and they will come. If the team loses, don't spend any money on promotions. Don't give away any tickets. Don't advertise. Just let the team dangle. Sports marketing and Clemson are two terms that don't go together very well.
But before the Tigers' final home game against Georgia Tech on Feb. 28, Clemson made a stunning move. The athletic department decided to promote/advertise a home basketball game. Some perspective: Advertising a sporting event at Clemson and Halley's Comet are on about the same cycle.
That Clemson decided to promote a home game was stunning. How they decided to promote it was even more stunning with Danny Ford and Tommy Bowden. That's right. Ford and Bowden read announcements for radio ads. The message from both was come out and support Purnell, who is building a fine basketball program. It had little effect. A small crowd still greeted the Tigers before their loss to Tech.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips is a no-nonsense guy. He doesn't believe in giveaways, contests, etc., to build attendance. Phillips does believe one of the biggest problems the basketball program has is a disconnect with the student body.
Clemson students have the worst seats in the conference. At some ACC schools, the students surround the floor. Not at Clemson. The Clemson students have been moved out of their courtside seats and into the end zones. There were reports that Phillips was livid during the UNC game, after he spotted two Carolina fans sitting in the front row of the Clemson student section.
The decision to relocate the Clemson students was made before Phillips arrived from Oklahoma State, but Phillips said he's willing to re-visit the issue. The means some big-money people might be moved in favor of improving the atmosphere.
Phillips also is considering a program that will allow fans who can't use their tickets to turn them in for credit. The tickets then will be re-sold to other Clemson fans.