The 1978 Gator Bowl is most remembered for being the final game for Ohio State’s legendary head coach Woody Hayes, ending in unfortunate circumstances. It was also a big breakout game for Clemson. Here’s a look back on the paths both the Buckeyes and Tigers took to Jacksonville for what proved to be an unexpected historic night on December 29, 1978.
Hayes had been the Ohio State coach since 1951, winning national titles and 1954 and 1968, and in recent years having gone to six straight major bowl games, including the Rose Bowl each year from 1972-75. The 1978 edition would not be one of his vintage teams.
Art Schlicter was a freshman quarterback and did a lot of good things—his 50% completion rate was third in the Big Ten and his 7.1 yards-per-pass was second in the conference. But his TD/INT ratio was also 4/21—even allowing for the much weaker passing numbers of this era, that’s still downright awful.
Schlicter had a bright future—over his final three seasons he would be in the top six of the Heisman Trophy voting each year and eventually become a #4 overall NFL draft pick before a gambling problem ruined his career. But there were growing pains his freshman season in Columbus.
Nor did Ohio State have a powerhouse running back—four different backs shared duty and Schlicter also ran for nearly 600 yards. The offensive line wasn’t stacked. Nor was there elite talent at wide receiver. To make room for Schlicter, Hayes moved Rod Gerald to wideout. Gerald had quarterbacked the two previous Buckeye teams to major bowl games and the positon switch foreshadowed what Braxton Miller would do 36 years later.
Tom Cousineau was an All-American at linebacker, and it wasn’t as though every program in America had All-Americans stacked everywhere in the lineup. But by Ohio State standards, especially under Hayes, having Cousineau as the only player even getting All-American mention was thin.
The Buckeyes opened the season ranked #7 in the country, but a home game with Penn State to start the year quickly exposed the flaws. The Nittany Lions were on their way to an undefeated regular season and they hung a 19-0 shutout on Ohio State.
A 27-10 win at mediocre Minnesota followed, but a narrow 34-28 win over a poor Baylor team and then a 35-35 tie to subpar SMU—both in Columbus no less—were bad signs as the remainder of the Big Ten schedule loomed.
Ohio State traveled to Purdue, who had a good team that would compete for the conference title deep into the season and the Boilermakers beat the Buckeyes 27-16. Ohio State tumbled from the land of the ranked teams.
The Big Ten wasn’t exactly renowned for its depth in this time period—in fact, having anyone other than Ohio State or Michigan be competitive constituted a stacked year. The Buckeyes had a soft schedule ahead. They crushed terrible teams in Iowa and Northwestern to at least get some momentum pick.
A visit to Wisconsin to start November would provide a modest test—the Badgers would finish the season with a winning record. Schlicter got Ohio State off to a fast start. He took an option run 46 yards, setting up an early touchdown. The Buckeyes went on to score a touchdown off a blocked punt, another with a kickoff return and still another via the Pick-6. They won the game 49-14 and when it was followed with a 45-7 win over Illinois, Ohio State crawled back into the rankings at #19.
The Buckeyes went to Indiana, then coached by Lee Corso. The Hoosiers weren’t very good, but they gave Ohio State a tough battle before OSU pulled out a 21-18 win. No one in Bloomington would have guessed that it was the final victory for Woody Hayes.
And in spite of not looking impressive, Ohio State was in a familiar position—playing Michigan with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. The two rivals were in a three-way tie with Michigan State for the conference lead, but the Spartans were on NCAA probation. Purdue, having lost to Michigan, had also suffered a tie to Wisconsin, which proved to be the break the Buckeyes needed to control their own destiny at home against the Wolverines.
It was an opportunity Hayes’ team couldn’t take advantage of. Michigan was ranked sixth in the country and a significantly better team. It showed in a 14-3 win over Ohio State. The Buckeyes settled for the Gator Bowl bid, where they arrive ranked #20.
Charley Pell took over the Clemson program prior to the 1977 season when hard times had settled on Death Valley. The Tigers had losing seasons in eight of the previous nine years. Pell promptly turned them into a 8-2-1 team and got a Gator Bowl bid. They were trounced in that game by Pitt and came into ’78 ranked #18 and hungry to get a bigger breakthrough.
This was an extremely talented team at the skill positions. Steve Fuller was the quarterback, one who would start for the Chicago Bears off and on during the early years of the Mike Ditka era and lead the ’84 Bears to the NFC Championship Game. In 1978, Fuller was at or near the top of the ACC in the key passing categories, ran for 649 yards and was named ACC MVP.
Fuller had two great targets, both of whom would be successful in the NFL themselves. Jerry Butler was the prime target, catching 58 passes—sixth in the nation—for over 900 yards. Butler went on to play for some good Buffalo Bills teams and make a Pro Bowl. The other receiver was Dwight Clark, who went on to make one of the most famous catches in NFL history as a member of the 1981 San Francisco 49ers.
Lester Brown didn’t make a name for himself in the NFL, but he was a very good college running back. Brown ran for over 1,000 yards and got All-American mention. Marvin Sims was a change-of-pace back who rolled up nearly 700 yards himself.
Clemson crushed the Citadel to start the season and though they lost at Georgia, the 12-0 defeat to a team that would finish second in the SEC was a further sign that the Tigers were coming. Clemson followed it up with easy wins over Villanova, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Duke, by a combined 127-29.
The Tigers, having fallen from the polls after the Georgia game, were now back to #20. A road trip to N.C. State, a bowl-bound team was important in the ACC race and Clemson hung a 33-10 beatdown on the Wolfpack. Then the Tigers crushed Wake Forest 51-10.
A home win over mediocre North Carolina didn’t come easy, 13-9, but it moved Clemson to #12 and set up a big battle with 11th-ranked Maryland. The ACC title and a spot in the Top 10 hung in the balance. It was a showdown between the league’s two best quarterbacks, as the Terps’ Tim O’Hare ran neck-and-neck with Fuller in the major statistical categories.
The game proved to be everything it was billed to be. Big plays dominated. Maryland got a 98-yard touchdown run from Steve Atkins. Fuller responded by hitting Butler on an 87-yard touchdown pass, and hooking up with Clark from 62 yards. Clemson clung to a 28-24 lead when Maryland drove across midfield. The Tiger defense held and they were ACC champs.
Clemson closed the regular season with its traditional rivalry gram against South Carolina, then a mediocre independent and won 41-23. The Tigers were ranked #7 and were ready to validate that national ranking against a traditional power in the Gator Bowl.
Then turmoil came to Death Valley. Pell accepted the head coaching job at Florida, then a lowly SEC team who had never won anything. Pell was willing to coach Clemson in the Gator Bowl, but the administration refused. They wanted a coach would be focused solely on the opportunity presented by playing Ohio State. Assistant coach Danny Ford was elevated.
THE 1978 GATOR BOWL
Ohio State may have had the reputation, but Clemson made its talent advantage show. They controlled the line of scrimmage. But Schlicter showed his growth and did not make mistakes. The Buckeyes were still in striking distance, down 17-9 in the fourth quarter. Schlicter led a drive that he capped off with a touchdown run with eight minutes left. Clemson made the stop on the two-point conversion and kept a 17-15 lead.
Fuller and the offense could not control the ball though, Ohio State got it back and began another drive. They reached the Clemson 24-yard line and faced third down, though the chance of a winning field goal was very much alive. It looked the Tigers might have to wait for that breakthrough victory at a time when the ACC was seen as a midmajor conference.
Schlicter dropped back to pass and looked over the middle. He then threw his 21st and final interception of the year, woefully underthrowing the ball and having it picked off by defensive tackle Charlie Baumann.
Baumann was tackled out of bounds on the Ohio State sidelines. As he got up, Hayes hauled off and punched him. By morning, the replays were being shown over and over. There are reports that Hayes, a diabetic, was not on his proper medication. The head coach refused to acknowledge what he’d done. Bo Schembecler, a close friend of Hayes in spite of their rivalry, traveled to see his mentor and recalled that Hayes was honestly convinced he hadn’t done what everyone in the country had plainly seen.
Perhaps more than anything, that suggests that the old coach needed to go. It was terrible that it had to happen this way, but there was no other choice for the Ohio State administration. Hayes was fired.
While the fall of a legend is clearly the historical legacy of the game, we shouldn’t overlook what it meant for Clemson. Ford became the permanent head coach and by 1981, the Tigers were upstarts no more—the year they won the national championship.