Rick Stockstill does not see Middle Tennessee State’s visit to Clemson on Saturday as a stroll down memory lane. He views it as a trip into the very soul of college football.
“It’s a great college atmosphere,” the Blue Raiders’ coach said. “Clemson is one of the premier schools in the country from a pageantry standpoint. From tailgating to the fan support, they know how to do it.”
He speaks from experience.
Stockstill spent 14 years as a member of the coaching staff at Clemson beginning in 1989. During that time he held a number of jobs, including co-offensive coordinator (1994-95) and recruiting coordinator (1999-2002).
Even so, his understanding of the challenges that await MTSU this weekend is not unique among members of his current staff. He is one of nine Blue Raiders’ coaches or support staff with ties to the school, which plays its home games in what is known as “Death Valley.”
• Assistant head coach/defensive line Les Herrin was a Clemson assistant twice for a total of 14 seasons. His first stint there was as linebackers coach beginning in 1981, the year Clemson won the national championship.
• Running backs coach Willie Simmons played at Clemson (he was a quarterback for three years) and began his coaching career there as a graduate assistant in 2006.
• Wide receivers coach Justin Watts played and earned his degree from Clemson and then spent his first four years coaching as an assistant there.
• Safeties coach David Bibee was an assistant coach there for two years.
• Strength coach Russell Patterson was a graduate assistant and then assistant strength coach there from 1998 through 2003.
• Trainer Robbie Stewart earned his bachelor’s degree from Clemson and was an assistant athletic trainer there for eight years.
• Assistant director of football operations Andy Vaughn had the same position at Clemson in 2005 and also spent the 2003 season as a recruiting assistant.
• Equipment manager Troy Johnson graduated from Clemson and was a student equipment manager while he pursued his degree.
“I do not want this thing to be about us, me or the coaches, and all our memories,” Stockstill said. “It is about our players and getting ready to go play a game.
“To me, yes, it is where my kids were born and I have a lot of special memories, but that is all it is. I am not looking at it as a homecoming or I am coming home with all that stuff.”
This is the first time since Stockstill became head coach in 2006 that MTSU has opened with a non-conference game.
Yet it’s hardly the first time his team has played before a big, noisy crowd.
“We’ve been in these big stadiums before,” he said. “We’ve been to South Carolina. We’ve been to Oklahoma and LSU for a night game, which is one of the toughest places in the world to play. Our guys have been in that arena before. We will not be awe. We will not be intimidated.”
So they won’t be taken aback by the surroundings.
That doesn’t mean that Stockstill and eight others won’t be taken back in time, at least briefly, at some point during the weekend.