CLEMSON - Even Steve Fuller admits that, decades later, it still bugs him.
His most vivid memory of the 1978 Gator Bowl is that a breakthrough moment for Clemson football is barely noted as such.
"I've talked to some of my teammates over the years, and I think we were all disappointed the way it ended seems to be the prevailing thought when that game is mentioned," Fuller said Friday in a phone interview with The Post and Courier. "It's always 'the Woody game.' "
Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes slugged Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman on the sideline after Bauman's interception basically sealed the Tigers' 17-15 victory over Ohio State. That closed out Clemson at 11-1 and No. 6 in the country, just two years removed from a 5-15-2 two-year stretch.
"We worked awfully hard to get to the point where we felt like we had reached a little bit of a national program," Fuller said. "There was certainly no BCS then, but we were one of the top five or six teams in the country. Who knows what was going to happen? We weren't in a position to probably jump all the way up top, but there were no undefeated teams that year.
"We got in the situation where the game was in hand - then that (melee) kind of took over. Even to this day, I think that's what everybody remembers."
It was also Fuller's last game of his storied Clemson career. The senior and third-team All-American engineered two long touchdown drives - 15 plays, 80 yards in the second quarter, and 18 plays, 83 yards in the third - to defeat the vaunted Buckeyes.
Memories of that game return this winter as Clemson prepares for its second meeting with Ohio State on Jan. 3 in the Orange Bowl.
While it was the first coaching victory for Danny Ford, it was the 21st and final win of Fuller's quarterbacking career. Lasting 10 years in the NFL with four different franchises - he was Jim McMahon's backup for the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears - Fuller was one of three charter members in the Clemson Ring of Honor, joining coaches Banks McFadden and Frank Howard.
"At the time, Clemson wasn't very good until Steve Fuller got here," Ford said Dec. 11. "Well, Clemson had been good - coach Howard had been to the Orange Bowl once, they'd been undefeated once, went to several bowl games. But Steve was so good, and he was so smart."
The way Fuller sees it, the Tigers' buildup to a national title in 1981 didn't start that Gator Bowl year. It was the previous season, when they flipped a bad 1976 (3-6-2, 0-4-1 in the ACC) into a productive 1977 (8-3-1, 4-1-1, conference runner-up), which put the program back in a bowl game for the first time in 18 years, though the Tigers lost 34-3 in the 1977 Gator Bowl.
"I'm sure having a good finish that (1978) year helped," Fuller said. "I wouldn't say it was the pivotal point, but even going back to the year before was probably more important in getting that thing turned around."
Fuller is the only Clemson athlete to win the NCAA's Top Five Award and to become ACC player of the year twice in football. He also was a two-time first-team academic All-American, one of three Tigers ever to be an All-American in football and academia the same year.
"He was academically gifted. He was smart as he could be, could throw the football, run the option and do a lot of things," Ford said. "Good golfer, good at basketball, just a good athlete."
These days in Bluffton, Fuller can't play as much hoops as he'd like - injuries slowed him down five or six years ago - but he still works on his golf game around coaching high school football at Hilton Head Island High School and dabbling in real estate development.
Fuller returns to campus for 2-3 big games a year at Death Valley; he saw the Georgia win and Florida State loss this fall. His daughter, Alexandra, graduated from Clemson last year and will attend the Orange Bowl next week. Steve's not sure if he'll make the trip.
"I haven't pulled the trigger yet. I would like to. I just don't know," Fuller said. "I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I'll probably wait a few days after Christmas to make the decision."