SAN FRANCISCO — Back when famed explorer John Fremont described a 3-mile strait separating the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco Bay as “the Golden Gate” there was no ESPN. Dabo Swinney hadn’t entered coaching.
That was 1846, a few years before the gold-crazy 49ers began dropping into town for supplies and various forms of infamous entertainment. Two new centuries dawned, and still no one thought of Clemson football mixing with cable cars and Fisherman’s Wharf.
But California dreaming came true for the booming, enthusiastic Northern California Clemson Club thanks to a confluence of great timing. College Football Playoff executives picked the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to host the 2019 national championship game just as Clemson was turning into an elite program and more Clemson graduates were taking Bay Area tech jobs.
“We’ve been planning on this. Totally,” said Lindsey Schlemm, a Greenville native and 2003 Clemson graduate. “We’ve been very confident all season. Like, ‘They’re coming out here.’”
The club’s 60 members are rolling out the orange and purple carpets in advance of Monday night’s Clemson-Alabama national championship game.
They have planned a pair of Sunday welcome parties for fellow alums and fans, one at Five Points and O’Flaherty’s, adjoining bars in San Jose, and another at The Boardroom, the club’s regular game-watching hangout in San Francisco’s North Beach area.
“The main Clemson Alumni Association approached us with some ‘What if?’ planning a few weeks ago,” said Ed Runnion, a 1994 Clemson graduate and director of the Northern California Clemson Club. “It all got very real when we won the Cotton Bowl.”
Never mind that Clemson hasn’t played on the Pacific Coast since a 1966 loss at Southern California. These alums are skilled at football parties built around Tiger games, even if some kick off at 9 a.m. Pacific time.
The fun typically starts with a tailgate picnic at Washington Square in San Francisco. People arrive from all over the Bay Area decked out in Clemson gear and armed with fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and other Southern football food favorites.
They play a little cornhole.
They toss footballs around.
Then it’s off to The Boardroom.
“We pack out the bar so much that the fire marshal better not come by,” Runnion said, “or we might get in trouble.”
From 1964 to Pawcast
Ben Welty is the go-to club member for hardcore football info. A 2006 Clemson graduate from Summerville, Welty and fellow grads Cody Fowler and Nick Tully star in a popular San Francisco-based Pawcast podcast.
Since its modest debut in 2015, the Pawcast has reached 5,000 listeners.
“The success of the football team has certainly helped,” said Welty, an architect who lives on San Francisco’s historic Nob Hill. “We were surprised when we got our first 100 listeners, then surprised when we got our 1,000 listeners. We just try to give a fan perspective, and it helps us to keep in touch with Clemson out here on the West Coast.”
The late Frank Kellers couldn’t have seen this coming, though he might have imagined the club’s ski trips to Lake Tahoe. Kellers, a 1957 Clemson graduate, founded the Northern California Clemson Club in 1964 after moving west to work in the aerospace industry. Kellers ran the club until 2011, when Runnion took over.
“In 1964, there was hardly anyone from Clemson on the West Coast,” said Runnion, who lives in San Jose and works as a product engineer a few miles from Levi’s Stadium. “It’s very different now.”
All in on Dabo
Google and Apple are among the draws for Clemson grads.
“Our group is really eclectic,” said Schlemm, who works in San Francisco real estate and specializes in high-end rentals. “We just started watching games five or six years ago and that’s when Clemson started to get good. Our numbers started growing and growing.”
That often includes parents of current students, vacationers and business travelers.
“It’s pretty cool,” Schlemm said. “Since this is such a popular place to visit, we get a lot of drop-ins.”
Coach Swinney and his No. 2-ranked Tigers dropped in Friday for a business trip.
“Oh, I love Dabo,” Schlemm said. “He’s the catalyst and game-changer for our team. I’ve been a Clemson fan for 20 years, and he’s just taken the team to a higher level.”
At this rate, there is hope for still more California dreaming: The 2023 College Football Playoff national championship game is set for the new Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park.