CLEMSON — Lifelong Clemson fan George Hamilton eyed the damage done and swapped through the overriding emotions Thursday — from shock to disgust, from reflection to sadness.
It’s not just a rock. It’s The Rock. The rock of Clemson’s football game-day spirit and time-honored tradition.
With youth sports camps continuing as scheduled on a toasty Thursday under clear skies, a mythical dark cloud wafted over campus as fans and officials — all the way up to the head football coach — bemoaned the stunning sabotage of Howard’s Rock, which has proudly presided over Memorial Stadium for 47 years.
The Clemson University Police Department is 10 days deep into an investigation after a fist-size portion of the rock was chipped off and stolen either the night of June 2 or the morning of June 3. The vandalism wasn’t made known to the public until Wednesday night.
“It’s pretty low. Extremely low,” said the 25-year-old Hamilton, a Charleston native and graduate of James Island Charter High studying forestry as a Clemson graduate student. “They allow a lot of freedoms with it. My cousin, for their wedding portrait, they got dressed up in their tuxedo and dress, and they took the cover off and everything to take the picture. It’s fairly easy to get in there and get a picture or something like that, especially this time of year.”
It’s hard to tell anything’s changed to an unknowing passerby. The marble mount hoisting Howard’s Rock is unblemished while the famed fixture rests normally upon its pedestal with its usual glass encasing, after officials cleaned up the mess.
About 15 percent of the rock’s total mass is missing — not nearly enough to deter Clemson’s famed pregame ritual.
“Thankfully, most of Howard’s Rock is still intact and we will do what is necessary to protect it going forward,” football head coach Dabo Swinney said, issuing a statement Thursday afternoon. “I know our coaches and players look forward to rubbing Howard’s Rock, running down the hill, and furthering one of the great traditions of college football when we open the season against Georgia on August 31.”
However, Swinney expressed his displeasure at the situation, matching the fan base’s sentiments.
“It is very disappointing that someone would disrespect our unique tradition to this extent. It is one of the iconic images of the game,” Swinney said. “I am sure Clemson police will investigate this thoroughly and hold the person accountable for this behavior.”
The incident report obtained Thursday morning from Clemson’s police department indicated facts are few and there are no suspects.
The report was filed at 2:30 p.m. June 3, when Clemson assistant athletic director for facilities and grounds Gary Wade reported trespassers removed a large piece of the white flint rock along with its Plexiglas cover.
Pieces of the rock, a plastic cover and part of the lock protecting the rock were on the ground near the gate. Campus officers Gary Leslie and James Graham were on site to collect pictures and a statement from Wade and university employees Jeff Kallin and William Lewis, who discovered the damage.
The pedestal was not dented or scratched, but it was found with a partial fingerprint, which was checked by officers. The plexiglass case was turned over to police officer Zach Owen for further inspection of possible prints, though wrongdoers wouldn’t necessarily have been the only ones touching the artifact.
A source within the department said surveillance cameras, stationed around Memorial Stadium, had yet to turn up many clues.
The incident types reported are petit larceny (theft of low-value items) and malicious injury to state property.
Damage was estimated initially at $500 and stolen property at $200, though Leslie indicated the actual amounts are pending investigation.
Three undergraduate students working for the university’s housing staff this summer stopped by to review the rock for themselves. Patrick Canterbury, a fifth-year senior and a third-generation Clemson student from Pittsburgh, couldn’t believe it.
“It’s a symbol. It’s been here for decades. You’ve heard of attempts in the past that people have tried to vandalize it and it’s always been foiled,” said Canterbury, recalling a 1992 incident when fans attempted to remove the rock prior to the game against South Carolina.
“I guess naively, I always thought it was somewhat invincible. I mean, it’s a rock, so how much damage can you really do to it? Then you see this.”
Hamilton sorrowfully observed the damage, standing outside the gates where the Tigers always roar their way onto Frank Howard Field to kick off home games. He was comforted knowing that particular ritual can’t be crushed.
“Across the country, people know when Clemson has a home game, they know what that is. They’ve titled it the most exciting 25 seconds in college football,” Hamilton said. “And it is. It’s huge.
“But it’s going to be a big deal – bigger than it is now.”