The Clowney Factor: Attention brought by star has been a boon for school, state

jkendall@thestate.comDecember 28, 2013 

— When Steve Spurrier suggested recently that all 1.4 billion people in China know Jadeveon Clowney thanks to The Hit, it was clearly hyperbole.

But it’s no stretch to say the entire college football universe has come to know South Carolina’s star defensive end in the past three years, and that the attention has been a boon for the Gamecocks.

“He’s been a wonderful ambassador for the University of South Carolina,” Spurrier said. “All you have to do is look at our record and all the national attention and recognition we have received. It’s been very beneficial for the entire university and for our state. Our state has benefited from what he has done here, definitely.”

South Carolina is 32-6 since Clowney came to Columbia, but his impact on the school has gone far beyond the playing field.

“I don’t know if you can put a price on it,” athletics director Ray Tanner said.

Clowney’s No. 7 jerseys dot Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturdays, and Tanner answers questions about his star almost everywhere he goes. Everything about Clowney is outsized from his 6-foot-6, 280-pound frame to his flowing dreadlocks to his smile.

“I think he’s brought a tremendous amount of notoriety, obviously,” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at Southern Cal. “In terms of that particular program, it’s often more known for its coach than its athletes, I think Jadeveon brought a new level of notoriety.”

ESPN fell in the love with Clowney from the start, broadcasting his commitment ceremony at South Pointe High in Rock Hill live on Feb. 14, 2011, and sport’s most influential star-maker has not stopped riding the wave yet. The network aired his hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith from last year’s bowl game so much that even Clowney got sick of seeing it, and named the tackle its top play of 2013. In the preseason, ESPN aired a 30-minute special on Clowney titled “The Freak,” which featured Clowney popping up in the nightmares of opposing quarterbacks.

Even his name fits perfectly into the script: Jadeveon. Clowney. The Gamecocks are preparing here to face Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, and the Badgers have a player in running back Melvin Gordon who has been as impressive on the field in his career as Clowney has been in his, but how is “Melvin Gordon” supposed to compete with “Jadeveon Clowney?”

A Google search for “Jadeveon” returns 1.24 million hits. “The Hit” has been viewed nearly six million times on YouTube alone. In short, Clowney is a star, and he has carried Carolina’s signature block C logo along with him for the ride.

“I definitely knew about him in the last bowl game against Michigan,” Wisconsin linebacker Brendan Kelly said. “I think that was on SportsCenter top 10 for about a year.”

Clowney is “almost like a folk hero” in college football circles, Kelly said.

“We saw a poster of Jadeveon (in Orlando) on a wall. It must have been a 12-foot poster. I was like, ‘That’s actual size,’” Kelly said. “He’s 12 feet tall, kind of like Paul Bunyan.”

Clowney’s time at Carolina has come with speed bumps, though. Most recently, he has received headlines for two speeding tickets — which combined were for a staggering 69 mph over the posted speed limit. He’s also been criticized this season because of a dramatic drop in his statistical production (from a school-record 13 sacks last year to three this season) and his game-day decision not to play against Kentucky because of a rib injury.

“Typically, a star athlete brings with him ups and downs,” Carter said. “Obviously, last season’s success on the field was amazing. This season has been a little more spotty, and it’s typical when a star athlete like him has the national notoriety and it spills into the second year, that spotlight gets awfully bright and people go from being enamored by the player to finding new and different things to write about. I think it’s inevitable that change in media coverage is going to ensue.”

Tanner defended his most famous player this week.

“There was a lot of pressure on him. He’s made a couple of mistakes, but he’s a tremendous young man,” Tanner said. “He’s been a pleasure for me to have a chance to visit with in the last year-and-a-half I’ve been on the job. He has a great personality. He has a big smile. Sometimes when you are on that stage, you get criticized and you get exposed a little bit. He’s a little bit older than he was coming in.”

That aging process hasn’t always gone easily for Clowney.

“I had to grow up a lot faster than I expected,” he said. “I’m 20 years old. That’s what people don’t realize. I have to mature faster than people expect. Basically, that’s what it was, becoming a man in college, really.”

Clowney’s coming of age in Columbia has brought invaluable attention to the school, Carter said.

“Handled properly, that notoriety should help them to continue to elevate the program,” he said.

While South Carolina can continue to reap the rewards of the Clowney era into the future, his contributions on the field will end around 4 p.m. Wednesday when the Capital One Bowl concludes.

“My three years went by so fast,” Clowney said. “I am looking forward to moving on in life.”

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