Walter Merritt Riggs

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Walter Merritt Riggs is notable in Clemson history for several reasons. After a decade as a Mechanical Engineering professor, he was named acting president of Clemson Agricultural College on December 6, 1909 to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of P. H. Mell, being confirmed by the Board of Trustees as the sixth permanent president on March 7, 1911. He served until his untimely death on January 22, 1924 while on a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials of other land grant institutions.

Riggs was born January 24, 1873, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to Harpin and Emma Gowan Riggs. His father, a Northerner, was a producer of carriage parts. His mother was a Southerner.

He received his undergraduate education degree in 1893, and the engineering and master of engineering degrees in 1894, from Auburn University, where he was a member of Phi Delta Theta. He began his career at Auburn as an instructor in English and then physics. He came to Clemson in 1896, as an assistant in the mechanical and electrical engineering department. In 1901, he was appointed professor of electrical engineering and head of the engineering department. Riggs became intensely active in the life of the college from the start: he organized the Glee Club, organized and coached the first football team in 1896 (which see below), and was later responsible for the college's hiring of football coach John Heisman. Riggs established the South Carolina Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1900, and served as vice-president and president of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Riggs can also be characterized as the "father of Clemson Football", as he brought the game with him from Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University). That Auburn and Clemson share the same mascot is no accident. Riggs allowed his players to pick the team mascot and, although he may have influenced their decision, the players chose Tigers because Princeton had just won the national championship. Riggs helped organize and coach the infant Tiger team in 1896. Indeed, when the Tigers traveled to Greenville on Halloween to play Furman in their very first match, only Coach Riggs and backfield player Frank Thompkins had ever seen a football game played.

Riggs took the team to a 2-1 record in the inaugural year. He then stepped aside at the urging of the cadets, who felt that he should concentrate on his scholastic duties rather than coach the team for free.

In 1899, when the Clemson Athletic Association could not afford a coaching salary, Riggs again took over the reins, one of only two Clemson football coaches to return to the position after stepping down. The 1899 squad went 4-2. Riggs' overall record of 6-3 gives him a .667 winning percentage. Historic Riggs Field is named for him.

In the early 1900s Riggs assisted South Carolina College by performing engineering and electrical design work for some of their new construction.

From the Presidential Records, 1907-1925, Series 17, Special Collections, Strom Thurmond Institute: While he was president Riggs created new efficiency in the operation of the college. He strengthened the power of the office and consolidated authority by ending the practice of faculty, staff, and parents of cadets taking their requests and complaints to the Board of Trustees. He insisted on loyalty to the college and from all of his subordinates and established a publicity department for cultivating good relationships with editors and the public. [See the Clemson Catechism, authored by Riggs in 1910 - Ed.] He also spoke to many groups in the state defending and promoting the mission of the college. He abolished the preparatory school, introduced architectural studies, enlarged the the extension program through an agreement with the U. S. Department of Agriculture and allowed women to participate in some of the summer agricultural courses. A department of student affairs was created in 1920. During Riggs' administration enrollment doubled and Clemson became generally acknowledged as one of the leading land-grant institutions.

Upon his sudden death in January 1924 whilst in Washington, D. C., his body was returned to Clemson and buried on Cemetary Hill on January 24.


Preceded by: No One Clemson University Football Coaches Succeeded by: W. M. Williams


Preceded by: Patrick Hues Mell Presidents of Clemson Succeeded by: Samuel Broadus Earle