Clemson, $2 bills and a one-of-a-kind bowl tradition

DALLAS -- Clemson fan Chris Fortenberry is digging through his wallet, looking for the right bill. He has been hanging on to it, and he's sure it's in there somewhere -- but then again, maybe he took it out for safekeeping and forgot.

This is typical for owners of $2 bills. Rather than being used for spending, they tend to get hoarded, with people favoring them as collectibles more than as genuine American currency valued at, well, $2.

That isn't why Fortenberry is searching for his, however. In fact, he has a wallet full of $2 bills. It's just that this one is special. It's one he saved from his trip to Tampa, Florida, two years ago, when Clemson beat Alabama to win the national championship. That's a real keepsake.

The rest of the bills in his wallet are simply tradition. In fact, unlike most Clemson fans, Fortenberry's $2 bills aren't stamped with an orange tiger paw -- at least not yet. But he's here, at a bar in Dallas, ahead of Clemson's date with Notre Dame in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic with his wife, Ashley, and their friends, and they're all putting their share of $2 bills into circulation.

Since the 1970s, Clemson fans have been slipping these tiger-paw-stamped Jeffersons (that's the president on the front) into the hands of valets and bellhops, taxi drivers and bartenders all over the country as a way to let them know the Tigers are in town. The brainchild of George Bennett, an executive director of Clemson's IPTAY booster club, the $2 bills started as a publicity stunt to show cities and football teams that scheduling the Tigers was good for business.

"When you start something like this," Bennett said, "you don't have any idea you're starting a tradition."

Until 1973, Clemson and Georgia Tech games were always played in Atlanta. Back in those days, that was the closest the Tigers came to a bowl trip most years, and typically anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 Clemson fans would make the trip. But for reasons Bennett can't quite explain, Georgia Tech eventually decided to drop Clemson from its schedule, and that ruffled a few orange feathers.

So Bennett set out to find a way to prove to the fine folks in Atlanta just how much of an impact Clemson fans had on the local economy. That's when it hit him: $2 bills.

The first $2 denominations were printed in the 1860s, but it's still relatively rare to find one of the bills in circulation. When a $2 note happens to find its way into a transaction, folks take notice.

Years later, Bennett remembers staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami for the Orange Bowl when a man with a thick accent happily traded him 100 euro for a single $2 bill.

"Of course, we told our other Clemson friends about it," Bennett said, "and they went all over the hotel trying to trade their $2 bills, too."

The idea back in the '70s, however, was not to shake down a tourist for a tidy profit but to remind hoteliers, business owners and, of course, Georgia Tech's athletics department that scheduling Clemson meant money in their pockets.

"We had so much fun with it, we started taking them to bowl games and stamping them with tiger paws," Bennett said, "and everywhere we've gone since then, people look forward to us bringing the $2 bills."

At the Bottled Blonde in Dallas, bartender Matt Rasner said about one in five of his customers last week paid with $2 bills. It's an influx of the currency he hadn't seen since -- well, since Clemson was in town for the Texas A&M game in September.

For much of the 20th century, $2 bills were popular at betting parlors, horse tracks and gentlemen's clubs, which helped create an aura of immorality that made good, upstanding citizens steer clear of spending them. There are even stories of politicians being routinely bribed with the currency for much the same reason that Bennett first suggested them to Clemson fans: They get noticed.

While Clemson fans don't need to prove their economic worth these days, spending the currency in whichever town happens to be hosting that weekend has become something of a way of marking their territory.

Bill Harley is the senior vice president of the Clemson branch of the First Citizens Bank. He's also a 1982 Clemson grad, so he's always careful to ensure the bank stocks $2 bills before a big road game or bowl trip. He guessed about 250 customers came in to exchange ordinary currency for $2 denominations before the Cotton Bowl.

Harley said the bank offers the bills to anyone in need but limits how many any one person gets so everyone can get a few. This hasn't always gone over well.

The bank used to keep several tiger paw stamps on hand, too, allowing customers to stamp their bills. But two years ago, just before the national title game in Tampa, a customer came in demanding more $2 bills than the bank could spare. When Harley denied the request, the customer got even by stealing all the stamps.

"We try to make sure everybody can get some," Harley said, "but if it's a big game, we typically run out."

For Christine Juliano, it's even tougher to get hold of the currency. She's a 1993 graduate of Clemson, and her husband, Michael, wears an "I married into this" Clemson shirt alongside her at Bottled Blonde the day before the Cotton Bowl. While both are rabid Tigers fans, they're not exactly adding to the Dallas economy. They live here.

Still, Christine wanted her $2 bills to do her part, so she went to a bank in her hometown of McKinney, Texas, and asked for $40 worth.

"I have $20," the confounded teller said.

They didn't have stamps, either, so Michael drew a few paw prints in by hand. Tradition takes effort, of course.

For Bennett, it's a little easier. Folks know him, and he's always prepared. He got $300 worth of twos for the Cotton Bowl, and he always asks for crisp, new bills. Then he heads back to the house and uses his own stamp and orange ink pad, ordered especially for this, to get ready for the big game.

That's what this is all about now, Bennett said. Nearly 50 years after he came up with the idea, it has grown well beyond his wildest expectations, but it has also become one of the things that ties the fan base together and helps create a whole new set of fans among the servers, bellhops and baristas in college towns and bowl destinations across the country.

"It identifies us," he said. "It's a way of bonding together."