Of the many spoils and accolades Clemson fans enjoyed after the team won college football's national championship – the school’s first in 35 years – with a last-second touchdown, one had a distinctly Coca-Cola flavor.
Limited-edition commemorative Coca-Cola cans celebrating the Tigers’ triumph will begin to appear in store shelves next week. They’re the latest in a long line of special cans and bottles Coke has produced over the years to honor sports teams, both college and pro, and other unique achievements.
While Coca-Cola had produced anniversary bottles in the past, the origins of the championship bottles/cans can be traced to 1980, when special 10-oz. bottles were made to honor the University of Georgia's national football championship, given the Athens, Ga.-based school’s proximity to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta.
“Coke had done bottles before that, but they were the typical contour Coke bottles," Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan explained. “The bottles for specific sports events were straight-sided bottles. Georgia would have been the first one, but that was followed by a (legendary Alabama coach) Bear Bryant one, the 1980 Winter Olympics and Clemson football in 1981."
That's right, the Tigers were one of the first few commemorative bottles, giving fans a chance to connect the past and present through Coca-Cola three-and-a-half decades later.
“The beauty of these bottles is that that are amazingly personal," Ryan said. “With the bottles and cans, it's something that connects you as a fan of your team and the brand more closely. It helps bring fans together. When the Atlanta Braves won the World Series, I didn't even work for Coke, and I was collecting them left and right."
Over the years, Coke has produced an array of sports bottles and cans – from West Georgia's 1983 Division IV college football championship to the Boston Red Sox's 75th anniversary to, just last year, Villanova's NCAA basketball championship. Some have featured game scores, others unique artwork. Contour bottles came back in the late-1980s, and the standard size dropped from 10-oz. to 8-oz.
Later, cans, which were easier to produce quickly and on a mass scale, became the norm.
“There have been some fun ones," Ryan said. “One of the more interesting ones was a 1982 St. Louis Cardinals bottle that had a mistake. They had the game-by-game box scores on them, but there was a mistake in one, and they had to print new ones. There was a set for the Dizzy Dean Little League World Series. So there have been bottles for big and small events."
Commemorative sports bottles and cans are often a hot commodity among the avid Coca-Cola collectors’ community. Robert Pettijohn, a collector in Texas, got started in 1995 and has been hooked ever since.
“You try to find out about bottles everywhere," he said. “When Ohio State won the national championship (in 2002), the only way to get the bottle was to be on campus. It was a very difficult find on the collector's market. It took me almost a year to find it.”
Ryan notes that a 1985 Ty Cobb “Georgia Peach" bottle is one of the most sought-after sports packs on the market, with some valued at $135 and eBay listings often starting around $100. Pettijohn, who has a 9’x13’ room in his home filled from top to bottom with commemorative bottles, says collectors have a keen eye for Coca-Cola memorabilia.
Coke, under the stewardship of Ryan, maintains its own collection of commemorative bottles and cans in the company’s archives, but its collection is not complete, by design.
“We mainly look for ones with informational value or that will be interesting in a display," he said.
Now the 2016 edition of the Clemson Tigers join the ranks of great sports teams and individuals honored by Coca-Cola, giving fans and collectors one more chance to remember the team's remarkable run.
“I'm going to have to add one to my collection," Pettijohn said.
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