TAMPA — Bob Friedman watched in astonishment as a Clemson fan peeled out 36 $2 bills, each stamped with an orange tiger's paw, to pay for team T-shirts during the weekend.
"I didn't know what they were," Friedman said Sunday as he worked at a Fanatics sports apparel kiosk in downtown Tampa. "People usually pay with credit cards."
Not Clemson fans.
Tigers fans in Tampa for tonight's College Football Playoff National Championship game against Alabama are distributing thousands of $2 bills — stamped with the team's tiger paw logo — to local businesses, often to tip amused restaurant servers or taxi drivers.
Folks need not fear: The bills are legal tender, even if the U.S. Treasury might frown at the slightly defaced cash.
Paying with the stamped bills is a tradition that dates to 1977, the year Atlanta's Georgia Tech decided it didn't want to schedule an annual football game against Clemson anymore.
"In a show of protest, students and alumni stamped $2 bills with Tiger Paws and used them in Atlanta to illustrate the money Tiger fans spent at athletic events. Today, fans still use $2 bills when attending away games," according to an explanation on the Clemson University website.
Paying with the Clemson deuces is still a demonstration of the fans' economic impact.
"The whole point is to show the local economy that we were there," said Chip Amaker, a Columbia, S.C., resident who is in town for the game with his wife, Mary Beth Amaker.
"We just gave one to an Uber driver, and he thought it was the best thing ever," said the Amakers' friend, Milby Mundy.
The fans usually stamp the bills themselves. Technically speaking, defacing U.S. currency is illegal. But published reports indicate the government pays the practice little heed.
"Uncle Sam must be a Clemson fan," said Derek Larsen, a 1991 Clemson graduate in Tampa in hopes of attending the game. On Sunday, he was still trying to find reasonably priced game tickets.
He visited downtown with his 14-year-old son, Kalen, on Sunday, paying a parking lot attendant a $10 fee with five Clemson $2 bills.
"That guy's going to remember Clemson," Larsen said.
On Saturday afternoon, a Clemson fan left a $2 bill in the tip jar for clerks at the Starbucks inside the Hilton Tampa Downtown, which surprised employee Alyssa Furr of Lutz.
"I think it's a really unique way for them to show team spirit," she said. "It's pretty neat."
Another customer thought it was so neat, he asked employees if he could take the $2 bill as a keepsake. He offered to place three $1 bills in the tip jar in return. The employees agreed.
Steve Hudson, a Birmingham, Ala., investment adviser and 1981 Alabama graduate staying at the Hilton, said he's got something that trumps the Clemson bills.
Legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant gave Hudson a faux $2 bill with the coach's face on it many years ago. Bryant signed it.
It's not legal tender, Hudson admits — at least, not outside Alabama.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.