Atlantic Coast Conference 2009
Danny Ford is a country gentleman, always has been. Despite the focused, sometimes angry countenance he displayed on the sidelines most Saturdays (and during practices, of course), the former University of Alabama lineman from Gadsden, Ala., who played for Paul Bryant from 1966-69, is downright affable.
Danny Ford is Still Synonymous with Clemson
Wri t t e n By
Ca r l D a n b u r y
he man standing next to me in the lunch line at
Dyar’s Diner looked like any other hard-working farmer: dirty blue jeans, a soiled white T-shirt and a baseball cap hiding his whitened hair. There was something different about this farmer, however, who towered over most of the others as his plate was being loaded up with fried fish, hush puppies, green beans and cabbage. “You want fried or grill?” The pleasant lady attending the line asked me. “I’d like what he’s having,” I answered a bit sheepishly being on unfamiliar turf. Some of the farmer’s cohorts sat at a table that seated six comfortably. Introductions followed and the conversation strayed to the topic of farming, specifically: When a man is building a pond on his property, after excavating the ground, would he plant Japanese millet or corn first? Each of the five, except for me of course, had an answer. I was hoping for a lively discussion about Clemson football, but none was forthcoming for another 30 minutes or so.
Pendleton, S.C., is a tiny farming community just outside of Clemson. The pleasant man I had come to visit raises beef cattle there, lends a hands to neighbors regularly, attends church on Sunday, enjoys spending time with his four grandkids — and like most everyone else in the area — loves Clemson football. He comes by that adoration a bit more easily than some, having been an assistant coach there under Charley Pell, before being named head coach at the tender age of 30 after Pell bolted for the University of Florida in 1978. Danny Ford is a country gentleman, always has been. Despite the focused, sometimes angry countenance he displayed on the sidelines most Saturdays (and during practices, of course), the former University of Alabama lineman from Gadsden, Ala., who played for Paul Bryant from 1966-69, is downright affable. He’s quick to say “Hey” to all who address him and doesn’t mind calling upon his dry humor — often. “I hear we’re all coming to your house for supper on Friday. What time do you eat?” A man inquired.
“We eat at noon. Why don’t y’all come around 2 p.m.?” Ford chuckled. Like a pair of slippers or faded jeans, Ford fits comfortably here just as he did when he was head coach at Clemson for 11 years, leading the Tigers to its only national championship in 1981, a sparkling 96-29-4 record including 6-2 in bowl games. He won six ACC titles at Clemson and would have won another one in 1983 had it not been for the NCAA and ACC sanctions that were imposed. His teams were ranked 19th or higher in the polls seven times during his tenure at Clemson. Since Ford’s final game on Dec. 30, 1989, the Tigers have been ranked in the Top 25 only seven times — a span of 229 games — and have gone 5-10 in bowl games. “I never worked in a program that had all the pieces working together like they were working when I was at Clemson,” said Jack Crowe, current head coach at Jacksonville State and former Ford assistant from 1986-88. “And yet, Danny was a macro-manager in football. All that just didn’t happen by accident. “We won three ACC championships when I was there. We effectively took on the two best coaches that were renowned for their bowl preparation — and we handily beat both of them — Oklahoma with Barry Switzer and Penn State with Joe Paterno,” Crowe said. “I’ve never been to a school that I don’t have a championship ring from, but I have no school where I won three in a row except for Clemson. All the pieces fit together.” Like some of the best coaches in college football history, Ford aligned himself with good foot soldiers.
“He knew how to pick people, players and coaches,” Crowe offered. “I don’t think I ever worked with a staff — and we argued like cats and dogs — that had more ability to focus than that staff did. But look at who was on those danged staffs (Wayne Bolt, Tom Harper, Bill D’Andrea, Woody McCorvey, Larry Van Der Heyden, Bill Oliver, Tommy West and Rick Stockstill). I look at him now differently than I did when I worked for him because I’m the head of a program now and we’re trying to accomplish the same things here as we did at Clemson.” One of the few coaches to have success against Ford’s Tigers was Dick Sheridan. Under Sheridan, N.C. State went 3-1 against Clemson, pinning the Tigers with their only ACC losses from 1986-88. Sheridan said he has the utmost respect for what Ford accomplished at Clemson. “A hallmark of his tenure there was the toughness of those Clemson teams,” Sheridan said. “They were recognized by everyone, including me, as physically and mentally very tough and very hard to beat. I think sometimes teams take on the personality of their coach, and I think that’s Danny, too. Very tough mentally and very committed, and his teams were like that. They were well drilled and well prepared.” That’s high praise from one of the few coaches that had a better career mark than Ford. Sheridan was 121-52-5 at Furman and N.C. State before calling it quits after the 1992 season because of health issues. Ford’s career mark was 120-59-5 at Clemson and Arkansas.
Ford’s success at Clemson can be traced to his ability to make parents and prospective players comfortable during the recruiting process. “His down-home approach was very effective. A lot of times, people don’t recognize how sharp and smart he is, because of his act, I always called it a country bumpkin act,” Sheridan laughed. “It didn’t fool me because of what an intelligent guy Danny is. If you have competed against him, you know how smart he is. “He had the ability to make people feel comfortable and to relate to him. You can’t fake that. It was real.” During one recruiting trip, recalled Crowe, his exboss might have made himself, perhaps a bit too much at home. “He slumps all the time when he sits, and when he
Atlantic Coast Conference 2009
slumps he never fits the chairs he’s sitting in,” Crowe said. “He’ll say it’s a lie, but it ain’t a danged lie. One time the chair got so uncomfortable for him that he just slid down and sat on the floor in a home of a recruit while we were on a recruiting visit. Is that not being comfortable with yourself? To him, it was natural. “He comes from a family of a long line of politicians,” Crowe added. “He had that country boy way about him, but he grew up in a family that knew how to make things happen, and I agree that his biggest asset is being able to get along with everyone. Danny was always comfortable with himself, and he made everyone around him comfortable all the time.” n
Ford’s own comfort at Clemson, however, wore off when he was forced to resign by university president Max Lennon, in what Crowe called “a collision of cultures.” “I was probably the starting point of that investigation that led to him stepping down at Clemson, and I can tell you from the very beginning there were no violations whatsoever,” Crowe said matter-of-factly. “There was never anything in my tenure there that led me to believe that he was in support of anything that wasn’t by the rules. And I promise you, he would have never been named the head coach at Arkansas (in 1994), as straight-laced as that
place was, if anybody had any facts to the contrary.” Ford said: “I was checked out at Arkansas very well.” It was the second time the Clemson program was investigated, having been placed on probation in 1983 and 1984, being limited to 20 scholarships those two seasons, and having to endure a bowl and television ban. Ford discussed the probation calmly, never becoming agitated. “If you win too quickly, too fast or win too much, then you’re not supposed to be winning [according to some]. That happens. It’s no different than with somebody’s business,” Ford said. “If there are three banks out here, one bank has a lot of business and one bank is pretty good, and then there’s a new kid on the block that all of a sudden is getting everybody’s accounts and making more money. The other two banks are going to say ‘wooo, this ain’t right, we’ve got to slow this down.”’ Sheridan said that he didn’t even recall Clemson being on probation. “I wasn’t even aware of that. I probably was at the time, but I don’t associate that with Danny. I think a lot of times, because he was a very effective recruiter, when you get top prospects and you take them away from other programs, there is a resentment that arises,” Sheridan said. “Sometimes the best way to explain it to your supporters, your people, is to say, ‘They’ve got to be doing something wrong.’ I never felt that way.” “Certainly, you would have never liked it to happen, but we took our medicine and we moved on,” Ford said. n
Good Advice For The New Coach
Upon resigning on Jan. 18, 1990, Ford was replaced by Ken Hatfield, who had no ties to the Clemson program. Although Hatfield coached the Tigers to their most recent ACC title in 1991, he departed after the 1993 season for Rice University. Tommy West, a Ford assistant from 198289, replaced Hatfield. Clemson fans recalled West’s tenure under Ford and were pleased to have one of their own back in charge of the program. “I didn’t feel the pressure at all. I think there was some excitement when I was hired, because if they weren’t getting Danny back, they were getting one of his boys back. Even though I said early on that, while there’s a lot of Danny Ford in me, I’m not Danny Ford and can’t be,” West related.
Atlantic Coast Conference 2009
Head Coach Dabo Swinney
He [Swinney] has done about everything that you can do to be positive for a football program to get their supporters to like him. They’re going to be a bit more lenient if they like you than if you’re a horse’s behind.
“If there was pressure, I think there was more on Ken Hatfield because of the fact that he followed Danny. You never want to be the guy who follows the legend. It’s better to be the guy who comes in after the guy who follows the legend.” In 2009, Dabo Swinney embarks on his quest to lead Clemson to a conference championship and New Years’ Day (or later) bowl. Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden after the 6th game in 2008, posted a 4-3 record. Like Ford, Swinney was born in Alabama, played at Alabama, was an assistant coach at Alabama, earned two degrees from Alabama and his first bowl game, as a head coach, was the Gator Bowl. Swinney wanted the Clemson job and sought Ford’s advice on how to get beyond the interim tag. “My first advice to him came when he wanted to get the job. He wanted to know if I would help him and come to talk to the team and I said, ‘No’, and this is the reason,” Ford explained. “It ain’t about me coming to talk to this football team. If you want the job, you need to try to win as many football games as you can, and you better be in charge of the football team and get them ready to play. “If you get the job, I’ll be glad to help you and tell you all I can about Clemson and the people,” Ford continued. “And I told him, that anything that takes away from winning those next six ball games ain’t worth fooling with. Winning was going to get him the job, period. I don’t know that
Atlantic Coast Conference 2009
he would have been the choice they would hire, just like I didn’t know if I would have been the choice after Coach Pell left unless we had the right timing and the situation with the bowl game coming. The players went to bat for him, played well and won, so it worked.” With Swinney at the helm, Clemson must avoid the four-, five- and six-loss seasons and middle-of-the-pack finishes in league play prevalent since Ford’s departure 20 seasons ago. Bowden won nine games thrice in nine full seasons, finished second in the league twice, but failed to break into the BCS bowl equation. “He [Swinney] has done about everything that you can do to be positive for a football program to get their supporters to like him. They’re going to be a bit more lenient if they like you than if you’re a horse’s behind,” Ford said. “But, the bottom line is that come September all that is over with. If he doesn’t win enough football games, he can be Billy Graham with as many people as he touches, but if he doesn’t win football games he’s not going to be at Clemson. He knows that.” Asked if Swinney could keep the job long term with four or five losses, Ford said, “7-5 isn’t going to do it.” While coaching at Clemson, Ford said he’d get a call from a friend in Charleston every Monday. “He’d go for a massage at the health club every week, and he’d call after we won and say. ‘Danny they really like you down here.’ After a loss, he’d call and say, ‘Danny, they don’t think too much of you down here.’ So, it’s weekly and it’s W’s and L’s. “Clemson people are different people than most, because they do think they have the best school in America,” Ford said. “They are convinced they have. Right or wrong, they have a lot of pride in their school and in their athletics. And, they have sacrificed a lot. Back in the old days, fans didn’t pay their fertilizer bill to buy tickets even when they weren’t winning games. They really want to win a championship and they think they should.” Competitive balance in the ACC makes that a more difficult task than ever. “The way the bowl situation is right now, I don’t know if any school like Clemson will win another one,” Ford said. “The way it is now, you have to be good, win your conference, play one good bowl game and everybody else has to fail. That doesn’t mean you’re the best team in the country. I don’t know that we were the best team in ’81,”
Ford offered. “We were pretty doggone good — especially defensively — and I think we could have played with anybody, but I am sure a lot of people asked, ‘Who is Clemson?’ But, we did all we had to do. We won all of our conference games, beat everybody on our schedule, won our bowl game and the other teams lost.” n
Still a good fit
In a strange twist, Ford replaced Crowe as Arkansas’ head man after Crowe replaced Hatfield when he took the Clemson job. Crowe said the entire saga was like a James Michener novel, and preferred to leave well enough alone in the past. But, in 1995, Ford led the Razorbacks to the SEC West title and a berth in the SEC Championship Game. Arkansas won eight of its first 10 games that season, before losing its final three, including a bowl loss to North Carolina. “There were a lot of kids [on that team] that weren’t mine. There were a lot of Jack’s people and a little bit of Hatfield’s, too. We hit it right that year in the SEC West because everybody had lost their quarterback that year except for Mississippi State. We lucked up because of that,” Ford said. Ford said that when Arkansas joined the SEC, the Hogs didn’t have the talent or the facilities to compete with other teams in the league. “When Arkansas first came into the league the talent level wasn’t even close. It was like children and men. It wasn’t like that when Broyles was there. It was a different deal then. South Carolina was the same way. You couldn’t play with the people they had in that league. They had to get a whole lot better, and I think both teams have,” Ford said. Ford’s record at Arkansas was 26-30-1 and 16-23-1 in SEC play. His last game as a head coach was Nov. 23, 1997, a 31-21 loss to LSU; 26 days before his 50th birthday. He was replaced at Arkansas by current Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who guided the Hogs to a 17-7 record in his first two seasons with many of Ford’s recruits. Ford never got an opportunity to be the head coach at his alma mater, but he didn’t harbor any grudge toward Alabama. “I don’t think the timing was ever right when I was coaching, No. 1, and I really don’t believe I would have left Clemson to go to Alabama, because we had a good situa-
tion here. But, after I left Clemson, if the opportunity had presented itself, it would have been different,” Ford said. Crowe, however, believed Ford and Alabama would have been a perfect match. “If I know anything about Coach Bryant — even though I didn’t play for him — but I do know indirectly a whole hell of a lot about him, Danny was more like Coach Bryant than anybody they tried to imitate him with. A country boy that had a political savviness about him and very few people understood. That’s Bryant and that’s Danny Ford. I think those were two very similar individuals.” Ford prefers to focus on the opportunity that Clemson provided. “Clemson took a big chance on me when I was 30 years old and I certainly owed them. I got two degrees from Alabama, enjoyed myself playing football, played under the greatest coach there ever was, and learned a tremendous amount from him and his assistants,” Ford said. “South Carolina is my home now and will always be. I used to be worried about where I would be buried, but I’ll be buried right on that farm probably. “There’s a comfort in this area. The people here have taken care of me very well. I’ve got some friends at a lot of places throughout the country, but I’ve even got Gamecock friends here now. Some really good friends of mine now are people that used to hate me when I was coaching,” Ford said. “It’s kinda like where I was raised. There’s a hardware store down here you can still charge stuff and pay it once a month. Ain’t many places you can still do that, you know? You can get fertilizer and they’ll mail you a bill. The people we were eating with today, if I break down on my tractor, or get in a bind bailing hay, they’ll come help me or I’ll go help them. They’re just my kind of people around here and they’re good people who have always been around for me and I’m there for them. It’s just a good fit we have.” Like those 11 years he spent leading the Clemson football program, the area, Danny Ford and the Tigers remain synonymous. “There will always be a Danny Ford shadow over that program,” West said, “because he took them places no one had ever done before.” Or since! n Carl Danbury is the founder and executive editor of SportsUnlimited Magazine based in Cumming, Ga.