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Clemson Football Game Program Feature: Prominent Former GAs

Clemson Football Game Program Feature: Prominent Former GAs

Oct. 28, 2009

When you listen to Coastal Carolina Head Coach David Bennett during an interview in 2009, you can hear the influence former Tiger Head Coach Danny Ford had on his coaching career in 1985 and 1986 when Bennett was a graduate assistant at Clemson. Bennett is a tough, hard-nosed football coach from the word “go,” just as Ford was during his time leading the Clemson program between 1978-89.

Bennett has gone on to a successful career as a head coach at Catawba and Coastal Carolina, and he brings his Chanticleers to Death Valley for the program’s third game in history against an FBS program.

The staff meetings and practices during the Ford era were intense, a reason Clemson was the fifth-winningest program in the nation in the 1980s. The Tigers won five ACC Championships and had seven top-20 seasons, including a National Championship, during that decade.

A look to the coaching staffs during that era shows there were some knowledgeable coaches on those staffs. That includes the graduate assistants of the era who are now in head coaching and coordinator roles.

Bennett served on Ford’s staff as a graduate assistant in 1985 and 1986. The Tigers won the ACC title in 1986 and lost just two games, the first year of a run of six straight years with just two losses. The 1986 Tigers also finished in the top 20 of the polls and defeated Stanford in the Gator Bowl.

The native of Cheraw, SC became the head coach at Catawba in 1995 and led that program to four conference championships. He won exactly 11 games in each of his last three seasons (1999-01) and took the team to the national semifinals of the Division II playoffs.

In 2002 when the Chanticleers decided to start a football program, they selected Bennett to run it. By his second year, Coastal Carolina had a 10-1 record and won the Big South Championship. He has led the program to three conference titles and into the FCS playoffs by the fourth year, the third-quickest run to the NCAA Tournament in history. Bennett already has 111 career wins, including a 48-27 record at Coastal Carolina.

However, Bennett is not the only graduate assistant from the Ford era to become a head coach. Gene Chizik, now the leader of the Auburn program, was a graduate assistant at Clemson in 1988 and 1989. Those Tiger teams won 10 games apiece and the 1988 team won the ACC title.

Chizik made a name for himself as a defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas. He helped Auburn to a 13-0 record in 2004 and won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He then coached the Texas defense in 2005 when the Longhorns won the national title. He coached three consecutive Thorpe Award winners between 2004-06, as Auburn’s Carlos Rogers won in 2004 followed by Texas’ Michael Huff (2005) and Aaron Ross (2006).

Chizik became a head coach for the first time at Iowa State in 2007 and was chosen by Auburn to lead its program in 2009. Earlier this year, he had Auburn ranked in the top 25 after a 5-0 start.

Next year, just like Bennett, Chizik will have an opportunity to coach against Clemson, as the Tigers will travel to Auburn. He will return to Death Valley during the 2011 season when Auburn comes to Clemson.

Ruffin McNeill, now the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, coached side-by-side with Bennett on Ford’s staff in 1985 and 1986. He is now in his 10th season on Mike Leach’s staff with the Red Raiders and has had a lot to do with that program’s national ascension.

Current Tiger Assistant Head Coach Danny Pearman is another former Clemson graduate assistant of the era who has gone on to greatness. He was an assistant coach at Alabama when it won the national title in 1992 and on Virginia Tech’s staff when it played for the national title in 1999.

Pearman has returned home to Clemson, where he also played and graduated, so his career has now come full circle. He is the first to tell you that the lessons he learned as a graduate assistant in 1988 and 1989 have had a lasting effect on his career.

“I think I may have learned more from Coach Ford 20 years removed than when I was going through it,” admitted Pearman. “I can look back and see now why he did certain things in terms of practice, discipline, and running a program. As I get older, have children, and raise a family, I can look back at Coach Ford and understand what an influence he has had on my life.”

Tim Bourret is Clemson’s Sports Information Director and is in his 32nd year at Clemson.