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Football Game Program Feature: Championship Coach – Reliving the Glory

Football Game Program Feature: Championship Coach – Reliving the Glory

By Sanford Rogers Many years ago, a young Danny Ford was sitting down for supper with his family in Gadsden, AL.  Ford, who was spending his summer working in the local Goodyear plant, was asked an interesting question by his father, Norris Ford.  The elder Ford, who spent over 39 years at Goodyear, asked his son if he could name 10 friends.

“I told him ‘shoot yeah, I can name 10 friends’,” recalled Ford.  “But after five or six, it got kind of tough to come up with four more.  I made up my mind right then that the next time he asked that question, I would not have trouble naming 10 friends.

“From that point on, no matter where you worked, where you came from, or what color you were, I tried to be friendly.  There are a lot of good folks in this world.  I tried to reach out to people and that has blessed me many times over.”

For Ford, who this evening will be inducted into the Clemson Ring of Honor, the lessons taught first by his parents (Norris and Lou Etta Ford) and then by his college coach at Alabama, Bear Bryant, have led to a lifetime of blessings and all the friendships that come with it.  When his signature “Block C” ballcap is visible on the façade of Memorial Stadium for all to see, it will be a celebration for Ford, his 85,000 friends in Death Valley, and countless more across the country.

Ford’s reputation of being comfortable around anyone from a bank president to the person who cleans the bank is evident to anyone who is around him.  Lawson Holland, now the Vice President for Philanthropy at Coastal Carolina, was an assistant coach under Ford from 1979-85.  He was amazed how Ford could relate to anyone and everyone.

“Coach Ford had an uncanny ability to talk to anyone about anything, from caviar to cabbage,” said Holland.  “He was great with everyone he came in contact with.  Everyone who met Danny Ford left that meeting thinking they were one of his best friends.  The way he treats people is special.”

The list of accomplishments for Ford at Clemson – 1981 National Championship, five ACC Championships, bowl victories over Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Penn State, and West Virginia to name a few – are the measurable team accomplishments during his tenure.  The 96-29-4 record in 11 seasons that Ford recorded is another mark that makes it easy to understand why Ford is being honored tonight before a nationally-televised audience.

For Ford, the formula for success comes from the lessons learned while growing up, first in Gadsden, and then in Tuscaloosa.

“You always go back to your raising,” recalled Ford.  “My daddy was pretty tough.  He made me quit baseball when I had a bad grade.  If it had not been for a coach who came to talk to him and let me take two periods of algebra, I don’t know what I would have done.

“I was never a great student, but I made good enough grades to earn a degree (bachelor’s in industrial arts) and a master’s (special education) from Alabama.  My dad’s way of discipline stayed with me.  He took something away from me that was important.  That was a good lesson to learn.”

Ford’s next lesson in discipline came from the Hall of Fame coach who registered 323 wins.  Bryant’s resumé lists six national titles and 13 SEC Championships in his 25 years leading the Crimson Tide program.

Ford was an All-SEC pick at offensive tackle and All-SEC Academic choice under Bryant between 1967-69.  He attended Alabama initially on a basketball/football scholarship, but he only played football after his freshman season.

“Coach Bryant was a master at discipline,” stated Ford.  “His brand of discipline was fear.  You did not want to get on his bad side.  But the most important thing I learned from him is that he would not accept anything less than your best.”

Following his playing career at Alabama, Ford coached as an assistant at Alabama (1973) and Virginia Tech (1974-76) before moving to Clemson in 1977 as the offensive line coach for Charley Pell.

After a Gator Bowl appearance in 1977 and a 10-1 regular season in 1978, Pell chose to take the head-coaching position at Florida.  It was then that the Clemson administration, led by President Dr. R.C. Edwards and Athletic Director Bill McLellan, after a solid recommendation from Bryant, chose Ford to lead the Tiger program at a time when he was only 30.

There were others who were strong proponents of Ford getting the position because of his youth.  Unbeknownst to Ford at the time, several of the offensive linemen who he coached, led by Joe Bostic and Steve Kenney, went to Dr. Edwards and encouraged him to hire a person with no experience as a head coach.

“That was very special,” remembered Ford.  “Dr. Edwards, bless his heart, he passed away in 2008, was one of the greatest presidents we ever had at Clemson.  He might have been the best I have been around in my life.

“He really listened to and liked to be around students.  Both he and his wife (Louise) loved being involved with all students, not just student-athletes.  I don’t know how much he listened to those guys that particular night, but I am glad that he did.”

When Ford accepted the job, his first game would come in less than a month in the Gator Bowl against Ohio State and legendary Head Coach Woody Hayes.  Clemson would clinch the 17-15 victory on a Charlie Bauman interception.

While Ford is credited with the win over the Buckeyes, he is quick to give credit to everyone but himself.

“I really didn’t know what a head coach did at that time,” admitted Ford.  “In that game, I was nothing more than an offensive line coach who was making decisions on penalties.  Everyone did their jobs leading up to the game.  We were a couple of coaches short and moved some graduate assistant coaches up who did a really good job.  Some administrative people moved onto the field and did a great job as well.”

Just a few days after the win that gave Clemson publicity around the nation, Ford was at home the night his alma mater, Alabama, was scheduled to play Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship.  Al Adams, who had started The Orange and White, and several of Ford’s friends were with him when the phone rang at the Ford household about 20 minutes before the game was slated to start.

“Deborah (his wife) handed Ford the phone and all he said was ‘yes sir, yes sir, and yes sir’,” recalled Adams.  “We thought something was wrong and asked him who it was.  Ford said Coach Bryant was calling from the locker room in the Superdome and told him he was going to tell his team if they played as hard for him as Clemson had played for one of his former players, they would win the National Championship (the #2 Crimson Tide went on to a 14-7 win over top-ranked Penn State).”

“Coach Bryant always called his players,” remembered Ford.  “But most of the time, he would call after a loss to make sure we were alright.  He was real important in me getting the job at Clemson.  That was wonderful for him to call me in that situation.

After such an auspicious beginning, Ford began the work of being a full-time head coach.  For a 30-year-old putting together a plan to direct a program was hard work.

“I had to learn to be a head coach,” said Ford, who was the youngest head coach in the nation at the time.  “There was no book for that.  I was fortunate that the 1979 team had some hidden players.  When I say hidden players, I mean the 1978 team had so many good players.

“We were able to get some big leads in some games in 1978 that allowed some players, a guy like quarterback Billy Lott, to get some playing time.  That helped us in 1979 (8-4).  That next year (1980) was rough, but then we had the year that turned everything around.

The “year that turned everything around” is a season that every Clemson fan remembers to this day. The Tigers, coming off a 6-5 season in 1980, were certainly not pegged for greatness by the experts. But the first national title (a 22-15 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl) in any team sport at Clemson and the first by an ACC school since 1953 is one to remember.

Clemson had five players earn All-America honors, more than any other Tiger team in history.  That squad had 22 players play in the NFL.  Six of those went on to earn Super Bowl Championship rings.

Ford would not have guessed the team’s end-of-year success after the opening weekend of the 1981 campaign.

“We were not a good football team early on,” admitted Ford.  “Villanova had dropped football the previous April and Wofford (then NAIA) had a date when they could play us.  Wofford was coached by Buddy Sasser, and they ran us ragged in the first half with their wingbone offense (the Terriers led 3-0 after the first quarter).

“But we kept getting better and better each week.  You never know what kind of football team you have until the end of the year, and at the end we were really, really good (Clemson was the only team in the nation with three wins over top-10 teams).

Spend any time around Ford and he will say the players are the ones who make the difference.  When he looks back at all the players he coached, the pride in their success after football is more important than anything accomplished on the field.

“I can only think of one or two who have strayed the wrong way in life,” said Ford.  “You are proud for them to be successful in life.  I think football taught them about discipline, taught them how to never quit, and taught them how to win.”

Following his stint at Clemson, Ford spent five seasons at Arkansas (including an SEC Western Division title in 1995).  But when his time at Arkansas came to an end, there was no question where he would call home.

“First, I had a farm here (in nearby Pendleton, SC),” said Ford.  “This is our home and this is where I will be buried (as he pointed to a field just beside his home), at least that is my plan.  People are awfully nice to me and my family.  It is hard to go anywhere without people being nice to me.  You can say I am still living in a fairy-tale world.”  Current Head Coach Dabo Swinney, also a native of Alabama, is thrilled with Ford’s induction into the Clemson Ring of Honor.  (Swinney was one of the voters in the selection process.)

“I am really happy for Coach Ford,” said Swinney.  “I grew up in the 1980s and followed the success he and Clemson had.  Danny Ford did something here that has not been done since.  He set the standard for Clemson football a long time ago.”

Family is another good reason for Ford living in the shadows of Death Valley.  Four grandchildren (Jennifer’s son, Jordan (17), is the oldest, while Ashleigh has three children, Ford (12), Payne (10), and Mary Kathryn (7)) play a large role in both he and his wife’s lives.  All of the grandchildren call him “Pops.”

“My grandkids are my favorite activity,” explained Ford.  “That beats football and everything else.  One of the things that makes it even more special is I can spend so much time with them compared to when our four kids (Jennifer, Ashleigh, Elizabeth, Lee) were growing up.  Football took up so much of my time when they were young.”

Jennifer Ford, who lives in Greenville, SC, marvels at Danny Ford, the grandfather.

“He was always 100-percent committed to his family,” said Jennifer.  “He was always a good daddy and loved us unconditionally.  But those grandchildren just melt him.  When he was coaching, he did not have time to be at all of our games and we understood why.  Now he is THAT grandfather on vacation at the beach for seven days driving them around on a golf cart!”

For Jennifer, the honor her father will receive with his Ring of Honor induction will be something the entire family will celebrate.  But she also thinks her mother, Deborah, deserves a large portion of the credit as well.

“My mom did so much to make my dad look good,” said Jennifer.  “From taking care of the assistant coaches’ wives, to making sure the players were not homesick, she was always there.  But for her to take care of her own four children while my dad had to be everywhere allowed him to be successful.  I look back at that time and don’t know how in the world she did it.”

The former Tiger head coach points out being a grandparent is a little different than being a coach.  When Jordan was playing American Legion baseball this summer, Ford saw him first-hand.

“As long as I don’t try to coach, it is ok,” said Ford.  “Jordan played in an American Legion tournament game in Sumter.  They lost the first game in 13 innings.  As I was leaving to come back home, I told him they just need to get better.

“I worried about what I said to him all the way home.  That is something I would not think twice about saying to one of my players, but not my grandson.  They played again and won the next game, so I guess he took to me coaching.”

As Ford is inducted into the Clemson Ring of Honor tonight, he wants everyone to know he is appreciative of this lifetime achievement award.  But he also wants all to know it is not about him and him alone.

“Head coaches do very little and get too much of the credit,” stated Ford.  “The players and the assistant coaches deserve so much of the credit.  If it makes the Clemson people happy, I am happy.  If it makes the ladies who were in charge of the training table happy, then I am happy.

“The reason I am up there is because of the players, the assistant coaches, and all the Clemson people. It is because of the alumni and the people who bought season tickets that I am up there.”