How is Tigers football defined? Ask a legend

bgillespie@thestate.comDecember 4, 2009 

Ten questions with former Clemson coach Danny Ford (1978-89), who will be one of the "ACC Legends" recognized at Saturday's ACC championship game in Tampa, Fla.

Q: How do you feel about being an ACC Legend?

A: I'd rather someone like (former Clemson quarterback) Steve Fuller be there. Most of them are players, which is what it should be; that's what the game of football is all about, the players. We had so many good players from when we first got there with coach (Charley) Pell: Fuller, (receiver Jerry) Butler, the Bostics (linemen Joe and Jeff), I could name 9-10 pros off those rosters, certainly those were some of the ones who turned Clemson around.

(Previous Clemson head coach) Red Parker and (assistant) Ed Emory got all those good players, so we walked into a gold mine. Charley did a good job for two years, and we beat enough people when Steve and Dwight (Clark) and Jerry Butler were seniors. That was the start of it, what they did.

I was in the right place at the right time (in 1978). I assure you, like now at Clemson, they could've gone out and gotten a bunch of coaches who were interested in Clemson.

Q: When Clemson promoted Dabo, did you see a little of yourself in him?

A: Yeah, I saw a lot of me in there, since neither one of us knew nothing! (laugh) ... And it was going to be a situation where you had to grow on the job. I wasn't prepared to be a head football coach. Neither do I think he was, and I say that with all appreciation of what he's done this year, because he's learned quick.

This is the first conference championship, or half a championship, that they've won in 18 years. ... But it's going to be peaks and valleys every week, and I think how they handled the Maryland defeat (most impressed me). Sometimes the stars are aligned for you, because if they'd played the next week, they would probably have been in big trouble. But they had an open date, a chance to get reorganized. You might say, 'Why weren't they organized in August?' Because they didn't know. That's growing in the job.

I like (Swinney), and I think he'll do a good job for Clemson, (but) he's not arrived yet, not there yet. I think he knows it. I think the most important thing at Clemson is how you handle the (fans) after you lose, and how you get them back. At Arkansas (where Ford coached from 1993-97), the hardest job I had was convincing them they could win. At Clemson, people know how to win.

Q: Does this team remind you of any of yours?

A: Not really. They're getting better defensively, I think. They're probably better than we were any time in the kick-return game; not in the field-goal or extra points, they're not even close. But we were never close to where they did in kickoff and punt returns. They might've surpassed anything we ever did there. That might be individuals, or coaching. Whatever it is, it's good.

Q: How impressed are you by C.J. Spiller?

A: I think he's the best player in the open field since I was there. ... Spiller has done a wonderful job, his statistics speak for themselves, but he's not an I-formation tailback. We were an I football team. To compare him to our tailbacks, he's not comparable.

He's as good as I've ever seen, going back to my playing days. I don't remember anyone who could turn a game (around) like that - maybe (Florida State's) Deion Sanders. Spiller can turn a game around and you love to have that kind of player.

Q: Compare Kyle Parker to Steve Fuller and some of your other quarterbacks.

A: I spoke to (Parker's) momma and daddy in Augusta (where) they live now, and I told them, 'Man, y'all got a hard four years ahead of you, because you're going to be loved and you're going to be hated every week; that's the way it's going to be.'

He has progressed tremendously from week to week. You wonder how long he can do that. He's stayed out of trouble, stayed out of turning the ball over, interceptions. How much longer can he continue? Is he going to have a bad game?

Q: Your last year at Clemson was 1989 - 20 years ago. How do you think the ACC has changed, and is it better now in football?

A: I think if you have to play everyone in the conference, you're truly the champion. If you miss one, they may be good or bad. I still like the old deal (where) you got to play everyone. Then you know you're the king of the conference because you either won or lost against everyone. They can't do that now.

Q: Including 1978, you coached six ACC championship teams and went unbeaten in the ACC in 1983 (while on probation). Other than the national title team in 1981, which was the best? Which was the biggest surprise?

A: I couldn't tell you. Shoot, I couldn't go back and tell you the years (we won a title). ... I see a bunch of our guys come back every weekend to the games now, and I talk to them, but I can't remember the years. I can remember about when they played, but I can't say, 'He played in 1982 or 1987,' whenever.

Q: Besides that 1981 team, do you have a favorite team?

A: If I had to say one, it would be the (1978) team that played Ohio State because that had nothing to do with me. I had just been promoted, I was an offensive line coach, they didn't really have a head coach, and the players took it on themselves. We followed coach Pell's plan for bowl practice, didn't change a thing. We had lost to Pittsburgh the year before on TV, (were) embarrassed, so our main concern was not to be embarrassed again.

And these guys, Fuller and Butler and Dwight Clark, (Jim) Stuckey, I guess they just took me in because I didn't know what I was doing. I told them, 'All I'm going to do is say what to do on the coin flip.' I guess that's a group I would appreciate more than a lot of teams, because they said 'Come on, grab our coat tails and we'll take you where we're supposed to go.'

Q: Clemson hasn't won an ACC championship since 1991. Why has it been so long?

A: In my opinion, a lot of them didn't play Clemson football. I mean, if you say Ohio State to me, I know what Ohio State football is, I know how they play through reputation, what it meant. And I know what Clemson football was about, and I never saw it (in recent seasons).

Clemson football isn't fancy. Clemson football is having a good kicking game, winning with the kicking game, hit(ting) you on defense, don't turn the ball over and be(ing) able to control the ball. Now, they do it different than we did; they control the ball with the pass better than we did; we did it with the run, shorten(ed) the game.

(In recent seasons) it was always trying to be too cute, outcoach you. You don't outcoach people. You might outwork people, might out-hit people, you might out-fundamental people. But if you think you're smart, there's always someone on the other side just as smart, maybe smarter. It ain't what you know, it's how those kids perform. You got to have that philosophy, and I think I've seen it more (this season).

They've gotten back to it a little bit - not enough for me, but I don't coach anymore (laugh). If they win (the ACC), more power to them, congratulations, and don't forget how you got there.

Q: How will Clemson fare vs. Georgia Tech this time?

A: Well, I know this: it's hard to beat a team twice the same season, so it's going to be hard for Georgia Tech to defeat Clemson twice. ... But, if Georgia Tech executes, it'll be hard for Clemson to win. I hope Clemson lines up and plays football. And they better get the penetration with the defensive tackles like they did in the second half, that's how they turned the game around.

If they cause penetration, confusion, make Tech turn the ball over, and (Clemson) exploits the Tech secondary . . . But Georgia Tech has made progress, too. They ain't stood still. I like (Tech coach) Paul Johnson's philosophy, and he'll have something for that tackle penetrating.

What never changes is, if you knock (opponents) on their butts, you ain't going to get beat.

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