Danny Ford knew how to coach football. The lessons for becoming a head coach were soon to follow, beginning that night 35 years ago in Jacksonville, Fla.
In a virtual circle of life, one moment of anger and defiance changed the course of history, ending an iconic career and launching another.
On the job for 19 days at kickoff, Ford won his first game when Clemson defeated Ohio State, 17-15, in the Gator Bowl. Not until the wee hours next morning did he learn that Ohio State coach Woody Hayes had tried to punch Clemson defensive lineman Charlie Bauman.
Hours later Hayes was fired, ending a career that included five national championships. Ford would go on to ramrod the greatest decade in Clemson history, including a national title three years later.
Plucked from the staff after Charlie Pell skipped town for the University of Florida, Ford, at age 30, thought he was prepared to be a head coach.
“I had no clue,” he said recently as he reflected on the only time Clemson faced Ohio State. Ford was promoted by former athletics director Bill McLellan with strong recommendation from members of the team.
“I don’t know how in the world they did that,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it.”
Ford relied on the plan Pell prepared, and on players recruited by Pell and Red Parker.
“We had good enough players that could overcome anything that I could screw up,” he said.
Other than making sure the team was on the field on time, Ford said he didn’t do much differently than when he was offensive line coach.
“We didn’t expect a fight,” Ford said, “Seemed like nothing ever happened easy when I was coaching.”
When the team arrived in Jacksonville, he knew instantly this was a different gig. He and Hayes spoke at a banquet attended by more than 200, the largest group Ford had addressed. He was presented a large bottle of antacid tablets. Hayes, 65, received a pair of red boxing gloves.
A sprawling suite on the 10th floor of the hotel was an unexpected perk, but as kickoff approached, “I kept wanting to lift up that window and jump out there and not have to put a football team on national TV, but the window was screwed down. I couldn’t open it.”
Memory of the previous year’s whipping by Pitt in the Gator Bowl made it difficult to eat. Relieved, after the game, Ford and his wife left their hotel in search of food at 2 a.m. They found meatball sandwiches.
“By the time we got back, there was a bunch of folks waiting in the lobby,” Ford said.
When the game began, Ford was reassured by the presence of an SEC officiating crew, many of whom he knew, including Butch Lambert. There were a few things during the game that irritated him, but Ford said it was fine until he saw a fight on the other sideline after Bauman intercepted a pass by freshman quarterback Art Schlicter’s in the fourth quarter. Bauman was run out of bounds near the OSU bench and a fight ensued.
“When I ran out there and tried to break it up, one of their boys thought I was a manager and threw me down,” Ford said. “I grabbed my hat and ran back to the sideline.”
He asked Lambert to explain what happened. “One of their coaches hit one of your players.”
Ford said he replied, “Dang, I don’t even do that. What are you gonna do?”
“We’re going to give them an unsportsmanlike penalty,” Lambert said.
“I think you ought to do more than that,” Ford said, adding, “in case he didn’t know I was in charge. I think I’m going to make history and take our team off the field and just quit.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Son, you want some good advice?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘If you don’t do anything stupid, you’re going to win the ball game.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Lambert, carry on.’ ”
Helped by another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the OSU bench, Clemson ran out the clock to finish an 11-1 season.
Ford said he didn’t see Hayes after the game.
“I knew I was supposed to go to the middle of the field, win or lose,” Ford said.
When the Ohio State plane landed in Columbus, Hayes was escorted by police to a car on the tarmac and rushed home in privacy. Hayes called Ford later for Bauman’s phone number.
“I’m amazed Charlie Bauman never said a word about it. We never told him not to say anything,” Ford said.
Bauman has declined interview requests for 35 years, including one through the Clemson Sports Information office. When Bauman married, he took his wife’s name.
“Because he didn’t want to be known, I guess, as to the one who was involved in that game,” Ford said. “I wouldn’t want to be part of that, if I could.”
Ford remembered that Hayes spoke during the S.C. High School coaches’ convention the next summer to a packed house, railed at those with beards and moustaches and received a standing ovation.
“He was a good man,” Ford said. “I’m sorry it had to happen against us.”