College Sports

Pursuit of happiness: Danny Ford brought fanaticism to Clemson by winning a national championship

On Saturdays in the fall, 66-year-old Danny Ford can be found one of two places. He either is watching a Clemson football game on a big-screen TV while tailgating with friends at Memorial Stadium, or he is listening on the radio from an air-conditioned tractor while baling hay when the Tigers play on the road.

Football has run like blood through Ford’s veins his entire life.

Ford grew up in Gadsden, Ala., where he played football, basketball and baseball, all the while knowing that any young Alabaman had little choice about which sport would steal away his heart.

Ford played football at Alabama under legendary coach Bear Bryant, earning all-SEC honors one season and playing in three bowl games. Then he went into coaching. Following a brief stint as an assistant at Virginia Tech, Ford went about creating the same state of hysteria over football in South Carolina that he had experienced in his home state.

During his 12 seasons as coach at Clemson from 1978 through 1989, Ford’s teams won 96 games. They captured five ACC championships and won six bowl games. His 1981 club went unbeaten and won a national championship, bringing with it unprecedented recognition for football excellence to the state of South Carolina.

One could argue that Clemson’s success under Ford forced South Carolina to catch up, and although both programs have experienced their share of ups and downs since, both are now considered nationally elite.

Ford smiles over that thought because it means the state is crazy about the sport he loves.

“Our state’s much more enjoyable to live in,” Ford says of both programs winning at such a high rate in recent years. “Everything seems better. ... When both are doing well, everybody seems happier, everybody is still going to jab at each other and fuss and fight at each other because that’s the rivalry, but both sides are happy.

“Both sides are spending money, both sides’ economy is good. Heck, even both sides’ churches are good on Sunday.”

Ford says he learned at a young age to take sports seriously. In Gadsden’s recreation league, there were no trophies for all players participating. Ford recalls that players were cut from Little League teams in all sports.

All Alabama boys experienced the same Sunday ritual. Families attended church together in the morning, visited with family in the afternoon, then huddled in front of the TV for the “Shug Jordan Show” at 4, followed by the “Bear Bryant Show” at 5, and “Lassie” at 6.

Poor Lassie had no chance in the TV ratings game against the Auburn and Alabama coaches shows. At some point while watching the coaches’ shows, each family member had to pick a side. For Ford, that came during his sophomore year of high school when a family friend took him to the annual Iron Bowl game between Alabama and Auburn played in Birmingham.

“How do you like it?” Ford recalls his friend, an Auburn fan, asking.

“I like it,” Ford said. “I like it. I hope Alabama does well today.”

Two years later, Ford committed to play for Bryant and Alabama. He did so to an Alabama assistant coach following a Gadsden High basketball game at Albertville. Upon learning that Ford might also make another recruiting trip to Auburn, Ford’s father stepped in.

“Daddy really didn’t care where I went,” Ford said. “But he said, ‘Son, you gave your word and you ain’t going nowhere else.’ ”

In four years at Alabama and another two years as an assistant under Bryant, Ford said he soaked up everything he could learn about the game. He takes great pride in knowing that one characteristic of his Clemson teams was similar to those of Bryant’s Alabama teams. They were well-conditioned.

At Alabama, Bryant instituted a “fourth-quarter,” off-season program that included early morning workouts conducted in various stages in a gymnasium and wrestling room. Players sprinted from one drill to another, stopping only to occasionally throw up.

“It was just a survival thing,” Ford said, “trying to make you tougher.”

Ford said he also learned from Bryant to give the team full credit for a victory as a coach, and accept all the blame for a defeat. That strategy worked through an 8-4 debut season at Clemson, but about the time the Tigers lost at Maryland to fall to 5-5 in his second season, former Clemson coach Frank Howard began to question that tactic.

“Boy, you keep saying that after losses and your alumni are going to believe you,” Ford recalled Howard saying.

Ford did not have to accept blame for a defeat for another 13 games as Clemson turned back USC to conclude the ’80 season, then reeled off 12 consecutive wins to capture the national title in ’81.

By then, Ford no longer had to explain defeats because he had helped create a hysteria about college football that has grown to epic proportions. So, it is no surprise that when he is baling hay on his 174-acre farm outside Clemson in the fall, you can bet he is listening to a football game on the radio.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC