I am a long time Clemson Tiger fan, albeit a bad one. I actually pull for the Gamecocks when they are not playing the Tigers. I have just had too many former players who opted to play for the “dark side” not to pull for USC East. Tiger friends, please forgive me.

I began my worship of football at a Clemson game in the early Sixties when invited by a friend and his family to go and watch my friend’s brother play at Death Valley. I guess that is when I became a full-fledged Tiger fan and began to worship before the altar that is football. Memorial Stadium was not the cathedral it is now but Death Valley sure did beat the heck out of Indian Land on a Friday night.

I got to meet the “minister” of the gridiron Tigers, legendary coach Frank Howard, and could not help but remember our introduction later when I went to a coach’s dinner featuring him as a speaker. The man was a riot and I had a hard time reconciling this Frank Howard with the same man I had met earlier. I guess it was his pregame jitters. A different time in 1976, Howard told a joke on Willie Jefferies, the hall of fame coach for the predominately black South Carolina State University Bulldogs. Howard joked about attending a State practice trying to pick up a nugget of information that might lead to a victory and noticed all of the footballs were painted dark green with lighter green stripes. When asked why Jefferies responded with a question, “You ever seen a black boy drop a watermelon?” The laughter was led by Jefferies, a black man himself with tears rolling down his cheeks.

My playing days were different from my coaching days. I never played with or against anyone who was a different color. When I coached I found out there was but one color that mattered on a football field and that was the color of the jersey you wore. An avowed racist of any color would help, hug, stand up for and drink after members of the other races during their entire careers. I hope this carried over into their lives after football, as well. Things said inside of the locker room might get you beaten severely or worse if they were said to anyone other than your teammates outside of that locker room.

I found myself in rarefied “coaching” air in the spring of 1981 while attending a coaching clinic at Clemson. Those were much different times to. The NCAA didn’t care if you had a coach’s clinic featuring the Clemson staff that ended with BBQ and beer served in sixteen ounce Hardee’s cups. They also didn’t care if food and libations were brought to your seat by very attractive Tiger cheerleaders or “Rally Cats.” Beer and BBQ! I would guess these were a Danny Ford party staple. There was even a “good old boy” comedian with a “tree climbing” coon dog for entertainment.

The clinic and entertainment portion was over and we were sitting around a table shooting the bull. I had managed to seat myself by the right hand of one of the “soon to be” Southern football gods, Danny Lee Ford, head football coach of the Clemson Tigers. To be honest I was more in awe of Jim Frasier. Seated across from me, he was the head football coach of the T.L Hanna Yellow Jackets. I didn’t know Coach Frasier but I had gotten to know Danny when Danny had been our recruiter at Mauldin during the Charlie Pell years. Danny had taken over for Pell in 1978 and was still just as “down home” as could be despite his new title. In his first full season in 1979, after a Gator Bowl victory completing Charlie’s tenure, Ford went 8-4 with a Peach Bowl loss. In 1980 the Tigers had a dismal 6-5 season and this was the subject of our conversation as we sat sipping at least one beer past too many. Had Danny been two or three beers ahead of me, he might have been in tears. He was lamenting being on the proverbial coaching “hot seat.” I remember Coach Frasier peering over his sixteen ounce Hardee’s cup, his eyes struggling to focus on Ford…or maybe it was my eyes struggling to focus on Frasier. “Boy” he said, “You helped recruit ‘em, all you can do now is coach ‘em up!” Danny and his staff must have done a pretty good job of “coachin ‘em up.” The rest they say is history. A story book 12-0 season and a National Championship during the 1981 Orange Bowl were realized and Ford went from “hot seat” to Southern football “Sainthood.”

This year’s 13-0 version is also “story book” but still two victories away from a National Championship. I cannot help but think about the differences and similarities between the two teams and their coaches. Actually, on the surface, there seems to be more differences when discussing the coaches. Aside from both having played at Alabama and “dismal” second full seasons, Dabo Swinney, this year’s “Saint-in-waiting”, would seem to have little in common with the Danny Ford I knew. Dabo is certainly a better speaker and Ford would not be caught dead “whipping it.” Despite a difference in styles, deep down I would guess there are many similarities when it comes to attention to detail and motivation.

With today’s finesse offenses it would be easy to say Ford coached a much tougher game. Strong offensive running attack and “snot bubble” knocking defense…WAIT! NOT SO FAST! It would appear you could make the same statement about the 2015 version.

Much has changed during the past five decades I have worshipped at the alter that is football. For the most part I think they are good changes even though it is sometimes hard to recognize the game today as the one I played as a boy and coached as an adult. Do I think our brand of football was tougher? Most assuredly! But I don’t guess Ford’s “three yards and a cloud of dust” was nearly as much fun as Dabo’s new version. One thing that has not changed is our pride in Southern football. “Go Tigers, Beat Oklahoma! The Orange Bowl is still ours!”

If you enjoyed this story I have written three books that maybe downloaded on Kindle or purchased in book form using the following links:
“Winning Was Never the Only Thing…”
“Floppy Parts”

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