Clemson Legends Series: Danny Ford, First to the Mountain Top

Danny Ford is the father of Clemson Football in the modern era.

There isn’t a human being that’s ever met him that could ever have a bad word to speak. Knowing him personally, even though our paths haven’t crossed in a while, I know he’s the same man. Humble, unassuming, unpretentious and kind. He embodies all things we all love in Clemson.

From Gadsden, Alabama, he played college football at the University of Alabama from 1967 to 1969. Having been coached by Bear Bryant, he knew how to play and win. He was an All-SEC Offensive Lineman. After graduating, he wouldn’t head to the NFL. No, his destiny was to coach.

From his humbled beginnings, he would accomplish great things. It’s uncanny, the similarities between Ford and Swinney. Their personalities off the field are different but it’s on the field where their likeness is obvious. Both fierce competitors, builders of great teams and molding of men of character. The only glaring difference the between these two is that Ford always had a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, quintessential Ford.

We all know the classic Wikipedia bio wording “he served as the head football coach at Clemson University from 1978 to 1989.” Ford was Clemson Football and those of us lucky enough to have been there watching, know those Wikipedia lines are just that, words. We lived the story behind those words. It was a great ride.

During his 12 seasons as head coach of the Clemson Tigers, he captured five ACC titles and won six bowl games. Ford’s 1981 Clemson team completed a 12–0 season with a win in the Orange Bowl.

Ford’s head coaching career was quite by happenstance, somewhat like Swinney’s. When Clemson head coach Charley Pell left in the cover of darkness for the University of Florida after the 1978 season, it was Ford that was named his successor. Five days after taking the helm at Clemson, he and his depleted staff (Pell would take many of his assistants with him to Florida) led the Tigers in the 1978 Gator Bowl, defeating Ohio State 17–15.

That game is more remembered, however, for an incident in which Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman. Hayes was fired the next day.

In 1981, Ford led Clemson to a 12–0 record and the national championship—the first national title in the school’s 98-year history. They won the title by defeating one of College Football’s “blue blood” programs, Nebraska, in the 1982 Orange Bowl.

As of the 2020 season, Ford is still the youngest coach to win a national championship, doing so at age 33. Just days after the 1982 season ended, however, the Tigers were found guilty of recruiting violations.

While most of them occurred under Pell, the NCAA found they had continued under Ford. The Tigers were barred from bowl games in 1982 and 1983, and kicked off live television in 1983 and 1984.

Ford didn’t take long to recover from the probation, and won three straight ACC titles from 1986 and 1988. In 1989, Clemson registered a 10–2 season and Top-12 national ranking for the fourth straight season.

Ford closed his career with a 27–7 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl and I was there to see WVU’s All-American Quarterback Major Harris become “Minor” Harris from the beating he took from the Clemson defense.

The Clemson family was devastated and stunned beyond belief when Ford resigned on January 18, 1990, after a falling out with Clemson administration. He was subsequently cleared in an NCAA investigation that also was announced around that time.

Ford compiled a 96–29–4 (.760) record at Clemson, including a 6–2 bowl record. At the time of his resignation, he was the second-winningest coach in school history, behind only Frank Howard, a distinction he would maintain until 2017, when he was passed by Swinney.

He was the third winningest coach in the country on a percentage basis after the 1989 season. Ford also coached 21 All-Americans and 41 players who went on to play in the NFL during his 11 seasons at Clemson.

It’s not an understatement to say Ford was and still is one of the most beloved figures in my lifetime as a Clemson supporter and Alumnus. He was a great coach. He was and still is a great friend to Clemson. He was honored in 2013, during half-time of the Clemson vs. Georgia game. The sheer deafening cheers as he received this honor was unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It was sheer love and gratitude mixed in with those cheers.

To say Danny Ford is a legend barely covers who he is and what he means to Clemson. After all, he led the program to the mountain top to get Clemson’s first glimpse of the pinnacle of greatness. Yes, there have been two more successful trips to the mountain top and there’s little way to say which of the three is the greatest. However, what can be said with certainty, somebody had to be first and that would be, Danny Ford.

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