The Tiger: Coach Ford, you spent your playing days under Bear Bryant at Alabama. How do you remember him as a coach?
Danny Ford: You always think of your coach as the greatest there ever was, and I happen to believe that Coach Bryant was really great at what he did. He could make you really play better than you wanted to play. He could get more out of you than you ever thought you wanted to give or could give. He was a master of getting the most out of a person. He believed in very fundamentally sound football teams. He believed in hard work. He believed that you could outwork people. And he thought that if you played for him, everything you did should be done in a first-class way. You ate steak every night on our training table. I mean literally, we ate steak every night. Sometimes you’d just swap any kind of meal for a hot dog because you’d get so tired of steak. But he wanted you to eat steak every night. It was just something that he believed in back then, treating his players in a first-class way. So that’s what we always remember about Coach Bryant more than anything else.
TT: Clemson promoted you from offensive line coach to head coach just weeks before the 1978 Gator Bowl. How were you able to perform so well in your very first game as head coach?
DF: Well, for that particular game, truly I was still just an offensive line coach. We didn’t change a whole lot of things. We did the same things that Coach [Charley] Pell had prepared us to do in our practice plan from the year before, and in everything else we followed the same plans. I really didn’t have to make any decisions that night beyond what I did as offensive line coach besides just who won the toss. We had great players with the Bostics (Jeff and Joe), Steve Fuller, Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark. It was a senior-oriented offensive and defensive football team that knew how to handle everything, and they did a great job and knew how to win a football game. Which made it very good, because it was the first time I’d ever been a head coach! I really wasn’t one, but I got credit for being one. And we got the win, too, which was good.
TT: Were you at all star-struck coaching opposite Woody Hayes in your very first game?
DF: I was scared to death, so thankfully I didn’t have to play (laughs). But our players weren’t scared. And we had a really good team. Ohio State did too, but we had a tremendous football team that year. That’s the funny thing about coaching. Red Parker didn’t get a lot of credit, but he was a very fine football coach. I got to know him when he was at Ole Miss and coaching high school football in Arkansas and other places. He didn’t get a lot of credit for what happened at Clemson, but basically he brought in all them guys that we got the credit for. It’s like planting a garden, where he put the seed in and we got the fruit. But it’s a situation that every time I talk about Clemson, I make sure that he and his staff get a lot of credit for what Clemson achieved from ‘77-‘78 on up.
TT: Clemson had a great rivalry with the University of Georgia during your time as head coach. Do any of those games stand out to you?
DF: Well, my worst one was when we went down there in ‘82 when they were national champions the year before we were and we were national champions in ‘81. We played on Labor Day weekend and got beat by a blocked punt. I remember that one very well, and I also remember Kevin Butler two years later kicking one from about 80 yards, it seemed like. And then I remember David Treadwell winning a lot of football games for us late in the ballgame down there. It was a great rivalry. I don’t know many records that we had at Clemson, but I do know that we were 5-5-1 against Georgia. And for years and years and years before that, we were just sort of a whipping dog for them. So I was proud of that, that our kids could beat an SEC team like that.
TT: In honor of National Signing Day happening this week, can you recall any crazy recruiting stories?
DF: Oh, there’s always them. One of ‘em was Johnny Johnson, a guy from LaGrange (Georgia). Our coaches that were recruiting him kept telling us that they thought we were going to get Johnny Johnson, and I didn’t believe it very much because he was really a good player and had even committed to Georgia. Georgia coaches thought they had him, but then he disappeared the night before Signing Day and ended up signing with Clemson. I usually spent the night at the office the night before Signing Day to stay up and get telephone calls from our coaches, and the whole time I was sitting in the office late that night I was getting calls from Georgia guys wanting to know where John Johnson was and what we did and saying that they were going to shoot us. They were really some mad people when they found out that he was coming to Clemson and they couldn’t find him. He had spent the night with another friend of his that our coaches knew about, and we signed him the next day, had it all lined up. The NCAA passed a rule right after that called the "Dooley Rule," where coaches had to come off the road a few days before Signing Day and couldn’t go out to schools during that time. There were all kinds of stories back then about kids getting kidnapped and not being where they were supposed to be. Georgia was on the short end of that one, but I’m sure that they were on the long end of a lot of them.
TT: Looking at the success Clemson has had in recruiting, do you think it gives the fans unrealistic expectations?
DF: I never did like much to hear about the star system of how they rated players and stuff like that. If we thought they could play, we thought they could play, not because somebody who sold subscriptions to a recruiting service thought they could play. That was never our intent at all. So we tried to keep all our stuff in-house and away from people. First of all, it’s a short time from now, after Signing Day, until school starts in August. And a few of them will not qualify, so it’s unrealistic how they’re rating your scholarship group that you’re bringing in. Some of them may not even be here in August, and some of them are going to leave in August. Some of them are going to quit, and some are going to get hurt. We basically always thought that it’d be best to wait and say if our football team won a lot of games, then they were a good class. Who cares if they were good high school players? That wasn’t our goal; our goal was to have a good college football team. So that part never meant much to me. I know the fans like to keep up with it and be in the know. Basically the fans like to brag about their university against somebody else’s. We’ve done our share of bragging as fans here at Clemson, probably more so than we should, and it’s just time to put up, get it done and win. And then we can talk about it. Sometimes we get the cart way ahead of the horse and think everything’s going to be great, and when it doesn’t turn out that way, you have a lot of disappointment.
TT: This is a program that hasn’t won an ACC title since 1991. Are there any possible explanations as to why that is?
DF: Yeah, because the other teams just beat ‘em. They haven’t been able to win the football games that matter. They haven’t been able to win in the fourth quarter, they lost some games they should’ve won, and they let some get away by not making enough plays. But it doesn’t matter why. The end result is they didn’t get it done, and they got what they richly deserved because they weren’t good enough to get it done for a number of reasons. But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to. There’s no reason why Clemson should be in that situation. They should be winning those games.
TT: What are your three keys to a successful program?
DF: Number one, you got to have something to sell, and that’s the university. You got to believe in the university and the athletic department, and you got to believe that it’s a place where someone wants to come and be successful in both education and athletics. Number two, you got to have the players. And number three, you need the coaches to coach them. Now it can be coaches and players or players and coaches or either way because the coaches have to recruit the players. They have to get the kids interested in the school. Some of them will grow up wanting to go to Clemson, but our last football team had five starters from New Jersey. I knew that our coaches were doing a good job because they [the players] hadn’t grown up thinking Clemson. They had to learn from the coaches about the university, so the coaches had to do a good job of selling the university. So I think that’s it in a nutshell: you have to have good coaches and good players.
You’ve also got to have great support, which Clemson has never had a problem with since they built the upper deck and everything. And that goes back to the athletic director Bill McClellan having the vision of building them at a time when interest rates were 17 to 18 percent. That of course brought in more fans, which brings in more pressure to win, because you have to make more people happy. But Bill had a great insight of where he wanted Clemson to be and did a great job of getting the facilities to make that a reality. So we had a great product to sell back then.
TT: Are there any lessons that Clemson could learn from a program like Alabama in terms of building a consistent winner?
DF: You know with Alabama, they don’t cut corners on anything. I don’t know if Clemson cuts corners on anything or not; I don’t think they do. But it’s just like our athletic director told me: "Don’t tell me what you wish you had, tell me what you’ve got to have." And I think Clemson needs to realize what they’ve got to have to be successful and not what they want to have, because I think they get mixed up about that sometimes. They have to beat the teams they play against. And on that schedule they play, most of them are in the Atlantic Coast Conference. If you go back and look at who their competition is and the facilities of these other schools, Clemson is in good shape compared to who they’ve got to beat. They may not be in great shape compared to Alabama or Texas, but they ain’t got to beat Alabama or Texas. Really, if you look at all the other schools and what they have, Clemson’s in fine shape if they just take care of their own business.
TT: Do you have any thoughts on the new coaching hires on the offensive side of the ball: Robbie Caldwell, Tony Elliot and Chad Morris?
DF: Well, I’ve known the new offensive coach, Robbie Caldwell, since we played against him when he was at Furman. He’s very well thought of and very highly regarded among South Carolina high school coaches, which is important. I met Tony Elliot when he was in the public sector with Michelin and ran a golf tournament for them. He seemed like a really fine person, but of course he’s got to do like everyone else and learn how to coach right now. He’s had a couple years of that, so he should be fine. I don’t know the Morris boy from Texas, but he had an outstanding career coaching high school and had one really fine year as offensive coordinator at Tulsa, so if he proves that he can do that at Clemson, he’ll be a truly great value for this university.
TT: What is your opinion of the hurry-up-no-huddle offense that Coach Morris is bringing with him?
DF: You know, there’s a lot of ways to look at that. I was thinking about it last night that it was like the race with the turtle and the hare. The old turtle just takes his time, but he gets there. The rabbit hustles and runs, but he’s always got distractions and stops for them. If you hurry up, you’re going to have a lot of possessions if you can stop the other team. But at the same time, if you go three-and-out, you’re going to be giving the ball for a lot more time. It’s not so much how fast they do it, it’s how many drives or possessions that they convert to points. That’s the most important thing to me. Usually you get the ball 12-14 times a game, and if you just score four times that’s 21-28 points right there. If you play good defense, 21 points ought to win a lot of ball games. And four out of 12 isn’t a great percentage, anyway.
TT: How did it feel to be the recipient of the Palmetto Patriot Award this past football season?
DF: Oh, it was nice of them to do it. I thought it was a special award — and it is, of course, I’m kidding — but they gave George Rodgers one, so I don’t know that. I kid George about that all the time. But it was the Lieutenant Governor’s award that he gives out, and he had been a friend of mine, so I think he just wanted to do that for me. Awards are fine and dandy, but they don’t mean near what they used to mean to me. What always meant more to me was the individual player. And I really mean that, because anything I accomplished was through athletics and football, and it was always because of somebody else. When I was playing, it was always because of another teammate or because I was coached well, and when I was coaching, it was because my players and the other coaches did their jobs well. It was never an individual honor on anything I ever did; it really wasn’t. I’ve heard it said that head coaches get a lot of credit and criticism when they don’t deserve it. They deserve all the criticism because they’re the head guy and get paid the most. I’ve always tried to take up for how I was taught. Coach Bryant always said, "We win and I lose," and that was his philosophy. So, we as a staff win, and I as a head coach lose. That’s something I always strive to remember.