(1979-1989): Coach Ford, for three and a half decades, was the only coach to bring a National Championship to Clemson. He is famous for his 1981 squad, which went undefeated and upset Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl to claim the National Championship as the only undefeated team in the nation (12-0). The Tigers were no one hit wonder under Ford, though. In his 11 seasons at Clemson, the Tigers won the ACC six times (though 1983 is not recognized due to NCAA probation dating to transgressions under Charley Pell). From 1981 to 1983 the Tigers went 19-0 in ACC play.
Unfortunately, allegations of impermissible benefits sent the Tigers to probation after the 1982 season, causing lean years in 1984 and 1985. They’d quickly recover and win the ACC every year from 1986-1988. No Clemson coach has won the ACC three consecutive times since Ford’s ’86-’89 threepeat. Coach Swinney has a chance in 2017.
While the administration and NCAA may be culpable, the negative turn the program took at the conclusion of his tenure prevents him from being considered the greatest coach in program history. Another NCAA investigation was about to begin and tension between Ford and the administration had risen too high. They let him go before the 1990 season, hiring Ken Hatfield as his successor. The NCAA would later clear Clemson of any violations from that investigation.
Clemson went 19-4-1 over the next two seasons and won the conference in 1991. Still, many were upset Ford was not still coaching the program. FSU joined the ACC in 1992 and immediately took control of the conference winning it their first nine years as members. When Hatfield left after 1993, the Tigers hired the aforementioned Tommy West. The Tigers fell behind on facilities and won just one ACC title in the 21 years following Ford’s departure (1990-2010). Clemson largely failed to build upon the foundation Ford had laid.
It wasn’t all lost though. Not only does the 1981 National Championship “banner” still hang proudly in Death Valley, but upon winning the 2016 National Championship (2017 CFP National Championship Game), current Head Coach Dabo Swinney cited the 1981 team as a source of hope and proof that Clemson could win it all.