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January 31, 2012
CLEMSON, S.C. - Maybe you've heard about the time Danny Ford angrily confronted N.C. State's Monte Kiffin at midfield, accusing Kiffin of ratting out Clemson to the NCAA:
"Ain't no telling what I said after the game," Ford told reporters. "But if I said it, I said it."
Maybe you've heard about the time he invented a word:
"Some people call it chemistry, but I don't like that word. We just don't have all our working parts together. We're not clicking. We don't have clickness."
Or maybe you heard about the time after Clemson's 1989 annihilation of Florida State, when a Seminoles fan masquerading as a reporter asked him how he was going to like probation:
"(Expletive) you, buddy."
You've probably heard some of the stories and anecdotes that made Ford a fascinating subject when he was leading Clemson in his own colorful, tobacco-chewing way from late 1978 until his polarizing divorce with the school after the 1989 season. But there are so many more you either haven't heard or have forgotten.
He took over a heartbroken fan base after Charley Pell's abrupt departure to Florida, and he was so nervous and meek at his introductory press conference that Tiger legend Frank Howard chastised him afterward and told him he couldn't hear him.
"You've got to romp and stomp," Howard told the 30-year-old.
Eventually Ford learned to just be himself. And he did plenty of romping and stomping, putting his own endearing, enduring stamp on the Clemson program.
The man lives the simple life on a farm a few miles from campus, still strikes a commanding but welcoming presence when he makes appearances at games, social functions or just lunch at a greasy spoon. He's still beloved by legions of fans who are still waiting for the football program to reclaim the glory he built.
Reporters who didn't have a chance to cover him on a daily basis wish they'd have come along a little earlier. Ford was in South Florida for the recent Orange Bowl, and a few days before the game he meandered into a media hospitality room.
Ford, who was to be inducted into the bowl's Hall of Fame, could've sought out far more regal company. When yours truly asked him what in the world he was doing hanging around with a bunch of sportswriters on this occasion, Ford responded:
"I'm just looking for a wing and a beer."
He proceeded to hold court with the wide-eyed scribes, Budweiser in hand.
The national title, all those ACC trophies, all those bowl butt-whippings of national powers, and the us-against-the-college-football-world mentality with which it was all achieved, has a way of minimizing the memories of the heavy price paid for much of the achievement. He thumbed his nose at the ACC and everyone else that didn't like seeing little 'ole Clemson win big, and that's why he's eternally revered despite the conflicted legacy he left behind.
Perhaps the greatest personal tragedy of Ford's tenure was that he was never able to enjoy his greatest successes for long. Seemed there was a menacing black cloud hovering close to most of Ford's days in the sun. That's what made the sequence of his forced departure, coming just a few weeks after his program looked like the best in college football during a Gator Bowl thrashing of Major Harris and West Virginia, a haunting but perfect microcosm of his tenure.
The roaring fame achieved under Ford, and the NCAA-imposed infamy that came with it, created a nasty tug of war between athletics and academics. The former won when university president Bill Atchley was forced out in 1985. The latter won in 1990 when Ford, to the outrage of many, suddenly had plenty of spare time to tend to his farm.
The fallout from that parting was powerful enough that, when the football program was going 20 long and agonizing years without an ACC championship, many fans blamed lack of administrative commitment to football and said the powers that be weren't interested in gridiron greatness. Ford is embraced by plenty of people at Clemson, but still not enough for his name to be on the Ring of Honor at Memorial Stadium.
So many things have been written and said about Ford and his tumultuous tenure at Clemson, but so many more of the details and anecdotes have been shrouded by the passage of time -- or perhaps clouded by revisionist memories or eliminated altogether by mental blocks. Most people who were around back then remember only bits and pieces, producing gaps and holes that invite a much closer inspection for those attempting to paint a complete picture.
Tigerillustrated.com has endeavored to fashion such a portrait. There's no anniversary to commemorate, no news angle that makes it topical. Bottom line: It's just so darned interesting and captivating that we were dying to do it.
For the better part of January, we have immersed ourselves in the daily accounts of Ford's tenure. The research has been exhaustive and time-consuming, and it's still in progress as you're reading this.
But starting early next week, we'll begin to roll out a multi-part series that we hope will be a definitive account of the Danny Ford days at Clemson.
From the first day to the last day, from the high points to the low points and everything in between, you'll read about it all here.
Everybody has a few good Danny stories. But the best are the ones you probably haven't heard, and that's what we set out to find with this project.
Prepare for a wild ride.
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