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June 24, 2013

About time

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CLEMSON -- For more than three decades, Clemson has celebrated its 1981 national title in every way imaginable.

They've brought everyone back for the reunions at the standard intervals. They've plastered the distinction on the football stadium and in the concourses with large photos of highlights from that season. And you'd better believe they've squeezed every bit of recruiting juice possible out of the accomplishment, as they should.

But they haven't celebrated the man who guided that team to the top of the college football mountain, not to mention all those ACC titles and the most successful era in this school's football history.

Not officially, anyway.

We can talk about all the nuances of a coach's nasty parting with a school, all the delicateness of publicly recognizing a coach who landed the institution in hot water with the NCAA, and we can even talk about justified reasons for a coach serving some penance for the way he handled some situations.

A lot of it is complicated. But the essence of the latest development in this story, that being Clemson's decision to finally place Danny Ford in the prestigious Ring of Honor at the stadium that rocked and rolled during his tenure from 1978 to 1989, is quite succinct and simple:

You cannot celebrate the collective achievement and ignore the individual most responsible for the achievement.

Now, Ford would probably balk at the notion that he was the man most responsible for the storied championship season and all that dominance of the conference that the Tigers finally re-conquered back in 2011.

In fact, the quote from him in last week's release from Clemson deflected some of the credit in typical Danny fashion:

"I feel a coach is less deserving of something like this than a player. They are the ones who did all the blocking and tackling. The coaches just try to direct them and draw up the plays."

Maybe that last sentence applies to some of the robotic leaders we see running the show at football powerhouses these days, chief among them the man who has orchestrated a dynasty at Ford's alma mater in Tuscaloosa.

But that was never the way Ford rolled. True, those were different times back then when coaches could stroll up to the bar at the Esso Club or Sloan Street Tap Room and down a few beers - maybe even carouse a little and have some, you know, fun -- without fear that it'd be plastered on YouTube or a message board within 10 minutes.

There was almost nothing contrived or orchestrated in how Ford went about his business, and the same remains true to this day. In a conversation with this reporter a couple years ago at a local Hardee's, he showed up fresh off his farm trailing a few strands of hay on his jeans and mud caked on his boots while wearing a wrinkled flannel shirt. He conversed with the cashiers and a cluster of diners not because his public relations flaks told him it'd be a good idea, but because that's just him.

There's an untold number of stories about Ford from folks who have encountered him in the years since he left Arkansas and decided to return to the Clemson area. His legend grew in the decades after his 1990 departure in large part because of the football team's descent to mediocrity, but also in part because he's so embraceable and beloved as a member of a tight-knit community. He is a man of the people, and that's probably why the current man of the people (Dabo Swinney) picked his brain in the fall of 2008 as he tried to rebuild bridges to the fan base.

All these years later, it's easy for people to write a quick, superficial account of his tenure at Clemson by saying he put the Tigers on probation after the 1981 season. A few days ago, Scott Michaux of The Augusta Chronicle wrote that the NCAA cited Ford and his coaching staff for 14 violations in January of 1990 and that some of the transgressions occurred when Clemson was still serving probation that came down in 1982. He wrote that "clearly no lessons were learned," that Ford's arrogance cost him his job, that his ouster was the only way Clemson avoided the "death penalty" fate that befell SMU three years before.

Well, not exactly. Ford did acknowledge to our Cris Ard a couple years ago that he was probably too stubborn and made some mistakes in his conflict with school administrators. And yeah, it was probably a mistake for him to ridicule the higher-ups at a booster-club function in Columbia when he was campaigning for an athletics dorm instead of a new learning center that the academics wanted.

But it's a stretch to say Ford and his staff thumbed their noses at the rules after they were shackled with the probation that kept them from bowl games in 1982, 1983 and 1984. The more accurate picture depicts a coach and his subordinates learning some hard lessons and making significant refinements and corrections as the Tigers reloaded in 1985, 1986 and 1987 and did what they could to ensure that such devastating repercussions never struck the football program again.

Some of the details will never be acknowledged because of the oath of secrecy Ford and the university agreed to at the time of their separation in February of 1990. Yet if we're recounting the play-by-play of the most divisive, tumultuous time in Clemson's athletics history we must include the end game of the NCAA's investigation.

In May of that year, the NCAA came down with one year of probation but no scholarship reductions or bans on TV and bowl appearances. The NCAA found there was no pattern of cash payments, no lack of institutional control. The major violations: two instances of a booster giving two players small cash sums in 1985 and 1987.

This was all stuff that Ford predicted after he met with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in Kansas City weeks earlier. He told reporters he was "very pleased" with the hearing and said "what comes out in the committee's report is the most important thing."

After the verdict, Ford held a press conference in Greenville and reporters were surprised to see him walk into the room much lighter after he lost 25 pounds working on his farm the previous four months. He said his program had become "as clean as any of them," and he wasn't happy that Clemson's administration seemed to take all the credit for the significant compliance improvements lauded by the NCAA in its report.

"Institutional control is not just the administration," he said then. "I think our checks and balances as a coaching staff was super. The biggest improvement that the NCAA saw in our program from 1982 to now is what the coaches were doing."

Did the NCAA lighten the punishment in exchange for Clemson's removal of its figurehead? Maybe so. But the evidence didn't point to a renegade program that was begging for the death penalty.

"At one time, I thought there might have been a deal working," Ford said in the summer of 1990, referring to Clemson and the NCAA. "But I don't believe that."

There are still plenty of hurt feelings from the divorce, still plenty of supporters who wonder how much more glory would've come had Ford remained in place. The latest step, however, helps salve some of those wounds.

And beyond the emotional part, it's simply the right thing to do. Because if you can't bring yourself to properly celebrate the man, you might as well remove all celebrations of the achievements under the man.

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