In 1982—when, Ford says, he was "young and stupid"—Clemson got nailed for recruiting violations. The NCAA imposed sanctions on the Tigers for two years. "That got my attention. I've worked harder to get it right," says Ford.
How hard others in Ford's program have worked is apparently up for debate, because just before this season began the NCAA opened a preliminary inquiry into Clemson's recruiting of redshirted freshman quarterback Michael Carr from Amite. La. In August, Carr's high school coach, Gary Hendry, accused Clemson of cheating when it wooed Carr, specifically questioning how Carr, from humble environs, had obtained a Toyota Supra. Later, Carr's brother said the car was his. Carr left campus and went home briefly to Amite. When he returned to Clemson, he called Hendry a liar and said Hendry was merely bitter because the coach had wanted Carr to go to LSU. The furor has died down, but the NCAA is still investigating the program.
Controversy in Tigertown is as regular as the sunrise. While Clemson football has taken on the kind of "outlaw" tarnish that marks the University of Nevada at Las Vegas's basketball program, five of Ford's teams have won ACC championships, and six have been ranked in the final AP Top 20 poll; 19 of his players have made All-America, and eight have won Super Bowl rings. Even when the Tigers were on probation, they finished 9-1-1 and 7-4, surely a sign that Ford is a leader and motivator. So what if Clemson plays in a hoops league and doesn't care to roam too far beyond Virginia Tech on the nonconference ledger?
"I always wondered what was so great about your so-called intersectional rivalries," says Ford. "Hey, buddy, I don't need to go across the country to get my butt whipped. There's teams on this here East Coast who can do that to you." North Carolina State, for example, is 3-0 against Clemson since 1986. "My idea of college football is your own folks within drivin' distance, 80,000 in the stands screamin' for you. Hey, buddy, if we're good enough, we'll see you in late December or on January 1."
Speaking of which, against Woody Hayes, Joe Paterno, Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer, Ford is 4-0. Clemson folks like to point out that after Ohio State and Oklahoma lost to the Tigers, Hayes was fired and Switzer quit. Under Ford, the Tigers are 5-2 in postseason play, beginning with their 17-15 Gator Bowl victory over the Buckeyes in 1978, in which Hayes punched Clemson lineman Charlie Bauman. Ford had been named the Tigers' coach only 20 days before, when Charley Pell resigned to go to Florida. In '81 Clemson upset Nebraska to finish 12-0 and win the national championship, making Ford, at 33, the youngest title-winning coach in history.
In the last two seasons Clemson finished 10-2, and beat Penn State and Oklahoma, respectively, in the '88 and '89 Florida Citrus Bowls. Over the last three seasons only one school has finished in the Top 20, won its conference and won a bowl game each year. That school, buddy, is Clim-zin. Of course, this season won't be one that Ford is likely to boast about, with a 21-17 loss to Duke on Sept. 30 and, even worse, last Saturday's 30-14 disgrace against Georgia Tech at Homecoming. Still, even if the Tigers lose again to N.C. State this week, they are likely to go to a bowl for the fifth year in a row.
Despite his success, Ford remains virtually unknown nationally—a faceless field hand laboring not only under one of those tacky ball caps but beneath the giant shadow of ol' Frank and insulated by the image of his laid-back, corn-pone college. "I'm not real sure where all the schools and universities are in America," says Ford. "But I dang well know hardly anybody in Los Angeles knows where Clemson is."
The charm of Clemson is that both town and gown and the country folk around know full well who and what they are. They're not only fightin' proud of their Southern sticks heritage; they can make fun of it as well as any ol' Yankee. A T-shirt prominent in Clemson these days shows the cartoon faces of the wizened ol' Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler codgers with the words: CLEM AND SON: THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT.
All Clemson humor, of course, traces back to that rotund, cow-pie-kickin', tractor-pedalin' clown-cum-sage, ol' Frank hisself, 80 years young last March and somehow getting younger. Wondrous stories, apocryphal or not, have grown up around him like moss. Football fans throughout the South refer to him simply as the Legend.
There's the one about ol' Frank preparing for the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl in his Houston hotel room and being asked to come to another room because Nelson Rockefeller wanted to meet him. "How many games has that ol' boy won, buddy?" ol' Frank says. "Tell Rocky to come down here. He's the one who needs the votes." And Rocky came.