A former player for and assistant to Bear Bryant, Ford had been thrust into the job just before the Tigers' 17-15 Gator Bowl upset of Ohio State in 1978 when Charley Pell quit and went to Florida after the bowl bid was announced. "If you've never done something before, you don't know what to do," Ford recalls of that Gator Bowl game. "I was unconscious that game." An official must have suspected as much. Sensing that Ford might take his team off the field after Buckeye Coach Woody Hayes punched Tiger Linebacker Charlie Bauman in the waning moments, the official sidled up to Ford and said, "Son, now I wouldn't do anything stupid."
"When he was first made head coach," says Tiger Split End Jerry Gaillard, a senior, "you could see that he'd been around it but never really done it. He's improved 100 percent. And the transition he made from the crazy assistant who was kidding us all the time—it's been great."
Jeff Davis, a 6-foot, 223-pound linebacker who had a team-high eight tackles against North Carolina, including a crucial stop of Bryant on the Clemson nine in the third quarter, provides senior leadership much like what he remembers so well from his own freshman season. Clemson picks captains for each game, but Davis and Tuttle are the de facto leaders of the defense and offense. The four-year roommates have symbolized the unity that has replaced the divisiveness—between senior and junior and offense and defense—that nearly tore the Tigers apart in 1980. "Last year there were 13 seniors on the team and only six really played," says Ford. "This year we have lots of senior starters, and they'll do things like calling team meetings without the coaches." Davis takes charge of most of those meetings.
"We lost early last year, and when you're losing, everybody looks for problems," says Gaillard. "It's just a totally different atmosphere now."
One reason for that change is the presence of Tom Harper, who was hired away from Virginia Tech last winter to coach the Tiger defense. Harper, 49, introduced a wrinkle in Clemson's 5-2 alignment that had been successful at Tech. A 6'5", 230-pound converted quarterback named Andy Headen lines up at one end of the line of scrimmage. He's called the "bandit" back.
"He's a defensive end who can drop on coverage," Harper says. "But he also becomes the equivalent of a strong safety when we go with a four-man front. And he must be able to blitz. He needs the size to be an outside linebacker, and the range and knowledge to be a defensive back, and the strength and speed to blitz. Andy's a super athlete who met the job description. Of course, if you wrote a job description for nose guards, William Perry would fit it."
Actually, if you wrote the specs for a refrigerator, Perry would fit those too, which is why his teammates variously call the 6'3", 285-pound freshman GE, The Refrigerator and Fridge. He had five unassisted tackles while playing just half the game against North Carolina. One came in the fourth quarter when the Tar Heels had moved to the Clemson 33, nearly within field-goal range. Perry sacked Stankavage for a 10-yard loss on third-and-six, and after a penalty, Carolina was forced to punt.
Perry runs a 4.9 40, can dunk a basketball and has lost 20 pounds this season. He figures he can drop a few more, even though his body fat is less than 15%. "He's not fat fat," says Ford. "He's just hungry."
He splits time with Devane, a 6'2", 250-pound sophomore, at nose guard, the pressure point of the Tigers' pressure defense. Until one of them develops the endurance to carry his formidable young frame for more than 40 plays a game, Ford will continue to alternate them.
"I expect to be double-teamed," says The Refrigerator. "If they send the center at me one-on-one, I'm gonna beat him naturally. Get two people, that's the key." To complicate North Carolina's problems, Tar Heel Starting Center Steve McGrew was out with a sprained left ankle, so Devane and Fridge went against a freshman most of the afternoon.