Intense practices toughened Tigers
Perry Tuttle waited until nightfall to escape. Under the cover of darkness, there would be no embarrassment, no one to witness his flight of shame.
He waited until midnight when the dorm quieted. The Clemson freshman, a big-play specialist who would wind up in the Orange Bowl end zone leading the Tigers to the 1981 national championship, packed his clothes and stereo into his 1974 Chevy Vega and drove north on I-85. He arrived at his parents' home in Midway, N.C., at 4:30 a.m.
Football practice under Charley Pell and new assistant coach Danny Ford got the best of the young receiver in 1978.
"My dad came to the door," Tuttle said. "I told my mom and dad it's just not for me. My dad told me to get in bed, and as soon as you wake up, let's get you a job."
Around noon the next day, a car arrived at the Tuttle residence. The sedan door opened, and rising from the driver's seat was Tigers assistant football coach Buddy King.
"King showed up and said, 'What are you doing?' " Tuttle recalled. "We talked and I followed Buddy King back to Clemson in my '74 Vega. Even though I was embarrassed, even though I was confused … it was not just my coaches, it was my parents, saying this is who you are, this is what you are all about."
Several years later on another hot August night, a car crept into a Spartanburg driveway, dimming its headlights.
King was again searching for football fugitives, three players who disappeared from campus. The group included starting right tackle Lee Nanney. The players were surprised and startled at the appearance of the coach. Brian Butcher, an offensive lineman, remembers the story of
King telling the three players: "You can shoot me, but if you don't, I'm taking you back with me."
Many players thought about quitting during training camp under Ford. Some quit and returned, like Nanney and Tuttle. Others never came back. But this was the point: Ford wanted to weed out the quitters.
Butcher compared training camp to the movie "The Junction Boys," which recounts a trying training camp under Paul "Bear" Bryant, a coach known for his ruthless practices. Bryant was Ford's coach at Alabama, where Ford was a team captain and All-SEC offensive tackle in 1969.
"So many kids left in the middle of the night," Butcher said. "They couldn't take it. … They killed us. "During training camp, it was like taking three busloads into the desert and coming back with one. Playing for Danny Ford was as close as I wanted to get to being in the military."
To become a special agent in the U.S. Secret Service, Billy Davis went through a grueling process that included six weeks of basic training
The former Clemson safety is also a survivor of three NFL training camps.
Still, Davis endured an even more arduous preparation exercise.
"A Danny Ford training camp," Davis said. "In spring and fall practices under Coach Ford, there was a vast amount of suffering going on. If you can make it through the crucible of those practices, you develop a bond."
Ford was notorious for restarting practices which did not meet his standards. Clemson was scheduled to have its first day off following a Saturday scrimmage, capping a grueling three weeks of two-a-days.
"Everyone's legs were buckling," Butcher said.
On the first five plays of the Saturday scrimmage, officials threw penalty flags, which players suspected was scripted.
"Danny blew the whistle and yelled 'this is horse (expletive),' " Butcher said. "Ford said 'Get back out here at 7 a.m. tomorrow.' People were screaming, threatening to quit. Ford just left the practice field. … He did it to create (toughness). It worked."
Ford restarted practices so often, trainer Doc Hoover would go to practice with a walkie-talkie to alert cooks at the dining hall when players were coming off the field. When Ford restarted a practice, Butcher said Hoover "would just shake his head."
Ford's practices would not be permitted under today's NCAA rules.
"I didn't want to hear no moaning or groaning about pads," Ford said. "Get two hours of work in: total dedication, total effort. I was going to be the judge."
The most dreaded practice drill was the middle drill. The players involved were the front seven on defense and the offensive line and backs. The offense had a set of downs to gain three yards on running plays. The defense had to stop them. In the drill, reserve running back Duke Holloman was tossed around like a human pinball.
"We dreaded it," Holloman said. "It was punishing. … You were going at 100 percent for the 15 minutes just for survival. If you fumbled the ball, (Ford) wouldn't mumble something, he would lose it."
Ford believed in practicing his starting offense often against his starting defense to create the best possible competition.
"They moved me to guard in the spring of 1981," Butcher said. "There was a trap play to the left side -- I was the right guard. I was supposed to block (linebacker) Jeff Davis. I pulled around through the hole way too high and Davis came through the hole and blasted me.
"I fell to the ground and he looked at me through my ear hole. (Line coach Larry) Van Der Heyden runs out yelling 'You OK? You OK? You OK? He thought I was paralyzed. He said, 'You got to get lower.' After that I went low when I came through there."
They emerged from camp weak-legged. But the Tigers emerged with toughness. They had been tested. They had survived August.
This is the second story in an occasional series looking back at the Clemson football team's 1981 national championship season.