Danny Ford fondly recalls famous first win as Clemson's head football coach, vs. Ohio State's Woody Hayes
CLEMSON - The day Danny Ford's coaching path was born will forever be remembered for the losing coach's exit, not the winning coach's entrance.
Google "1978 Gator Bowl" and browse a slew of stories on how Ohio State's legendary leader hastened his swan song, all by slugging a Clemson player out of frustration for making the game-clinching interception.
"Woody Hayes vs. Charlie Bauman" is the top YouTube link, while "Woody Hayes KO'd himself in 1978 Gator Bowl," "'78 Gator bowl packed more than just punch" and "The Punch Heard 'Round the Gator Bowl" are among the memorable headlines.
Little is it evident to the curious reader that a future national championship winner earned his first coaching victory that day on the opposite sideline. And he barely even knew what he was doing, and is still waiting for that postgame handshake that will never come.
Danny Ford, who turns 66 years old Dec. 19, stopped by Clemson's football complex Wednesday to retell some favorite stories from half a lifetime ago - the first day he had command of Clemson's football team.
That happened to be the program's only previous matchup with the Buckeyes in its history; No. 12 Clemson and No. 7 Ohio State will meet for the first time in 35 years Jan. 3 in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
Holding court with reporters for 40 minutes, the first thing Ford wanted to clear up was he was happy to speak, but didn't want to wrest attention away from the current players or coaches. He's still happily milking cows and riding his tractor on a nearby farm, attending the occasional game at Memorial Stadium (like when he was inducted to the Ring of Honor Aug. 31 before the Georgia opener) but more content to listen on the radio away from the spotlight.
The second thing Ford wished to express: Woody Hayes is not a bad guy, and felt bad about punching an opposing freshman defensive back out of emotion.
"Some things people probably don't realize: (Hayes) called after that and got Charlie Bauman's telephone number," Ford said. "It was on a Sunday. He called and asked me, could he speak with him? I said, 'Certainly, but he was at study hall.' He said, 'Well, we don't have study hall on Sunday night. We just have study hall on Monday through Thursday. I think I'll go back and put that in.' He did visit with him."
Hayes, of course, would never coach another game, his career over after five national championships in 28 years guiding the Buckeyes. He passed away in 1987.
By knocking off the Buckeyes and garnering Clemson's first bowl victory in 19 years, Ford earned his first and only win as an interim coach, upon Charley Pell's sudden resignation at the end of the 1978 season.
Ford stayed on, winning Clemson's only national title three years later. With 96 wins in 11 full seasons (plus that Gator Bowl), he still trails only Frank Howard among the program's coaching wins leaders.
When he replaced Pell, Ford was 30 years old, the youngest head coach in Division I college football.
"Certainly you thought you were always ready, but no, I had no clue," Ford said.
It didn't take long for Ford to witness the spoils of being the head man, learning so in Jacksonville.
"I'd never even had a king-size bed. I had a suite about the size of this room with everything in it you could have, ten floors up. I said, this coaching's pretty good stuff," Ford said. "But the closer it got to the game, I kept wanting to lift that window and jump out that thing and not have to go put a football team on national television. But the window was screwed down, I couldn't open it."
Ford kept the laughter going with other recollections, like questions about whether a 30-year-old could handle the job.
"They asked me, 'Are you scared of the job?' I said, 'The only thing I'm scared of is a snake.' Today, I still ain't messing with a snake for nothing. Everything else I think I can handle," Ford said. "Still, if you've never done it . I mean, I think I can drive in a car, but until I get in there and really do it, you have no idea whether you can do it or not.
"I guess it'd be like driving a motorcycle and it goes dead on you 4-5 times. At least we had good enough players - and we had some great players - to overcome anything that I could screw up."
Ford also recalled not getting to shake Hayes' hand after the game, in part because of the famous fracas which had occurred just before the final gun.
"I don't remember seeing him after the game. I'm not so sure the police didn't escort him off the field," Ford said. "I knew I was supposed to go to the field win or lose."