Light from a 16 millimeter film projector partially illuminated anxious men huddled in a dark, cramped interior Jervey Hall office.
Clemson offensive coordinator Nelson Stokley and his offensive staff watched and re-watched film of the Maryland defense. They watched how the Terrapins, more than any other team they had faced, overloaded the line of scrimmage with eight defenders and left their secondary in vulnerable man-to-man coverage.
With a perfect ACC season and undefeated season on the line, the offensive staff members agreed Clemson should attempt an alien strategy on Nov. 14, 1981: they should emphasize the passing game over the run game.
The next morning, Stokley, receivers coach Dawson Holland and the rest of the offensive staff took their plan to the executive level, Danny Ford’s office, for approval.
“We had a staff meeting with coach Ford,” Holland said. “Nelson presented and Ford said ‘No, no, no you are wasting your time. Y’all lost your minds. This is what we are going to do.’ ”
The offensive staff retreated back to its chamber, where Stokley, a former Louisiana State quarterback, once again formed a huddle.
“Nelson called us together and said the only chance we got is to stick together on this thing, and I know how strongly everyone in this room believes,” Holland said. “We have to stick to our guns.”
The staff returned again Monday night with another plea to Ford to approve their game plan.
Again Ford used his power of veto.
The offensive staff met yet again in Littlejohn to avoid phone calls and other distractions. Night became morning when they again approached Ford, one last offensive.
“Coach Ford said ‘OK, let me tell you something: you guys are going to the press conference after the game, I’m not going,’ ” Holland remembered Ford saying. “I was just thankful for all of us that Jerry Gaillard, Perry Tuttle and Homer Jordan made some big plays. It shows you what kind of leader and motivator Nelson was to come up with a plan that was a bit foreign to our offense at the time and have some success.”
The strategy paid off. Homer Jordan threw three touchdown passes in the first half, including a 12-yard lob on a fade to Gaillard to take a 21-0 lead into the half. It was Gaillard’s first touchdown of the season.
Clemson won 21-7 to secure an ACC title, improve to 10-0 and secure a perfect 6-0 season in the ACC.
The story exhibited Ford’s CEO approach to the 1981 season, a departure from his micromanaging style of 1979 and 1980. Ford let his coaches coach.
Said then, offensive line coach Larry Van Der Heyden: “He was a former offensive line coach. He could have hovered over me all the time, checking me and doing this and that, but he didn’t.”
There were no playing calling controversies that season as Ford did not call plays, he did not even wear a headset. Rather, Ford spent his Saturdays lobbying officials, and paid particular attention to the play of the offensive and defensive lines.
“Coach Ford that whole year decided not to wear headphones,” Holland said. “He would wear (running backs coach) Chuck Reedy out on the sidelines, asking, ‘What’s the play? Whatcha got? Whatcha got? Whatcha got?’ Chuck would always tell him the play and coach Ford just shake his head like it ain’t going to work.
“But he let Nelson and Chuck run the game. It was a (CEO approach) no doubt. Coach Ford’s deal was, every Saturday morning we’d meet at the Ramada inn in Anderson as a staff and he’d say the same thing every Saturday: ‘Y’all coach the game, I’ll coach the officials.’ He didn’t want us mingling or taking time away from coaching our players to argue with officials or call officials or question calls.”
Stokley, who died in 2010 and whose son is NFL receiver Brandon Stokley, was also open to ideas from Clemson assistants when formulating game plans.
And because all the assistants had a vested interest in the offense, Van Der Heyden and Holland said the assistants took upon more ownership in it, paid more attention to detail, possessed a greater sense of urgency, because if something failed they were held directly accountable.
“(Stokley) was an offensive coordinator, but we all went in there and looked at film together and we could all make suggestions,” Van Der Heyden said. “I could make suggestions on what I thought the best running plays were. It wasn’t all, ‘Hey, this is my offense.’ It was our offense.”