South Carolina's defensive dictator: Lorenzo Ward's brash style serves him well in coaching and in life

USC's Lorenzo Ward was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator prior to last season's bowl game against Nebraska.

COLUMBIA —Lorenzo Ward got in his car and started driving. He was in Atlanta when South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson called. Johnson wanted Ward, USC’s defensive backs coach, to come to South Pointe High in Rock Hill and help land the nation’s top-ranked recruit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Signing Day 2011 was about a month away.

Ward made the 235-mile drive, walked into the school and greeted Clowney, alongside Johnson, who was Clowney’s primary recruiter. Clowney had only met Ward in passing at USC, and here he was, at his high school, right before Signing Day.

“Who is this?” Clowney asked Johnson, as Ward recalled.

“Do you know who Mariano Rivera is?” Ward replied.

Clowney said no.

“He’s probably the best closer to pitch in major league baseball,” Ward said.

“Oh, are you the closer?” Clowney asked.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Ward said.

He proceeded to tell Clowney, “Everybody’s been telling you how good you are, and everybody’s been kissing your (butt). I ain’t gonna kiss your (butt). I ain’t gonna call you, and you’re gonna call me every day.”

Ward said Clowney did just that — called him every day for the next two weeks.

“Wouldn’t talk to another guy on the staff but me,” Ward said.

Clowney signed with USC, and said recently, “I’d say he closed it out.”

Clowney will be a key piece of the Gamecocks’ defense this season, with Ward as their defensive coordinator, a job he was promoted to before last season’s bowl game.

Ward favors an aggressive, blitzing style that reflects the assertive personality he developed long before he told Clowney he wouldn’t flatter him.

“I’ve always been a guy that likes to be the dictator and not be the one dictated to,” he said.

That ethos was born in poor, rural Alabama — in pool halls, on sandlot baseball fields and during informally segregated team dinners. It earned him his wife, his nickname and his career path, which reaches its zenith this season.

Ward and his two older brothers loved the “Country Boy Eddie Show,” a morning television program that included commercials for baby chickens.

Ward’s grandmother, Mamie Ward, ordered the chickens and raised them with the boys’ help. When the chickens were old enough, Ward said, “my grandmamma would take them and wring the neck, and he’d run ’til he’d die and she’d pluck the feathers and we’d gut it and cook it.”

This was life in Mamie’s four-room house in Greensboro, 38 miles south of Tuscaloosa. The boys’ mother, Georgia Ware, moved to Atlanta when Ward was 1, to earn money to send home by working in a Woolworth department store. (The only jobs in Greensboro were at a chicken processing plant that Georgia vowed to avoid.) Georgia’s mother, Mamie, agreed to take the boys, though she had already raised 12 children of her own. The boys spent summers in Atlanta.

Until Ward was about 11, his family used an outhouse. When Ward was born, in 1967, that was common in Greensboro, a town of about 2,000. Ward slept in the same room as his grandmother and middle brother, Adrian. They chopped wood to fill the fireplace, heated a five-gallon bucket of water on the stove every morning for baths and cleaned their clothes on a washboard.

Mamie worked at a diner to earn money and received food stamps. She and the boys literally lived hand to mouth. They raised hogs that they hired someone to slaughter. They churned their own butter. They grew vegetables and nurtured pear trees for jam. Once, Mamie yanked a snake out of her grapevines with her bare hands and killed it. Ward later calculated that Mamie and Georgia raised the three boys on a combined annual income of about $3,200.

“She showed us how to live without having a lot,” Ward said.

Mamie couldn’t always control Ward. He was a brash kid who lived as fast as he talked.

By the time he was 9, he was riding around in cars with 18-year-olds, drinking beer they sometimes obtained from local bootleggers who sold it out of their houses. Mamie walloped him when the boys dropped him off drunk, but he didn’t care. He hustled the local pool hall so well that his best friend, Ondray Wagner, bet against the adults who played him. “He could barely look over the table, but you couldn’t beat him,” Wagner said.

At Little League baseball practice when he was 11, he liked to hop in his coach’s Impala and spin donuts on the grassy area outside the field. He developed such a reputation that Wagner’s mother hesitated to let him play with Wagner at their house. “He’s too mannish,” she’d say.

He settled down when he was 12 and started attending church with a neighboring family. He embraced the experience, in his own way. On Sundays during college, he sat with Wagner, and when the minister finished his sermon, Ward was the first parishioner to spring out of his pew, approach the pulpit, shake the minister’s hand and give him money.

“He had a little mouth growing up,” Adrian said. “He always thought he could handle himself. I figured he’d be a hell-raiser, but he turned out to be a good kid.”

Yet he remained assertive. He and Wagner were the only black kids on an otherwise white Little League team that was better than Greensboro’s other squad, which was all black. Ward and Wagner didn’t like the obvious exclusion of their peers, so they joined the all-black team. After an 18-2 loss to the all-white team, Ward said his team never lost to the white players again.

“We made them cry every time they played us,” Ward said.

He said he never experienced overt racism in Greensboro, but the black-white line was clear. Ward started on the varsity football team from the eighth grade on. He was the star quarterback as a senior, and his coach, the late Robert Lucky, favored him.

Lucky let Ward play with his kids and drive his truck, privileges not afforded to the other black players. Ward was the only black player allowed to eat pregame meals for free at Lucky’s brother’s restaurant. Ward said he still loves and appreciates Lucky for taking him on college visits. But one day, he informed Lucky he wouldn’t attend another pregame meal.

“I just told him I didn’t think it was fair,” Ward said.

Tara was the quiet girl, and she had the misfortune of sitting in front of a rambunctious, chatty kid in seventh grade English. The teacher looked back at Ward pestering Tara and asked her, “Do you want me to move him?” No, she said. She didn’t want to get him in trouble.

Freshman year, she was a cheerleader and caught Ward’s eye again, during a game. His relationship with another girl was fizzling, so he tracked down Tara’s number and called her. Sure, she might like him, she told him, but it didn’t matter, since he had a girlfriend already.

“I don’t have a girlfriend anymore,” he quickly replied.

Ten years later, in 1992, she became Tara Ward. She was one reason he decided to walk on at Alabama in 1986 rather than accept a scholarship elsewhere. Being close to Mamie was the other. Many black folks in Greensboro chafed at him choosing Alabama. They didn’t believe the historically white school would treat him fairly. They told him he would never play.

He not only started his final season, he developed important coaching connections. After coaching at a Georgia high school in 1992, he was summoned back to Tuscaloosa. His job title would be graduate assistant. But he coached the linebackers in 1993 while Johnson, whom Ward is now replacing as USC’s defensive coordinator, underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s disease. Ward ate lunch with Johnson every day to review plans, and Ward still considers those sessions and his responsibility in 1993 invaluable for his career.

Bill Oliver coached Ward in Alabama’s secondary. He loved Ward’s intelligence and intensity. Ward’s nickname, Whammy, came from his Alabama roommate, after a character in the game show “Press Your Luck.” But it spread after a practice during which coach Bill Curry exclaimed, “Lorenzo, you whammed that guy!”

Oliver set up Ward with his first full-time job in 1994 at Tennessee-Chattanooga. Ward and Chattanooga coach Buddy Green never even talked football during the job interview.

“He knew when I got there that he was going to hire me because of what Bill Oliver had told him,” Ward said.

Two weeks ago, Ward’s mother, Georgia, attended a USC scrimmage with Tara. They watched Ward instruct players with the same voice he’s always used, permanently set on fast-forward. When he gets excited, his words run together, spilling out of his mouth in baritone Southern mumble. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer once wondered, during Ward’s interview for a job he got in 1999, if players would be able to understand Ward, because Beamer sure couldn’t.

Georgia thought the same thing during the scrimmage. She jokingly told Tara, “Maybe I should have clipped his tongue.”

Ward had long since channeled his excitable ways into coaching, so singularly that Tara felt him tossing in their bed at 3 a.m. recently, as he usually does this time of year, buzzing with anticipation for the season opener, last Thursday at Vanderbilt.

But before he became a high-profile coach, before he buried Mamie in 1999 at the age of 90, he and Adrian made good on a promise from their childhood. In 1991, as Ward finished at Alabama, they had Mamie’s old four-room house torn down and replaced it with an air-conditioned double-wide trailer where she lived out her days, right there on the same piece of land in poor, rural Alabama that so richly blessed Ward.