Please excuse Clemson Coach Danny Ford for thinking that winning football championships is supposed to be fun. After all, Ford is only 34, and before last season his exposure to championship football came at the knee of his mentor, a fellow named Bear Bryant. What Ford learned as an Alabama assistant for four years is that when you're the Tide, winning is nothing...but fun. But when you're Clemson, well, it's assumed you must have a lot of explaining to do. All through the 1981 season it seemed that people were just waiting for Clemson's bubble to burst. When it wouldn't, they tried to bore a hole through it by alleging all manner of NCAA rules violations. When the Tigers went to the Orange Bowl, they were mostly treated as if they were crashing a Palm Beach cocktail party. Only when the undefeated Tigers up and beat establishment favorite Nebraska 22-15 to complete a 12-0 season were they accepted—if reluctantly—as the nation's No. 1 team. The bitter only made the sweet that much sweeter for Ford and his team.
The NCAA's fist hasn't come down upon Clemson—not as of this writing, anyway—but Ford finds that his team is still being asked to prove that 1981 wasn't some sort of blip on the screen and that the Tigers really do belong at the top. And now, with the element of surprise giving way to the weekly element of revenge, Clemson will feel the pressure even more strongly. "That's part of being a great football team," says Ford. "We're still not in the upper echelon when it comes to tradition." Of course, Ford will see what he can do about that.
One thing is for sure, America won't have to wait until New Year's Day to find out just how real Clemson is. The chance to silence critics will come in the season's first week: a nationally televised Monday night opener against Georgia and Herschel Walker in Athens on Sept. 6. What Herschel and the Dawgs will have to contend with is a veteran defense that was the second-toughest to score on (8.2 points per game), and seventh-toughest to run against in the country in 1981.
That defense is led by All-America Free Safety Terry Kinard (six interceptions, 95 tackles), who has started 34 games since his freshman year. Gone are Tackle Jeff Bryant and Linebacker Jeff Davis, both All-Americas, but a couple of potential All-Americas will be prowling the gridiron. The biggest is Middle Guard William (The Refrigerator) Perry, the 6'3" 310-pounder who just plain embarrassed Nebraska's All-America Center Dave Rimington in the Orange Bowl. Perry will again share his position with William Devane, to give Clemson what Ford says "must be the best middle guard tandem in America." Danny Triplett will take over the leadership of the linebacking corps from Davis. Tackle Dan Benish and "Bandit" End Andy Headen round out the veteran defense, and Dale Hatcher, who averaged 43.4 yards per kick as a freshman last year, is back to handle the punting for the Tigers.
After the defense got through, Clemson had little trouble moving the football in '81. The offense should be as good this season, despite the loss of All-America Wide Receiver Perry Tuttle (drafted by Buffalo) and four starters from the interior line. The reason is Homer Jordan, the heroic MVP quarterback who so exhausted himself in the Orange Bowl that he required rehydration treatment. Jordan, who ranked 13th in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 107 of 196 attempts for 1,630 yards and nine touchdowns, should become Clemson's alltime passing and total offense leader this year. "Homer has made it to the point where he can be called a great college quarterback," says Ford. "I mean great. He did everything we asked of him last year and made a drastic improvement in the mental aspects of the game."
Clemson didn't have a single senior running back in its I formation backfield last season, so all return, including tailbacks Cliff Austin (824 yards) and Chuck McSwain (692) and fullbacks Jeff McCall (457) and Kevin Mack (287). Two tailbacks were redshirted in '81, one of whom, Braxton Williams, a 1,000-yard-per-season rusher through three high school and two juco (Butler County, Kans.) seasons, should see a great deal of action. With Tuttle and Split End Jerry Gaillard, 1981's top pass receivers, gone, the burden is on Split End Frank Magwood (17 catches), Tight End Bubba Diggs (9) and Flanker Jeff Stockstill (4). Another key offensive performer is Placekicker Donald Igwebuike, who came to Clemson on a soccer scholarship from his native Nigeria. Igwebuike made 10 of 17 field-goal attempts, including three in the Orange Bowl, and also started 13 games for the Clemson soccer team that went 18-1 before being upset by Alabama A&M in the NCAA tournament.
If Clemson thinks of itself as a team that belongs among the nation's Top 10, that's because it does. And if Danny Ford has his way, that's going to become as much of a regular event in the fall as are the Tiger paws painted on the highways around Clemson, S.C.
Ford and his quarterback, Jordan, are tired of being disparaged.