SEC: Danny Ford

Clemson-South Carolina memories endure

November, 29, 2013
Even now, after all these years of covering college football, there’s something about the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry that has an almost mystical feel for me.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the state of South Carolina and spent many of my Saturday afternoons and evenings in the fall listening to Bob Fulton and Jim Phillips paint a picture on the radio as only those two late, great broadcasters could.

If you grow up in that state, you’re either a Gamecock or a Tiger, a “chicken” or a “tater,” as the two fanbases refer to each other. There’s really no in between, although I somehow managed to hover in that margin as best I could.

Going back to the Jeff Grantz and Ron Bass days in the 1970s and attending a smattering of games at Williams-Brice Stadium before there was an upper deck on the East side, I cheered for the Gamecocks.

George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy in 1980, my sophomore year of high school. I can still remember somebody in the principal’s office at Rock Hill High School coming over the intercom and announcing that Rogers had won.

[+] EnlargeSteve Taneyhill
AP Photo/Lou KraskyNearly 20 years after he quarterbacked South Carolina, Steve Taneyhill's antics, and success, against Clemson is a sore subject for Tigers fans.
That was a huge deal for the state, and Rogers was the running back we emulated in our backyard games. We all wanted a No. 38 tear-away jersey.

So at the time, I leaned more toward the Gamecocks.

But, boy, were those Danny Ford years at Clemson a lot of fun, and I had several dear friends who were Clemson fans. I’ll never forget my first trip to Death Valley and the pristine beauty of that campus. The same goes for seeing the Clemson players get off that bus for the first time and come galloping down the hill to a sea of orange.

This rivalry will always hold a special place in my heart, which is why I’m so stoked to be going back Saturday and covering my first Clemson-South Carolina game in nearly two decades.

And talk about good timing.

It’s the first time in the history of the rivalry that both teams have been ranked in the top 10 nationally. There are BCS bowl implications for both teams, and South Carolina is trying to win five in a row in the series for the first time ever.

Back in the day, I’m not sure I ever envisioned a game between these two old rivals being this big nationally.

But my memories of the rivalry are as rich today as they were 30-plus years ago.

The first Clemson-South Carolina game I ever saw was on television, and very few games were on TV back then. It was the 1977 classic in Columbia, as Jerry Butler seemed suspended in midair for an eternity as he pulled in a leaping, twisting touchdown catch to beat South Carolina 31-27 in the final seconds.

I was watching that day from the sprawling metropolis of Taylors, S.C. (just outside Greenville) with childhood friend Mike Campbell and his family. They were huge Clemson fans, and you can bet it was one festive party at their house the rest of the evening.

The upset I remember most was the 1980 game when Willie Underwood intercepted a pair of passes, and Clemson -- adorned in all-orange -- stunned No. 14 South Carolina 27-6 in Death Valley. It was Rogers’ final game in the series, and Clemson fans will still tell you proudly that he never scored a touchdown against the Tigers.

The first game in the series that I personally attended was in 1984 at Death Valley. South Carolina’s “Black Magic” team rebounded from a disastrous upset loss at Navy the week before to rally from a 21-3 deficit and win 22-21. Mike Hold guided South Carolina on a game-winning 84-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. Scott Hagler actually missed the extra point. But Clemson was penalized for having too many men on the field, and Hagler didn’t miss a second time to win it for the Gamecocks.

I was also on hand for one of the signature moments in the rivalry in 1992, when South Carolina freshman quarterback Steve Taneyhill pretended to autograph the Tiger Paw at midfield after throwing a touchdown pass to seal the Gamecocks' 24-13 win.

Taneyhill was a jewel in those days, running around like a wild man and sporting one of the most hideous mullets the sport has ever seen. But he never lost at Clemson and told me a few years ago that he still catches some serious grief for his “defacing” of the Tiger Paw.

The mullet is now gone, but Taneyhill is scheduled to be at Saturday's game to lead the "Game-Cock" cheer right before the team makes its famed entrance to the "2011: A Space Odyssey" theme. Taneyhill has gone on to carve out a hugely successful high school coaching career in the state of South Carolina. And, yes, he even sent one of his players to Clemson.

This is a rivalry that transcends bloodlines. Former South Carolina kicker/punter Spencer Lanning, who’s now punting for the Cleveland Browns, grew up in a family that was Clemson to the core. His grandfather, Don Lanning, even helped Danny Ford do a little recruiting back when the rules were different.

In 2005, James Davis rushed for 145 yards and scored the winning touchdown to lift Clemson to a 13-9 victory over South Carolina in Columbia. Davis plans to be back in the Williams-Brice Stadium stands on Saturday to watch his younger brother -- South Carolina star running back Mike Davis.

I’ll be there, too, and I’m sure the memories will come flowing back.

It’s been 36 years since Butler made his legendary catch in what was my introduction to the rivalry.

I can only hope my return is equally memorable.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Scour the locker rooms at Georgia and Clemson and it might be difficult to find a player who knows much about their historic rivalry.

“You know me, I don’t know much about Georgia’s history from before I got here,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray chuckled in one such response about the longtime rivalry between schools separated by only about 70 miles.

Murray is far from alone in that regard. The 22-year-old Floridian was 13 the last time Georgia and Clemson met, in 2003, and was not even alive when the annual 1980s meetings between the Bulldogs and Tigers often carried national-title implications.

Fans of a certain age might harken back to those days on Saturday, however, when the rivalry resumes -- ending the longest gap between games since the series started in 1897 -- and No. 5 Georgia visits No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeClemson, Danny Ford
AP Photo/Kathy WillensCoach Danny Ford and Clemson beat Georgia 13-3 in 1981 and went on to win the national championship.
“Georgia was really good every year, so it meant that doggone it, somebody was going to get a lot of publicity and a lot of press, whoever won that football game,” said former Tigers coach Danny Ford, who will be enshrined in Clemson’s Ring of Honor on Saturday. “You could still be a good football team if you lost that game, but it just put a cramp in everything and it was so early in the year -- the first or second game or third game every year -- and you kind of knew what kind of football team [you had].

“It was kind of like a Wednesday where the kids in school call it Hump Day, you know? You’re in the middle of the week, get your classes over with and you’re about halfway to the weekend. That was the same kind of a hump game, where if you get off and win that football game, you’ve got a great chance to have a good year.”

Back then, your season could be more than good if you slipped away with a win. Thanks to a 67-yard punt return touchdown by Scott Woerner and a 98-yard Woerner interception return that set up another score, Georgia edged Clemson 20-16 in 1980 despite failing to register a single first down in the opening half.

“At the end, they’re back down there and Jeff Hipp makes an interception on about the 1-yard line right at the end of the game,” recalled former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson in his 25 seasons as the Bulldogs’ coach. “But statistic-wise, they just knocked us all over the place.”

The 10th-ranked Bulldogs went on to win the national title that season after barely surviving the Tigers’ upset bid. And Clemson returned the favor the following year, generating nine turnovers to beat Herschel Walker and No. 4 Georgia 13-3 en route to a national title of its own.

Clemson’s 1981 win marked the only time that Georgia lost in the regular season during Walker’s three seasons on campus.

“They’re the only team that he played more than once in his college career and didn’t score a touchdown against,” said UGA grad Kyle King, whose new book detailing the Georgia-Clemson series history, “Fighting Like Cats and Dogs,” was published, oddly enough, by the Clemson University Digital Press. “So they really were the ones who -- to the extent anyone had Herschel’s number -- they’re the ones who had his number.”

[+] EnlargeVince Dooley
Dale Zanine/US Presswire for ESPN.comIn 25 years as coach at Georgia , Vince Dooley posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson.
Just how close were the two teams in their respective pursuits of the national title? Georgia scored exactly 316 points during the 1980 regular season before beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to claim its first national title since 1942. The following year, Clemson matched that scoring total to the number, notching the very same 316 points in the regular season before beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the school’s first national championship.

The series continued to produce memorable outcomes on an annual basis throughout the 1980s. Take 1982, for example, when No. 7 Georgia hosted No. 11 Clemson in the first night game in decades at Sanford Stadium. Much like Saturday’s game at Clemson, the 1982 game aired before a prime-time national TV audience on ABC -- that year on Labor Day evening.

Bulldogs defenders picked off four passes by Clemson quarterback and Athens native Homer Jordan en route to a 13-7 win and another undefeated regular season. Once again, the Georgia-Clemson winner played in the game that would determine the national champion, although the Bulldogs lost this time, 27-23 to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

Nonetheless, those first three games set the standard for one of the nastiest rivalries of the 1980s -- one where defense, big special-teams plays and general hard-nosed aggression became trademarks.

“I remember it was always a tough game for Georgia. It was a tough game, period,” said Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon, who appeared in the series’ last two games, in 2002 and 2003, and whose father Willie preceded him as a Georgia player and coach. “It was always one of the biggest games out there in the country and it’s a lot like this year, to be honest with you. You never knew who was going to come out on top. Both teams always had high expectations going into each year, let alone that game. It was always a hard-fought war out there on the field.”

There was the 1984 game where Georgia beat No. 2 Clemson 26-23 on a 60-yard Kevin Butler field goal -- a play that produced what King called Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson’s most memorable call from a home game, when he estimated that Butler would “try to kick one 100,000 miles” and then proclaimed that “the stadium is worse than bonkers” once the kick cleared the uprights.

Clemson enjoyed its own kicking-game heroics in 1986 and 1987, when David Treadwell booted game-winning field goals at the end of the Tigers’ respective 31-28 and 21-20 victories.

“We were so evenly matched, and so many came down to a field goal or a touchdown, and we were so evenly matched that all of them kind of run together in my thoughts,” Ford recalled. “They’d win one and we’d win one.”

That proved true throughout Ford’s 11-year tenure at Clemson. A rivalry that Georgia once dominated -- the Bulldogs are 41-17-4 all-time against the Tigers and went 11-1-1 against Frank Howard, the winningest coach in Clemson history -- was extremely even in the 1980s.

Ford went 4-4-1 against Georgia while at Clemson. The scoring differential during that period? Georgia 153, Clemson 152.

“It was more about respectability for us because Georgia had the upper hand for so long back when Coach Howard [was here],” Ford said. “I tell the story all the time that Coach Howard would have to play Georgia and Georgia Tech, who was in the SEC back then, Alabama and Auburn and lose four games to have enough money to make his budget and then win the ACC conference. But back then he had to do that and he couldn’t hardly ever get them to come play at our place. It was just a thing of respectability I think, more so for us in the '80s."

Respectability is no longer a problem for either of the programs who will renew their longtime rivalry on Saturday in Death Valley. Georgia’s Mark Richt led his team within an eyelash of playing for the BCS title last year, and the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game with their highest preseason ranking since opening the 2008 campaign in the No. 1 spot. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to a 21-6 record over the last two seasons and, blessed with a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd, should boast one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

The programs no longer resemble the Ford- and Dooley-era squads that relied on defense and the kicking game to win low-scoring games, but considering the standing the Georgia-Clemson game once held in the national championship race, it seems fitting that Saturday’s reunion occupies a marquee spot in college football’s opening weekend.

“I grew up with this game being played pretty much every year, and it was at a time that Georgia beat Florida every year, and Georgia beat Georgia Tech every year, so Clemson and Auburn were really the two games that you went into the year thinking, ‘Boy, I hope we can get out of that one with a W,’ ” King said. “I didn’t want to lose that, and that was really what ultimately inspired me to go back and write this book.

“We’re going into a season where it looks like you have two top-10 teams, two frontrunners in their conferences, two top-drawer quarterbacks going up against one another,” he added. “I think it’s important to remind fans that this isn’t a new thing. We butted heads with these guys in big games before, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to keep doing it in the future.”



Thursday, 9/18
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