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TGS ACC RETROSPECTIVE...CLEMSON AND THE MAGICAL YEAR OF 1981
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Can it really by 32 years since Clemson claimed the national title under Danny Ford in 1981? To many Tiger fans, the thrill of that campaign endures. Although it is not lost upon most of them that those memories are probably clear only to those who are in their 40s now.

Nonetheless, the mention of Clemson and 1981 warms our collective hearts at TGS. That’s because, alongside 1967 (chronicled in part by our Big Ten retrospective focused upon Indiana’s miracle Rose Bowl run that year) and 1973 (as we detailed in length in our bowl preview feature last year), ’81 probably ranks as one of the most fascinating college football seasons since we began publishing in 1957.

It was a campaign of unprecedented jumbling in the polls during a year in which a lot of the traditional powerhouses were still formidable, although a new surge of contenders would emerge. The Ohio State-Michigan duopoly in the Big Ten that had produced thirteen straight Rose Bowl reps between the two schools was finally interrupted by Hayden Fry’s upstart Iowa, which served notice it was for real in September non-conference upsets at Iowa City vs. Nebraska and UCLA. Wisconsin, moribund for nearly two decades since Milt Bruhn’s 1962 Big Ten champs featuring QB Ron Vander Kelen, also went “bowling” for the first time in nearly two decades. SMU, though shackled by probation, surged to a 10-1 mark with a dynamite offense featuring its “Pony Express” backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, while another probation-saddled side, Miami-Florida, nonetheless established itself as a national force for HC Howard Schnellenberger.

Elsewhere, Bobby Bowden’s Florida State embarked upon a suicidal 4-game road trip and “Octoberfest” with consecutive visits to Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Pitt (the Noles would finish 2-2 in that unforgiving stretch of games). Bobby Collins’ Southern Miss, with a long-striding QB named Reggie Collier, would make a splash with an early-season tie vs. Bear Bryant's Alabama and a subsequent 58-14 blowout of an overscheduled Florida State. Washington State emerged from nowhere to make a spirited run at the Pac-10 crown before settling for a Holiday Bowl berth, its first postseason trip since the 1931 Rose Bowl vs. Alabama. Speaking of the Pac-10, its race for the Rose Bowl came down to final regular-season Saturday, when Washington, a winner over Wazzu in the first Apple Cup that meant anything significant in decades, watched UCLA’s Norm Johnson have a last-second 46-yard FG blocked by Southern Cal’s George Achica in another Bruins-Trojans classic, denying Terry Donahue’s team a spot in Pasadena and awarding it instead to the Huskies. The aforementioned Bryant was still kicking at Tuscaloosa and set the all-time win mark for coaches at 315 when his Bama beat a spirited Auburn in the Iron Bowl at Birmingham, while Southern Cal’s Marcus Allen was an easy pick for the Heisman after becoming the first college back to exceed the heretofore untouchable 2000-yard rushing plateau.

Besides Allen, Dickerson, and James, there were plenty of other legendary stars on display in the college ranks that would include Dan Marino at Pitt, John Elway at Stanford, and Jim Kelly at Miami, among many others also to be featured in subsequent NFL Drafts and pro football careers.

It was within this colorful backdrop of a season that an unsuspecting contender would emerge from the ACC to turn national polling on its ear. The fact Clemson would become the ACC’s first national title winner since Big Jim Tatum’s Maryland side in 1953 (the first year of the conference’s existence) further underlines the uniqueness of that unforgettable campaign 32 years ago.

Where has the time gone?

Before recalling the Tigers’ 1981 glory, a quick synopsis of the ACC’s football history is in order, as it puts Clemson’s accomplishments in proper context.

The ACC’s roots trace to that Maryland title year of 1953, when an alliance was formed with seven renegade schools (Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest) from the old, 17-school Southern Conference. The main reason those entries bolted to form their own league was dissatisfaction with the SoCon, which enforced a Draconian no-bowl policy in those days. The SEC had similarly formed two decades earlier from a collection of schools also seceding from the SoCon.

Virginia, which had been campaigning as an independent entry since 1939, would join the infant ACC in 1954.

Famously, the ACC put no postseason restrictions on its membership, which is why numerous league members would appear in various bowl games throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, when some alliances (most notably the Big Ten and then-called Pac-8) were still limiting bowl representation to only their championship squads. Or, in the case of the Big Ten until 1972, even denying a defending conference champ and Rose Bowl rep a chance to return to Pasadena the next season due to another arcane “no repeat” rule.

As mentioned, Tatum’s Maryland, which had won a share of the national title in 1951 in its penultimate SoCon campaign, won the national title in ‘53, although it would be considered a somewhat hollow honor after the Terps lost to an Oklahoma side coached by Bud Wilkinson (ironically an assistant to Tatum before being promoted to the Sooners’ top spot upon Big Jim’s departure for Maryland in 1947) which beat Maryland, 7-0, in the Orange Bowl. Final polls, however, were conducted pre-bowl in those days, so Maryland, which had outscored its foes 298-31 during an undefeated regular season, retained its national champion status.

For decades afterward, however, ACC entries found it difficult to be considered for such top honors. A perception soon developed that the ACC was instead a basketball league, which was not a wholly inaccurate label. But there’s no question that the gridiron programs in the league had a hard time overcoming that national stigma. Such regional biases held stronger in those days, and the perception of the ACC as a hoops league was never stronger than it was in the '70s and early '80s.

Clemson, however, was the one conference rep that never quite fit that mold, more resembling an SEC school with its football emphasis fueled by a string of late ‘50s bowl teams coached by the colorful Frank Howard. The Tigers also set a booster template of sorts with their unique IPTAY (“I Pay Ten a Year”) support group, although some cynics suspected it was more like “I Pay a Thousand (or more) A Year” to fund underhanded recruiting tactics once the program started to win again in the late ’70s.

Although there was plenty of good football played in the ACC in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and throughout the ‘80s after Clemson’s magical 1981, it would not be until the early ‘90s, when Georgia Tech and Virginia emerged as national contenders, and Florida State joined the league, that ACC gridiron action was finally taken seriously by the majority of the national sports media.

The Tigers, however, dipped into a sort of gridiron eclipse for a decade-long run beginning in the late ’60s and the last few years of the Howard regime, through a desultory stretch under Hootie Ingram and Red Parker that resulted in only one winning record in a nine-season run, before Charley Pell, promoted from defensive coordinator, resuscitated the program in 1977.

As for Pell, he moved to Florida after the ‘78 season; in fact, he left for the Gators just prior to the infamous ‘78 Gator Bowl vs. Ohio State, when Woody Hayes’ career as Buckeye coach would end after his punch to Tiger LB Charlie Bauman after the latter’s late-game interception saved a 17-15 win for Clemson.

Assistant Danny Ford, a few days short of his 31st birthday, was promoted to the top spot just prior to the Gator Bowl win, and took the Tigers to a Peach Bowl berth in 1979 before a very modest 6-5 mark in 1980. Hardly the sort of situation that suggested a challenge for national honors in 1981.

Indeed, so little was thought of the Tigers entering that fall that they weren’t even ranked in the preseason Top 20!

But the combination of events that produced the 1981 miracle would be hard to replicate, as Clemson became only the second team at the time (1962 Southern Cal being the first) to ever go from unranked in the preseason poll to a mythical national title.

Although the Tigers entered the campaign flying under the national radar, they had an experienced team led by live-wire QB Homer Jordan and explosive WR Perry Tuttle, a slew of north-south RBs led by Cliff Austin, Jeff McCall, and Chuck McSwain, plus a robust defense with plenty of quicks along the DL and featuring All-American DE Jeff Bryant, who eventually went on to a long and distinguished career with the Seattle Seahawks. Linebacker Jeff Davis and DB Terry Kinard were other featured members of that gnarly platoon who also went on to have productive pro football careers, although the most-publicized of the lot was mammoth frosh DT William "The Refrigerator" Perry, who was making a large (no pun intended) impact in his first year of college football.

And it was the defense, which allowed only 88 ypg rushing that season, that was mostly responsible for Clemson's rise through the rankings; the Tigers allowed only 3 TDs and 38 points through their first seven games, and legitimized their status as a team to watch with a 13-3 upset over Herschel Walker and defending national champ Georgia on September 19 at Death Valley, where the decibel level was so high it was said to distract the Bulldog offense, which suffered a whopping nine turnovers on the afternoon. The home fans were sent into an extra gear of delirium at the kickoff that afternoon when the Tigers touched Frank Howard's Rock and charged onto the field wearing orange pants to go with their orange uniforms and helmets (a combo first unveiled in the 1980 game vs. South Carolina), and an ensemble Clemson would reprise in the eventual Orange Bowl game against Nebraska.

The win over Georgia would be an important one, for in those years it was difficult for an ACC team to be taken seriously as a national title contender. But beating Herschel Walker and the Bulldogs legitimized Clemson, although it only got the Tigers into the 19th slot in the polls the following week. Still, that success would resonate all autumn and make Clemson an easier an easier sell to pollsters, who had to acknowledge the Tigers after that significant win over the defending national champs.

No one, however, could have accurately predicted the string of events that would eventually push Ford’s team to the top of the polls.

It would be accurate to say that Clemson was simply the last unbeaten standing in 1981 after almost every brand name in college football had taken a turn at number one. The tone was set early; preseason number one Michigan, which had closed 1980 with a rush and won Bo Schembechler his first-ever Rose Bowl with a 23-6 thumping of Dan James’ Washington, was unceremoniously dumped by upset-minded Wisconsin, 21-14, in the opener. Notre Dame, under new HC Gerry Faust, would briefly ascend to number one until whipped by a stung Michigan, 25-7, on the same day as Clemson would KO Georgia. Marcus Allen’s Southern Cal would then move atop the polls and stayed there for a couple of weeks after winning a thrilling showdown vs. number two Oklahoma, 28-24, in late September, but an October 10 home upset loss to a 3-TD underdog Arizona side opened the door for Texas, which throttled Oklahoma in Dallas by a 34-14 count the same day, to take over the top spot. The Longhorns’ stay as number one lasted all of a week after getting buried by Arkansas in Fayetteville, 42-11. Then it was Penn State’s turn as the third top-ranked team in as many weeks. But when the Nittany Lions were summarily dumped 17-14 at the Orange Bowl by Howard Schnellenberger’s Miami-Florida, quarterbacked by Jim Kelly, on Halloween, Jackie Sherrill’s Pitt, with flashy QB Dan Marino, moved to the top of the polls. And the Panthers seemed poised to stay there as they continued to dominate their opposition.

Meanwhile, the Tigers kept winning and climbing in the rankings. Thanks to the early win over Georgia, Clemson wasn’t being penalized for marching through a very modest ACC; besides a solid North Carolina team coached by Dick Crum, 1981 was not necessarily a vintage year on the gridiron for the loop. Beyond the Tigers and Tar Heels, only Red Wilson's Duke finished above .500 in that year's ACC, at a modest 6-5. Usual contender Maryland had sunken beneath .500 in Jerry Claiborne's last year as coach before he moved to Kentucky in '82; NC State was in the middle of a mediocre 3-year run under Monte Kiffin, who would later make his mark in the pro ranks as a defensive coordinator (and also become almost as well known as Lane's papa); Virginia was a disaster at 1-10 in Dick Bestwick's last season, before George Welsh arrived from Navy to begin righting the ship in '82; Wake Forest was sub -.500 under first -year HC Al Groh, and absorbed an 82-24 beating at the hands of the Tigers in the middle of that '81 campaign which earned Clemson a few more “wow” headlines. Georgia Tech had yet to become a full-fledged football member of the loop, and it was 11 years before Florida State would join the conference, 23 years before Miami and Virginia Tech were added to the fold.

The climb up the polls for Ford's 1981 team was arduous, but once beyond midseason, visible light suddenly appeared at the end of the tunnel as almost all of the other national contenders were losing. After clearing an early November hurdle against the Tar Heels in a tense 10-8 defensive war at Chapel Hill, Clemson was poised to leapfrog into the top spot in the polls after those succession of number-one ranked teams had been beaten. By early November, the Tigers had advanced to the number two slot, but Sherrill and Marino’s Pitt would have to stumble to give the Tigers a shot at the number one spot in the polls.

Wouldn’t you know that the Panthers were steamrollered by Penn State, 48-14, on Thanksgiving weekend, clearing the path for the Tigers to ascend to number one, an unprecedented seventh different team to hold that distinction in ‘81. Pitt had already accepted a berth in the Sugar Bowl opposite number two Georgia, while Clemson, a bowl free agent (like the Panthers) in those days because the ACC had no postseason tie-in for its champ, ended up in the Orange Bowl against Tom Osborne’s fourth-ranked Nebraska side that had recovered from Setpember defeats vs. Iowa and Penn State to romp unbeaten through the Big Eight and win its conference title and automatic berth in Miami. Depending upon results elsewhere on New Year’s (in particular needing a Pitt win over 2nd-ranked Georgia), the Huskers were thinking they, too, might have a shot at the national title.

There were still plenty of non-believers in Clemson, which was installed as a 4-point underdog vs. the Cornhuskers. Nebraska, however, would be lacking some of the spark that soph QB Turner Gill had been providing before suffering a season-ending leg injury in a mid-November win over Iowa State. Senior Mark Mauer, serviceable but hardly flashy and beaten out by Gill at midseason, would be at the controls for the Orange Bowl after proving more than adequate at the helm in a regular-season ending 44-14 romp over Oklahoma at Norman. Few teams had also been able to contain the Huskers’ powerful 1-2 I-back combo of future NFL Pro bowler Roger Craig and future Heisman winner Mike Rozier that would combine for over 2000 YR in ‘81.

In Miami, however, Mauer was suffering from a sore arm and could not stretch the Tiger defense, which in the Orange Bowl was only burned through the air on an option pass from Rozier, of all people, to wingback Anthony Steele for a 25-yard TD late in the 1st Q and a 7-3 Huskers lead. Meanwhile, the Tiger stop unit, with its combo of size and speed, was proving a handful for Nebraska; in particular, watching the “Refrigerator” go toe-to-toe with Husker A-A C Dave Rimington, and more than hold his own, itself almost qualified for pay-per-view status.

In fact, the entire Tigers defense was doing more than holding its own, playing as it usually did with a collective chip on its shoulder. Fueled in part by a perceived slight from Nebraska in pre-bowl festivities (“You could feel it, as if they were saying, ‘We’re from the Big Eight and you boys aren’t of the same caliber,’” said LB Jeff Davis), the Clemson “D” would force eight three-and-outs on Nebraska's twelve possessions and rewarded the “O” with consistently good field position. After converting that advantage into a couple of field goals by Nigerian PK Donald Igwebuike, the Tigers finally ignited a TD drive late in the 2nd Q fueled by the skittery QB Jordan, who was able to sprint out of the pocket and use his quickness to confound the slower Nebraska defense. Although it was the Bryant-led "D" that set up the offense with golden field position for the first Clemson TD. After gifted a short field at the Husker 27 following a fumble by FB Phil Bates, it only took two plays for the Tigers to convert on a short TD run by TB Cliff Austin for a 12-7 halftime lead.

It was more of the same in the second half, with Nebraska’s offense stuck in neutral. Jordan was able to fire up the game’s best drive in the 3rd Q, a 75-yard, 12-play masterpiece that culminated in a 13-yard TD pass to the sure-handed Tuttle and a 19-7 advantage. The Tigers would extend the lead to 22-7 on another Igwebuike FG, and might have started to celebrate a bit prematurely on the sidelines before Nebraska, energized by the announcement that Pitt had indeed come back to beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, uncorked its best drive of the game early in the 4th Q, culminated in a 26-yard TD sweep by Craig. A successful 2-point conversion (remember, these were the days before OT, and if Osborne could help it would not entertain the prospect of a tie result that couldn't help Nebraska's slim national title hopes) cut the Clemson lead to 22-15 with just over nine minutes to play.

Grimly, the Tigers dug in, although it took another solid defensive stand after Clemson went three-and-out before Homer Jordan and Co. finally put the game on ice. Taking over after an exchange of punts with only 5:24 to play, and after gaining only 12 yards total on two earlier possessions in the quarter, the Tigers proceeded to bleed all but six seconds of the remaining clock thanks to the thrusts of McCall and McSwain and the occasional Jordan scamper. There was no time for a Nebraska miracle in the final seconds as Clemson ended its magical season a 22-15 winner.

Not to mention finishing on top of the only polls that mattered...after the bowls and at the end of the 1981 campaign!

Still, much of the college football ruling class found it hard to begrudgingly admit that the Tigers were worthy national champs. The blue-bloods of the sport could not warm to the notion of an ACC national champion. It didn’t help that scandal enveloped Clemson after the ‘81 national title season; infractions from both the Pell and Ford regimes resulted in bowl bans for '82 and '83. The Tigers fashioned 9-1-1 marks in those years, remaining unbeaten in the ACC along the way, but would not be eligible for another bowl until 1984.

For us at TGS, we thought the wins over Georgia and Nebraska, as well as surviving that defensive war in early November at dangerous North Carolina, were impressive enough to make Clemson a legitimate national champion. Especially in a season in which all of the other top contenders could not avoid the proverbial banana peel. While the Homer Jordan-led offense was not among the most dynamic, the voracious defense featuring Bryant, Davis, Kinard, and a very young "Fridge" would rank favorably with any national title winners in our near six decades of publishing. We were certainly not among the Tigers' critics, instead backing them most weeks, including in the Orange Bowl vs. Nebraska.

Many ACC observers also wonder if the enduring legacy of 1981 has perhaps harmed Clemson football in the succeeding three decades, as expectations thus became unrealistically high for a program that had previously never scaled those sorts of heights. But 1981 also legitimized the Tigers as a national brand; Ford kept Clemson relevant and in bowls through the later part of the decade before eventually departing Death Valley after the 1989 season; he would resurface at Arkansas in the mid '90s, but could make only one bowl appearance in five years and never remotely approached his success of ’81 with the Tigers. Clemson has been a bowl regular through the subsequent Kenny Hatfield, Tommy West, Tommy Bowden, and Dabo Swinney regimes since 1990, but rarely a national contender; indeed, the number nine ranking at the end of last season was the program's first in the top ten final poll since Hatfield's 1990 edition finished the same number nine in the final rankings.

Doubters of the 1981 team still remain, but we think that Clemson edition, despite subsequent penalties to the program, forged an important change in the college football landscape, proving that an outsider could break into the national elite. (Let’s not assume that those Tigers were the only national title program to ever bend the recruiting rules, either!) And some Tigers fans who are old enough to remember 1981 are getting that same tingle as they anticipate action this fall, with Swinney’s 2013 team one of those in the discussion for national honors.

Who can blame them? After all, longtime Clemson fans know better than anyone that, once in a while, dream seasons like 1981 really can come true.


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