By Will Vandervort / Photo courtesy Clemson University.
James Trapp once said he wished he got to know Ken Hatfield a little more when he played defensive back for the former Clemson head coach.
Like many of Hatfield’s players from the 1990-’92 era Trapp sometimes took out his frustration in regards to Danny Ford’s 1990 resignation on Hatfield. Fair or not, that’s just the way it was. The players did not like the way Ford was pushed out the door or the way they found out about it.
The Hatfield years were turbulent ones because of this, and it wasn’t just the players that showed their frustrations at times, the fans did too.
Looking back now, Hatfield was perhaps never given a fair shot by either group.
Several players on those Clemson teams never truly gave Hatfield the respect he deserved no matter how many times he disciplined or suspended them. They felt as if he wasn’t their coach and many of those guys were on the defensive side of the football.
“Now, we were young men. You have to realize that we weren’t fully matured,” former linebacker Levon Kirkland said. “When you have someone that everybody looked up to, that was tough.
“The coaches’ and players’ relationships seemed to really mesh at the time. The players seemed to really enjoy the coaches and the coaches seemed to have really enjoyed the players. We worked hard and it seemed like it was a great understanding. To break it up was tough.”
The rocky relationship between Hatfield, the players and the fans was this way from the very beginning.
On January 21, 1990, an angry crowd gathered outside the President’s Box at Clemson Memorial Stadium as the university was set to name Hatfield as its next head coach.
In the four days since Ford stepped down, which were due to several issues—most notably another NCAA investigation into recruiting practices—fans, alumni and even players expressed their displeasures for his departure.
Hatfield, however, handled the situation with class and poise. After Frank Howard talked to the angry mob in hopes of calming them down, he came in and asked Hatfield if he would come out and say a few words.
Hatfield was happy to.
With his wife Sandy, a man of strong Christian values and faith, walked through the crowd until he was in the middle of them all.
“I’m glad you are here,” he told the group. “That shows people at Clemson really care. It shows interest, enthusiasm and your concern for this purpose. I’m not going to ask you or force you to accept me right away. I have to prove myself.”
While the new Clemson coach seemed to be calming down the fans, he had a different problem inside the locker room. Four days earlier, Ford called a team meeting that caught all the players off guard.
“Everyone was like, ‘Why are we having a team meeting,’” Kirkland said. “‘What’s up? What’s going on?’ You could feel that something was wrong.”
Ford gathered the team and told them he and the university reached a boiling point and they reached an impasse they could not get around. The end result was his resignation which he first made public in that team meeting.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Kirkland recalled. “You could see that some guys took it better than others, but collectively, we were very upset.”
They were so upset the team marched over to President’s Max Lennon house and threatened to boycott the 1990 football season if Ford was not reinstated.
“I think you have to understand that we were a team that just came off a big victory against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl and I think everybody’s feelings coming back that year was that we had an opportunity to go all the way and bid for a national championship,” said Kirkland.
“There was not a whole lot we could really, really do, but we thought being a team – we thought we could maybe sway the decision,” he continued.
But eventually the players on the team, especially leaders like Kirkland, middle guard Rob Bodine and quarterback DeChane Cameron took ownership and brought an understanding to the team that Ford wasn’t coming back and they had to rally behind their new head coach.
They called for a players-only meeting to discuss their futures and how they were going to handle things from here on out.
“I was one of those guys who said, ‘Hey let’s give this guy a chance,’” said Kirkland, who went on to play 11 years in the NFL, including nine with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “‘I want to continue to play. I think I have a future at it. I’m not willing to throw that away.’ Plus, I come from a family that’s a humble family. We just didn’t have the money to try and do that.
“I didn’t want to do all that changing. I think a lot of guys realized that, too. We just did not want to throw this away. Coach Hatfield was a good coach. He was a very good man and we had to give it a try.”
In 1990, the Tigers went on to win 10 games—the fourth straight season in which they accomplished that feat—but they lost at Virginia for the first time ever in Week 2 and then lost a heartbreaker to eventual National Champion Georgia Tech, 21-19, in Atlanta in Week 7.
The two losses cost Clemson a shot at the ACC title, but the Tigers finished the year with five straight wins, including a 30-0 shutout of Illinois in the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl.
In 1990, the Tigers finished the year with the top-ranked defense in terms of total yards allowed and were also one of the nation’s best in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. That defense was one of the main reasons why the Tigers were picked to win the ACC in 1991 as six starters and several key reserves returned from that unit, including Kirkland.
“Coming into a game, we felt like we were going to win every one of them,” said Kirkland, who was a two-time All-American at Clemson.
Despite all the turmoil the 1990 team faced, the Tigers were still able to beat six teams with winning records – the second most in the country that year.
Clemson fans may not realize it, but Hatfield did one heck of job bringing that team together and getting them to play as a unit when at the beginning of the year they were all pulling in so many different directions.
That set the stage for 1991, Clemson’s last ACC Championship until Dabo Swinney led the Tigers to one in 2011.
Joining Kirkland on that 1991 team was future NFL starters in defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, defensive tackle Chester McGlockton, outside linebacker Ashley Sheppard, outside linebacker Wayne Simmons, strong side linebacker Ed McDaniel and Trapp.
The offense wasn’t too bad either as wide receivers Terry Smith and Larry Ryans and running backs Rodney Blunt and Ronald Williams joined Cameron. After starting the year with a 3-1-1 record, the Tigers closed the regular season with six straight victories to win its fourth ACC Championship in six years.
During their six-game win streak, the Tigers’ average margin of victory was 17.5 points.
“I think the difference with our teams back then is that if we lost a game it was almost guaranteed that we would make a run at some point and time,” Kirkland said. “When we lost a game, we kind of knew the next game was going to be our game.”
Clemson finished the 1991 season 9-2-1 and ranked 18th in the final Associated Press Top 25. It marked the sixth straight year in which Clemson only lost two games and the sixth straight year it finished ranked in the AP poll.
In his four years at Clemson, Hatfield’s teams posted a 32-13-1 record. He is still the only Clemson coach to win 10 games in his first year at the school and the .833 winning percentage in 1990 was the best first year by a head coach since John Heisman went 6-0 in 1900.
Not bad for a guy that did not have one single player in his corner when he was first named as the head coach.
Editor’s note: Part of this story was an insert from the book I co-authored last summer called Clemson: Where the Tigers Play, which you can buy on amazon.com. This is the 11th in a series of stories that chronicles how these coaches turned Clemson into the football power it has come to be over the years.