Danny Ford was searching for something to spark his football team.
Prior to the 1980 season, Ford had his team manger order a special pair of pants for the Tigers to wear against archrival South Carolina in the season finale. Ford wasn’t sure how he was going to introduce the pants to the team or if he would even wear them at all that year.
But after falling to Maryland 34-7 the week before the Palmetto State’s biggest game, Ford knew it was time to break out these so-called special pants. It was either now or never.
Entering that year’s South Carolina game, Ford found himself in a pinch. After losing their last two games in 1979 and then to fall to 5-5 through the first 10 weeks in 1980, Clemson fans became restless and some were calling for Ford’s job.
“It did not look real good for us that week,” Ford said.
It looked even worse with No. 14 South Carolina coming to town. The Gamecocks were already Gator Bowl bound and they featured the best running game in the country thanks to running back George Rogers, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later.
Knowing he needed a spark in the locker room, Ford called his two defensive leaders, cornerback Willie Underwood and linebacker Jeff Davis, into his office before a practice that week. That’s when the former Alabama player pulled out a pair of burnt-orange pants. The pants took Underwood and Davis back a bit, but they agreed that it would be a good idea to wear them.
Ford asked Underwood and Davis not to tell the rest of the team because he was going to surprise them after the team meal the Friday night before the game.
“We knew something was up, but we didn’t really know what,” said running back Cliff Austin.
When dinner was done, Ford came up front where he said a few words about the game and then reached down and held up the orange pants.
“This is what we are wearing tomorrow,” Ford said.
“When he did that, the room went crazy,” said Davis. “That’s all the guys could talk about was wearing those orange pants with the orange jersey and the orange helmet and how the fans were going to love it. Coach Ford was a master motivator. He knew how to push the right buttons.
“That moment relaxed us. All of sudden, we weren’t thinking about having to win this game to save his job or about how we were going to stop George Rogers or any of that. We were just looking forward to playing the game.”
To surprise the fans, Ford asked his players to put their thigh pads in their orange pants and to wear their orange jerseys over their white pants for pregame warm ups. With the thigh pads already in place it would make the transition of changing the pants faster when they got back in the locker room.
“We all knew we were going to change into the orange pants when we got back in the locker room so we were pumped up and ready to go,” Davis said. “We knew how excited the fans were going to get when they see us come to the top of the hill wearing all orange.”
When the fans saw the Tigers gather at Howard’s Rock dressed in all orange for the very first time, the sellout crowd of 64,000 in Death Valley got extremely loud.
“When the fans saw us, they absolutely went crazy,” Davis said. “We knew we were going to win.”
It did not appear as if Clemson was going to win late in the third quarter when the Gamecocks drove the football to the Clemson 16 and was in position to take their first lead of the day. But with 32 seconds remaining in the quarter, Underwood stepped in front of a Garry Harper pass and raced 64 yards down the sideline before stepping out of bounds at the USC 24.
Six plays later, quarterback Homer Jordan called his own number from the one-yard line as the Tigers took a 13-6 lead.
Though Rogers carried the ball 28 times for 168 yards, Clemson kept him at-bay, and out of the end zone.
“Our goal was to keep him from breaking the ball outside and to make someone else beat us,” Davis said.
There was no one else.
On South Carolina’s next possession, Harper again tried to go outside with a pass, but the pass was again cut off by Underwood, who this time made sure he did not step out of bounds as he raced 37 yards down the sideline to give Clemson a 20-6 lead.
The two interceptions were the first of Underwood’s’ career, a span of 41 games.
The Tigers got a 15-yard Jeff McCall touchdown later in the game to end the scoring in the 27-6 victory. Underwood finished his day with 101 return yards, which is still a Clemson record. He also recorded 17 tackles and was named the National Player of the Week by Sports Illustrated.
The win over the Gamecocks lifted Clemson to its perfect run in 1981, which ended with a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl, sealing the Tigers’ first and only national championship in football.
Clemson went on to post a 16-2 record under Danny Ford when it wore orange pants.