By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Back in 1981, there were only two or three football games a week on television. ABC would broadcast one national game and maybe two regionally, while CBS would broadcast a national game. So when fourth-ranked and defending national champion Georgia came to Clemson that year, no one thought much about it, except Clemson.
“It was early in my career as a head coach and Georgia was way up in the national headlines,” former Clemson head coach Danny Ford said. “Clemson was not in the headlines at the time from a national standpoint.”
But that’s the game that made headlines. Clemson picked off Georgia quarterback Buck Belue five times and forced what is still a school record nine turnovers in a 13-3 victory in Death Valley. The nation was stunned. Clemson all of sudden was getting loads of press, and it started right after the game.
ABC immediately sent a crew to Clemson to interview Ford, whose team was a mere 6-5 the year before.
“They were talking about how this had to be a great win and all of this, and it was, but anytime we beat Georgia it was a great win,” Ford said. “The importance of getting recognized for beating Georgia was more important to our players than the national exposure because it was such a great rivalry.
“It was a way of getting some attention back when Clemson was not getting attention. Now Clemson does not have to worry about attention, they have plenty of attention because of the progress they have made and because of the players of the past and all of that.”
Though he will not give himself credit for it, Ford played a big role in why Clemson is known nationally. After the Tigers’ win over Georgia that year they catapulted onto the national scene and used it as a springboard to their own national title run that year.
From that point Clemson was known as a major player in college football, a sentiment that sills exist today. That game also catapulted the Clemson-Georgia rivalry onto the national stage as it became one of the more watched and talked about games in college football during the late 1970s thought the 1980s.
That bitter rivalry will be renewed next Saturday when the eighth-ranked Tigers host the No. 5 Bulldogs on ABC in primetime.
“I can tell you, if they beat Georgia, they will not have someone coming and calling and asking if they can come talk to you. There will be plenty of calls,” Ford joked.
From 1977-’87, the Clemson-Georgia Series battled to a 5-5-1 record, which started with a one-point Clemson victory in 1977 in Athens and ended with a one-point Clemson victory in 1987 in Clemson.
The average margin of victory in the series during that 11-year stretch was 4.7 points per game. Nine of the 11 games were decided by a touchdown or less. The only two that were not were the 1978 and the 1981 games.
Clemson had a 3-1-1 record in Death Valley vs. the Bulldogs during that stretch, while Georgia owned a 4-2 mark in Athens. The Bulldogs scored 171 points (15.5 points per game), while Clemson scored 159 points (14.5 points per game).
“It was a great rivalry,” Ford said. “I don’t remember any record against any opponent except Georgia. The reason I know that because we split,” Ford said. “It was an even series. What I was most proud of for our players and coaches, and that’s not great, that’s just five hundred football, but the quality of our opponent was always good.
“Our kids always played so hard against Georgia because the record in the overall series is so lopsided and so bad before Coach (Charlie) Pell. Poor old Coach (Frank) Howard used to have to go play them for money and Georgia Tech, Alabama and Auburn, too. They would come back 0-4 vs. the SEC and then win the ACC with a 6-4 record.”
But that all started to change when Ford, then an assistant coach under Pell, helped the Tigers beat Georgia in Athens in 1977, 7-6. Knowing the history of the series and what it meant to the Clemson people and his players, Ford says it’s nice that the university picked the Georgia game to induct him into the Clemson Ring of Honor.
“If it was going to happen and I could have chosen one game, it would have been this one or the South Carolina game,” he said. “That isn’t taking anything away from any of the other opponents because a lot of the opponents beat us just as much as Georgia did.
“But, you can remember going to Georgia and how Georgia would come here and how the fans got after each other. After they would beat us in Athens, the little kids would put sheets on the bridges and they would say, ‘Go Home Tigers and Don’t Come Back across the line. We beat you.’
“When we won, we never saw those sheets. But if they beat us there was always somebody on that bridge with some kind of sign.”