Ford: Program similarities made Clemson-UGA games great

by - Senior Writer -

Clemson versus Georgia. The Tigers vs. the Dawgs. Kevin Butler, Vince Dooley, Danny Ford, Rodney Williams and David Treadwell.

The words and names alone conjure vibrant images and powerful emotions, vivid reminders of a series that hit its heyday in the 1980’s when Danny Ford’s Clemson teams faced off against Vince Dooley’s Georgia teams in what were instant classics of the era.

Those of us old enough – and lucky enough – to have seen those games in person or on television remember the drama of the late kicks by David Treadwell, Clemson’s defensive effort in 1981 and Kevin Butler’s 60-yard kick to defeat Clemson in 1984.

The one game that sticks out in my mind [because it was the first game I ever had a press credential for] is the 1987 contest in Death Valley – Clemson trailed 20-16 late, but a 43-yard punt from the Tigers' Rusty Seyle was downed by teammate John Johnson at the Georgia one-yard line. A few plays later, James Lott and Gene Beasley hemmed quarterback James Johnson in the corner of the end zone for a safety, setting up Treadwell’s game-winning kick in a 21-20 Clemson win.

The Dawgs and Tigers renew acquaintances on August 31st – the first of a home-and-home series that sees Clemson play at Georgia in 2014 – a renewal that brings back memories of the clashes of the eighties that bore national implications.

Ford had a front row seat for those contests – he went 4-4-1 against Georgia as a head coach at Clemson – and spoke with TigerNet earlier this week about his memories of some of those great games and the series itself.

Ford said that former Clemson coach Charlie Pell wanted to play the Bulldogs in a home-and-home fashion in an effort to even the playing field.

“Coach Pell got to Clemson, and we split during his two years at Clemson,” Ford said. “The way we approached that series was they were way, way ahead of us in overall record. Poor old Coach [Frank] Howard had to go and play Georgia at Georgia every year, and Georgia Tech in Atlanta every year and Alabama at Alabama every year and Auburn at Auburn just to make ends meet at Clemson. They had runaway records against us, and we wanted to try and show that Clemson was as good as SEC teams, so that is where that started. Coach Pell started that, and I bet Clemson is pretty even in the records since we started that.”

Ford said his desire to play against Georgia didn’t change once he became Clemson’s head coach after Pell’s departure, and the similarities between the two programs made it must-see football.

“What made it such a great football game was that we had similar philosophies back then. It was always just a hard, physical football game,” Ford said. “Both played great defense, and they had Erk Russell, who was their defensive coordinator for a few years. They had a great running attack back then with Herschel Walker and all of the great backs they had throughout the years. So their strengths and our strengths matched up pretty well. Both teams had good kicking games – we had [Chris] Gardocki and [David] Treadwell and they had Kevin Butler and all of those good kickers every year. The matchup was really good for both teams and that is why it balanced out so well. “

Ford said it was hard to pinpoint his favorite game in the series, but said the 1981 game [a 13-3 Clemson win] proved to a young team that they were capable of big things after knocking off the defending national champs. Bulldog quarterback Buck Belue threw five interceptions and Georgia had nine total in the loss.

“We weren’t a great football team at that point, and won the football game on a great defensive effort,” Ford said. “I think that win made the series better after Coach Pell had gotten it close, and there was a carryover. I think Buck Belue threw a lot of interceptions and that helped us.”

Ford said the most disappointing loss in the series came in the 1980 contest – a 20-16 Georgia win that helped propel that team to a national title. Scott Woerner had a punt return for a touchdown and an interception for a touchdown in the contest.

“That was the most disappointing loss because we beat them in every which way in the world but the scoreboard,” Ford said. “They didn’t get many first downs at all in the first half, and had the ball for almost all of the first half. We had all the stats in the world in the first half and they had an interception return and punt return and led us 14-10 at the half. That was disappointing because of how we helped them out. “

Ford said that this year’s game will probably be more of an offensive shootout than a defensive grudge match.

“I think both teams will probably score some points, and there won’t be a many great defensive plays on either side,” he said. “There will be good plays on defense, but the offensive people will shine the most because both sides have so much skill on that side of the ball. Georgia loses a lot defensively and then Clemson has to come back and improve on their defense from last year. They did improve as the year went on. But both offenses are supposed to be loaded. And I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them didn’t have good kicking games.”

Ford said that like 1981, this game could be the kick-start of a special season, but he doesn’t see many similarities between his 1981 and Clemson’s current team because the 2013 Clemson team should be a quality team at the beginning of the season.

“Not really, not right now. When we started out in 1981, we weren’t a good football team at all. We won a couple of games early and then got better as the year went along, but we weren’t very good at all to begin with,” he said. “But I don’t know how they are going to start, and I don’t know how they are going to play on the road against some new people like Syracuse. Going to New York and all of that is a new adventure for them and how they handle the road games will be a key. They’ve done a good job of winning the homes and handling things at home, but they have to find a way to win those tough road games.”

NOTE: Just an explanation on what Coach Ford meant when he said that Clemson had to play at Georgia or Alabama every year, and this comes courtesy of Clemson SID Tim Bourret.

Coach Howard was the Athletic Director, and because our stadium was not very big and to balance the budget we played a lot of our non-conference games on the road for a guarantee. In 30 years as head coach, Georgia Tech never came to Clemson. But, Georgia did. Coach Howard played Georgia 13 times in his career and five of them were at Clemson. And Bear Bryant [Alabama] came to Clemson twice. However, it is a fact that Coach Howard coached 295 games at Clemson and only 38 percent of the games were at home.

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