In a sense, Clemson University will be the college counterpart of the NFL New England Patriots when it puts its precious Top 10 national ranking on the line against underdog Ohio State Friday night in the 34th Gator Bowl (WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.).
The Atlantic Coast Conference champions have a good, balanced, potentially explosive team that compiled a 10-1 regular-season record. They are favored to beat OSU, which finished a disappointing 7-3-1 and fourth in the Big Ten Conference standings. But no one knows what effect recent turmoil in its coaching staff will have on Clemson's performance.
Like the Patriots, whose coach, Chuck Fairbanks, has announced his intention to transfer his affections to the University of Colorado following the National Football League playoffs, Clemson was jilted by its football boss between the end of the regular season and the "big game" -- its first-ever confrontation with a Big Ten school -- in the 70,000-seat Gator Bowl.
Charley Pell -- who rebuilt the Clemson program from a shambles (2-9 in 1975, 3-6-1 in 1976) to an impressive 18-4-1 record in his two years as head coach -- turned from campus hero to quasi-traitor by resigning unexpectedly on Dec. 4 to accept a more lucrative job at the University of Florida.
Pell originally said he would coach the Tigers in the Gator Bowl even while building his new program in Gainesville, but had a change of heart -- perhaps prompted by the yelps of outraged alumni and fans -- and announced on Dec. 10 that he was relinquishing the reins.
Thus Danny Ford, who had been assistant head coach under Pell and was named Dec. 5 as his successor, will guide the Tigers, who are ranked No. 7 nationally by the Associated Press and No. 8 by United Press International.
The transition, to all appearances, has been orderly. Ford, four months shy of his 30th birthday, is liked and respected by the Clemson players, 73 of whom signed a petition to the school's Board of Trustees urging that he get the job.
But the fact that Pell took two assistant coaches -- Dwight Adams (defensive line) and Joe Kines (linebackers) -- with him to Florida left Ford shorthanded as Clemson prepared for its second consecutive appearance in the Gator Bowl (Pittsburgh humiliated the Tigers last year, 34-3).
Ford promoted junior varsity coach Willie Anderson, who played defensive end at Clemson, to replace Adams. Assistant secondary coach Billy Ware, once a Tiger linebacker, moved up to Kines' job.
Ford, who was Pell's offensive line coach and chief recruiter, retained those positions.
"It puts a little more pressure on the defensive staff, since we're two men short there, but I don't think it will affect us too much," said Ford, who like Pell is a disciple of Alabama's legendary coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant.
Ford played tight end and offensive tackle at Alabama, captaining the Crimson Tide in 1969. He is from the same mold as Bryant and Pell, low key rather than rah-rah in style, but all business when it comes to football. Having forgotten to bring a notepad to a "meet the coaches" luncheon today, he filled in idle moments by scribbling notes by ballpoint pen on his hand.
Ford, recommended by Pell and endorsed enthusiastically by the players, was the only candidate considered by Clemson's Board of Trustees when the coaching vacancy arose six days before the ACC signing date for letters of intent from high school recruits.
"Coach Pell's resignation caught the administration, the athletic department and the fans flat-footed," admitted Bob Bradley, Clemson's sports information director, as he chewed on a wad of tobacco after today's luncheon.
No wonder. Pell had been given a raise from $32,000 to $42,500 after the 1976 season, and signed a contract extension through 1982 with a raise to $45,000 just two days before he took the Florida job (Florida pays the same coaching salary as Clemson, but Pell figures to earn $30,000 for television shows compared to the $12,000 in TV income he made at Clemson.)
"There's no question that he did a great job at Clemson for two years, but we were kind of disappointed in the way he left," said Bradley. "As late as Saturday night, Dec. 2, he was saying he loved Clemson and was going to stay. Our athletic director believed him. Monday morning, he took the Florida job. It's like all football contracts -- they're one-way streets, and if the coach wants to go, he goes.
"With the alumni, it was like a love affair that ends and turns to hate. A lot of them said, 'fine, go.' I didn't hear a single player say anything bad about Coach Pell, but they figure Danny Ford is the head coach now, and they'll go from there."
Ford has downplayed the import of the changing of the guard saying: "All I want to do is get the kids on the field in time, get out of the way and let them play."
But there has been no question who is the head coach since Pell returned to Clemson on Dec. 10 from a fiveday recruiting trip on behalf of his new employers and told a team meeting it would be best for all concerned if Ford took charge immediately.
Ford promptly decided that the team should spend a week in two-a-day practices in Daytona Beach, away from the busy schedule of luncheons and activities that he felt distracted the team last year in its first bowl appearance since 1959.
"We worked the kids hard and they responded real well," says Ford, adding, "this year, with the novelty off, we put football first. We're all anxious to win the Gator Bowl since we messed up so bad last year."
He also suspended two third-string players, defensive tackle Chip Pruett and linebacker Bob Goldberg, for missing a one a.m. curfew by two hours.
Clemson will go with the same starting lineup it used in its last seven regular season games. The only player injured is tailback Lester Jones, a junior who rushed for 1,006 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has a slightly sprained right hand but did not miss any practice time Clemson ranked fourth nationally this season in total offense (436.7 yards per game), running out of a versatile I-formation with talented quarterback Steve Fuller at the helm.
The 6-4, 206-pounder, one of 26 seniors on the Clemson squad, completed 92 of 167 passes for 1,392 yards and seven touchdowns, and ran for 611 yards and four more TDs as the Tigers averaged 31.9 points per game. Of Fuller, Ford said: "I don't think there is a better college quarterback in the United States."
Fuller's favorite receiver is speedy senior Jerry Butler, who caught 54 passes for 864 yards and three touchdowns. Brown and 225-pound junior fullback Marvin Sims (651 yards, 3 touchdowns) give balance to Clemson's potent attack. The Tiger defense ranked fifth nationally against scoring, allowing only 10.5 points per game.
This should be enough to handle Ohio State, although the Buckeyes gifted freshman quarterback, Art Schlichter (1,045 yards passing, 520 yards rushing), has recovered from the shoulder injury that bothered him throughout the season, and fullback Paul Campbell (565 yards, nine touchdowns) is again healthy.
Although Ohio State is ranked only No. 20, Ford seemed in awe of Woody Hayes, 65, the cantankerous Buckeye coach whose 237 victories in 28 seasons make him the second winningest active college coach, behind Bryant.
"I started to ask for his autograph," Ford said, eyes atwinkle, "but I decided I'd better not."