In Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post, it was reported that the National Collegiate Athletic Association cited Clemson for violations during the regimes of football coach Red Parker and basketball coach Tates Locke. In 1975, according to Hale McMenamin of the NCAA, Clemson was cited for basketball and football recruiting violations which resulted in a three-year probation for its basketball team and a public reprimand for its football team. Clemson's football team was not placed on probation by the NCAA.
For Clemson University, these should be days of unbridled joy. The football team, long the pride of the school, is scaling heights heretofore unheard of in the 92 years of the university's existence.
This week, the Tigers are ranked No. 2 in the country in the Associated Press poll and No. 3 in United Press International's. The bowls are lining up, hats in hand, wanting to invite the team not only for its ranking and 8-0 record but because of its fanatic fans who will go anywhere, anytime to see their heroes play.
But on this idyllic campus, where the trees are just now beginning to turn color, there is a darkening cloud on the horizon, one that threatens to engulf Clemson at the very moment when it should be celebrating its greatest athletic achievements.
The cloud is the NCAA; the impending storm could be probation.
Twice this year, NCAA investigators have been on the Clemson campus. The last time was at the end of September when two investigators spent three days interviewing players and coaches.
Reportedly, six coaches and 28 players were questioned. According to sources at the school, the NCAA is considering as many as 100 charges against Clemson, some of which date back to the previous coaching regime headed by Charley Pell, who now is at Florida.
"We have not received any letter informing us of any charges. We haven't had any contact with the NCAA since their investigators were here," Clemson Athletic Director Bill McLellan said last week. "I'm concerned about the investigation; we all are.
"If probation comes, we'll adjust to it. I'm not assuming the worst, though. We'll just have to wait and see."
That is what everyone at Clemson is doing right now. Coach Danny Ford, a friendly man, turns cold at the mention of the NCAA. "I don't see any cloud hanging over this program," he said, " 'cause we haven't done anything wrong."
Problems with the NCAA are not new to Clemson. Six years ago, the football and basketball programs were placed on probation for three years because of recruiting violations during the basketball regime of Tates Locke and the football regime of Red Parker.
During the NCAA's previous investigation of Clemson, the report of a special task force of the House Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations alleged that Clemson bugged the campus office where the NCAA investigator was conducting interviews.
The same report claimed that Clemson submitted false and misleading affidavits, as well as an "apparently" forged affidavit, to the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The report also alleged that Clemson officials came into possession of incriminating evidence during the course of its investigation, but did not reveal its existence to the NCAA and later destroyed it and denied all allegations.
The current investigation began because of accusations made by two football players from Knoxville, Tenn. The players, Terry Minor and James Cofer, attended the same high school. Last December, both signed an ACC letter-of-intent to play at Clemson. But when it came time to sign a national letter, both players balked, saying they wanted a release from Clemson in order to play at Tennessee.
Tennessee, a member of the Southeastern Conference, honors an ACC letter. That meant the players could not sign at Tennessee without a release from Clemson. Ford said no.
"If they had told us early on they wanted a release, or that they had some kind of problem with us, it would've been different," he said. "But we went up there on national signing day and, without any warning, they say we want releases. We've already turned other kids down because we've made a commitment to them.
"We were shocked. It came out of nowhere. I had to think there was something funny going on there."
When Ford refused to release the players, they publicly accused Clemson of having offered them money in return for signing. That was the beginning of the NCAA investigation. The two players, who eventually enrolled at Louisiana Tech, have since dropped out, according to Ford.
Minor and Cofer could not be reached for comment.
But the NCAA investigators have not limited their investigation to the allegations made by the two players. Reportedly, at least two other schools have accused Clemson of rules violations.
Asked if he believed his football program was clean, McLellan said, "I would never say flatly that we're lily white, because I can't keep track of every move made in this department. I don't think anyone on our level can. But our coaches are men of integrity. I don't believe they would ever blatantly break the rules."
Ford: "Guys who go around making accusations behind your back are the worst. If they got a problem with something I'm doing, let 'em call me. I guarantee you, all those guys got some things in their closets they wouldn't want gettin' out."
It is Clemson's closet, however, that is being rummaged through. Which is why that during a time when he should be taking bows, Danny Ford is looking over his shoulder.
"I don't think I've ever felt sorrier for someone than for Danny the week the NCAA was back here," McLellan said. "We had just beaten Georgia, he was the national coach of the week and in walks the NCAA. It was a depressing sight."
Regardless of the NCAA's findings -- there are reports the school may face two or three years of probation -- McLellan says he will back Ford. "He is a winner, a good coach and a good man," McLellan said. "And, he's grown here. He is the kind of man who admits to his mistakes. I can't ask for more than that."
When Clemson's football team reported to campus last Aug. 6 to begin preparing for the 1981 season, there was a great sense of trepidation. Everybody was aware of the NCAA investigation. That was scary.
Beyond that, however, were memories of the 1980 season. They were not happy memories. In 1978, the Tigers were 11-1 and went to a bowl. In 1979, they were 8-4 and went to a bowl. But in 1980, the Tigers, after winning four of their first five games, lost four of their next five.
Practices were nightmares that season. "You never knew walking over there each day what to expect," said all-ACC wide receiver Perry Tuttle. "No one wanted to be there. If you made a mistake, the first thing you did was duck."
Panic had set in among the coaching staff. Ford, then 32 and in his second year as head coach, readily admitted he was not prepared to deal with the problems that arose.
Ford is a drawling, good ol' boy from Gadsden, Ala., who played under Bear Bryant at Alabama and believes, for the most part, in the Bryant doctrines. There is, however, a gentleness to him. When he saw his program collapsing and began to feel heat, the gentleness disappeared and was replaced by anger and paranoia.
"I spent more time last year chasin' rumors than coaching," Ford said. "I made a bundle of mistakes, no doubt about it. I had kids comin' into me saying they were scared to death to go to practice, that football wasn't fun anymore. I had to grow up, learn everything the hard way.
"I wasn't prepared to be 6-5," Ford said. "I had coached one year, won eight games and gone to a bowl. I was thinkin', 'Heck, ain't nothin' to coachin'. Nobody ever warned me about what it takes to lose, how to deal with it.
"Coach (Frank) Howard told me before this season started that coachin' is like a roller coaster; you go up and you go down. But you got to stay the same person no matter where you are. I wish he'd told me that sooner, 'cause he's right."
As the losses mounted, so did the panic. A number of players quit the team and, when the Orange-and-White, a weekly paper devoted to Clemson athletics, reported the departures, Ford angrily tried to bar its reporters from the locker room.
The team was split. Players blamed the coaches; the coaches blamed the players. The offense blamed the defense; the defense the offense. "We were like two teams," linebacker Jeff Davis said. "When the offense made a mistake or wasn't moving, we'd stand off by ourselves mumbling about it. That would make them mad. We were playing as individuals, not as a team. It was every man for himself."
The season did end on a high note, an upset victory over South Carolina. The victory came amidst rumors that a loss would be Ford's last at Clemson. When the game was over, Ford stalked into the interview room, stared at the assembled writers and said, "Those of you who thought this was going to be my farewell, well you can just shove it."
So much for 1980.
When it was over, Ford sat down and began going over all that had happened. He knew he had made mistakes. He knew he had not been as organized as he should have been. He decided to make some changes.
His first move was to hire Tom Harper as his No. 2 man and defensive line coach. Harper, 49, is a coaching gypsy, a man who has worked at six different colleges and in the WFL.
He is as gregarious as Ford is withdrawn; as experienced as Ford is green. He had been at Virginia Tech for six years and was ready to make a move. Harper also brought with him a reputation as a teacher and, along with Ford, he began setting a new tone during spring practice. Players were coached, not yelled at. Voices were rarely raised and accomplishments were praised.
"You could see things changing right then," said defensive end Jeff Bryant. "Everyone felt different going out to practice. The negative was gone. All of a sudden, everything was positive."
Harper is an optimist. "When you get down on them and want to curse at them or yell at them, you have to remember that just the fact that they are there and practicing is one good thing," Harper said. "I didn't really notice anything that needed changing, I just went out and coached."
At the same time, to eliminate the daily trepidation of walking toward the practice field not knowing what to expect, Ford had his staff put together a daily practice schedule, starting Aug. 6 and going right through a possible bowl game. When the players arrived for summer practice, they received a booklet that told them what would happen each day, all season.
Better organized, having learned from the mistakes of 1980, Ford still had one more problem to deal with when he met his team: the NCAA.
"You couldn't ignore it," said one staff member. "It was all the kids were talking about when they first got here. We had to face it."
Ford faced it by telling his team that the NCAA was out of their control and should be ignored; that it would not affect their chances to have a great season in 1981 and they should approach the season as if nothing at all was going on.
After that, it was up to the players. The seniors, the one group on the team that knew it would not be affected by probation, took it upon themselves to talk to the underclassmen.
"Let's face it, it was the kind of thing that could tear a team apart," Tuttle said. "The underclassmen could easily think the seniors don't care because it won't affect them. We had to say to them, 'Look, we do care because this is our school.'
"And, we had to tell them that in terms of this season we were all in it together and this was our last shot and we all had to do our best and work hard. We talked about it a good deal. I think by the time the season started, everyone felt the same about it."
Clearly, the situation has not affected this team's play. From the first day, the Tigers have rolled, easily beating Wofford and Tulane, then upsetting defending national champion Georgia, a team they had almost beaten the year before.
This year, there have been no almosts. Kentucky and Virginia were shut out, Duke was routed and N.C. State was beaten -- barely -- in the team's worst game of the season. Saturday, victory No. 8 was an 82-24 annihilation of Wake Forest, and now people are talking about the possibility of Clemson and Pittsburgh matching up in the Fiesta Bowl to decide the national title if Pitt can beat Penn State and if Clemson can get by North Carolina, Maryland and South Carolina, each game a very difficult one for the Tigers.
But the possibility is there.
"We all know what's going on," said defensive back Terry Kinard. "We have a chance to do something Clemson has never done; it's simple as that. What a party we'd be having down here if we pulled it off."
It is dusk, the sun dropping slowly over the South Carolina Piedmont. On one of the five fields the Tigers practice on, the final minutes of the workout are slipping away.
There is a looseness here, a feeling of comfort. Ford is standing on the sixth flight of the seven on his tower, cap low on his forehead, basically an observer this Thursday, the heavy work for the week being over.
Players toss balls back and forth while they wait for their turn to get into the workout. Harper is walking among visitors, desperately looking for a match to light a cigarette.
The Tigers leave nothing undone. They do their offensive drills, their defensive drills and then work on the kicking game. When quarterback Homer Jordan badly misses a receiver, Ford moans audibly, a shrill "aaaaaaaagh" involuntarily coming out. But when tailback Cliff Austin throws a perfect option pass -- then stops to bow to the mock cheers -- Ford grabs his megaphone to yell, "Way to go, way to go, way to go."
Finally, the Tigers finish by practicing their cheers -- yes, their cheers -- and when they leave the floodlit field, almost all of them are smiling. So is Ford.
Later, dinner finished, most of the players are off to a required study hall. Ford stretches his long legs over several chairs in the cafeteria where the team eats. He is relaxed now and, as he talks, he has a wad of tobacco (wrapped around a piece of bubblegum) stuffed in his cheek.
"Ever since I played, I wanted to coach," he says. "Coach Bryant used to tell us if you wanted to be with your family, if you wanted to spend time with your kids, if you wanted a normal life, don't coach."
Ford smiles. "I guess that's how he talked all of us into it. I don't sleep much during the season 'cause I'm always afraid of getting outworked. I remember one time last year at about 1 in the morning I decided to go fishing for a couple hours. I did, and we got beat. It didn't have anything to do with me going fishing, but you can bet I won't do it again.
"When I started in coaching, I always thought what I wanted to do was win more games than anyone ever has, just win and win and win. Now, I'm not so sure about that. If I can stay in the game 20 years, I'll feel like I've done well."
He pauses, his brow furrowing, the light seeming to hit the gray flecks in his short brown hair. "I've always honestly hoped that I would never do anything that would hurt a youngster who played for me. But I know I have; we all do.
"I look at these kids and what they've accomplished and the way they've busted their guts and I feel awful proud of them. They have given us everything they have and you can't ask more. They know what they have a chance to do.
"Sometimes, I catch myself thinking, 'Can it really happen at Clemson?' And the answer is, of course it can. Then I smile for a second and go back to work."
And what, he is asked, does he think when the specter of the NCAA passes before him?
"I think, there's nothing wrong with our football program for a second, and then I go back to work."