The Clemson jokes stopped here. No more Tigger Talk. These guys can make any college team in the country consider majoring in something safer than football. And when that fact had become clear to anybody with a mind, when the Tigers had been assured of winning just about everything important but absolution from the NCAA, Coach Danny Ford gloated.
"Ain't been able to brag on 'em like I wanted to," he said of the only unbeaten team in semiamateur football after the final official body slam here Friday. And of players resilient enough to overcome such enormous distractions as the probability of probation, following accusations of illegal procedure off the field, and surely the tackiest uniforms anyone ever wore the night they clinched the national championship.
"Can't brag till you prove some facts," Ford added. His players already had won the last argument in a season-long trial, 22-15 over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers' schedule included some teams softer than a Twinkie, but if they didn't play as many in the top 10 as, say, Penn State, they beat as many.
Nobody else has a case. One game up on all of Division I-A with no more to play, Clemson's the best. Now it's up to Dean Smith or Terry Holland to show cause why the ACC should not be known as a football league.
This is what Ford has been aching for us doubters to say.
"Hell, yes, it was hard," he said of having to endure about a week of scrutiny instead of celebration before the Orange Bowl. "Do we belong in the big time? I think we're ahead of the big time now. We're on top of the big time. Played 11, whipped 11. Played 12, whipped 12. I still think we're a better team than we showed tonight, but we don't have anything more to prove."
If the Tigers made off with the biggest prize in college football a few months before the NCAA arrives to put them on probation, as is assumed, they are an appealing team. And cocksure of themselves to the point of tipping plays to Nebraska and saying, in effect: "Here's what we're gonna do. Betcha can't stop us."
That seemingly could have happened during parts of NBC's innovation of having Bob Trumpy sit with Clemson's assistant coaches above the field and reveal strategy after it was formed but before it was executed. A wonderful touch, but dangerous.
Coaches are suspicious by nature, usually so uptight before a big game they will not let their grandmothers into practice. So what Ford allowed was close to cosmic, for Nebraska theoretically could trump his Tigers by having a portable television near the bench and tuning in Trumpy. Or through more sophisticated spying.
It was an open invitation to larceny, and either Clemson had a fail-safe way of keeping strategy everyone else in the country knew from Nebraska or didn't care about possibly telegraphing punches now and then.
Before one of the biggest plays on the biggest night of their lives, the Tigers let Trumpy trumpet a quarterback draw at least 30 seconds before it took place. Down a point, 7-6, with 5:05 left in the first half, the Tigers had third and four from the Nebraska nine.
They all but whispered to Nebraska: "Psssst. Homer Jordan's coming up the middle." He needed four yards; he got five. Clemson scored the go-ahead, stay-ahead touchdown on the next play.
Later, with a 22-7 lead in the fourth quarter, a premature party began inside Ford's head.
"I started thinking we could play a long, long time and not give up more than seven points," he said. "And then we missed a couple tackles and they got another touchdown."
But the baddest team from the allegedly baddest conference, the Big Eight, wilted under pressure from the assumed ACC paper tigers.
"They were on their second wind in the fourth quarter," Ford said of Nebraska. "Bending over a bit, tired." Later, he added: "They gave out a bit on us . . . I'm glad they weren't as patient against us as they usually are."
Haughty and humble for two public hours after a victory that will give him, at 33, what has eluded other coaches their entire professional lives, Ford would not get sentimental about himself.
"I'm just tired," he said. "I played hard, lived and died on the sideline while everyone else did the work. I did nothing else but hope and hope and hope."
At 7:30 a.m. New Year's Day, about 12 hours before kickoff and three before the team's wakeup call, Jordan drifted into wide receiver Perry Tuttle's room.
"He'll probably deny this," Tuttle said. "But he told me he couldn't sleep. I told him: 'Nebraska's gonna kill you.' And I said there was no sense being nervous, 'cause he still was the starting quarterback."
Jordan was terrific. Undervalued like his team, he ran 16 times for 66 yards and completed half his 22 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Having stumbled, righted himself and dashed for the first down that assured victory, the national title, immortality in Tigertown, Jordan all but collapsed. Cramping badly, suffering from dehydration, he spent more than an hour on his back in the training room while his teammates high-fived and hugged.
Slowly, painfully, he eventually walked less than the distance he had run and passed to a police car that took him to a more comfortable place.
Could he have gone one more play?
"That was it," he said, almost inaudibly. "Couldn't have made it no farther."
And where is Clemson going?
"We're not gonna treat (being No. 1) as a vacation," Ford said. "We're gonna try to stay there for a while."
Then he excused himself, saying with a smile that spread all over a lean, good ol' boy's face that had not showed joy for days: "I'm gonna go wait on basketball season, if you don't mind."