CHARLOTTESVILLE, SEPT. 11 -- As Clemson linebacker Levon Kirkland walked off the field Saturday, dodging some of the thousands of fans who spilled onto the Scott Stadium turf to celebrate Virginia's first victory over Clemson, two elderly women -- both clad completely in orange with Tiger paws adorning their Clemson sweat shirts -- grabbed his arms.
"It's all right," one said.
"You're still our Tigers," echoed the other.
Those may be soothing words for a program still searching for an identity under first-year coach Ken Hatfield, who seldom has heard an encouraging word since replacing the popular Danny Ford in January.
In losing to Virginia, 20-7, Hatfield became the first Clemson coach to fall to the Cavaliers, relinquishing a 29-game, 35-year winning streak that had ranked as the nation's longest domination over a regular opponent.
"It's not a fun time, to say the least," said Hatfield, whose team travels to Baltimore for a Saturday meeting with Maryland. "Every team develops its own personality and I'm not sure what the personality of this team is right now. . . . Maybe we don't know each other that well. Maybe it took something like this to learn a lot more about each other."
These are new experiences for Clemson, which for years stood as a constant in college football, rolling over opponents with claws sharpened by a powerful booster program united behind the tobacco-chewing, pickup-driving Ford, who was a perfect fit for the rural South Carolina community.
At 33, Ford guided Clemson to a national title in 1981. He racked up a 96-29-4 record through last season and, along the way, he picked up five ACC championships, won his last four bowl games and went 11-0 against Virginia.
But his reign was not without controversy. Ford lobbied school President Max Lennon for a football players-only dorm, and IPTAY -- the booster group founded by former coach Frank Howard that originally stood for "I Pay Ten a Year" -- was more than willing to supply the funding. But the school balked, and when $2.5 million was earmarked for the Clemson Academic Learning Center, Ford called it "the saddest moment since I've been at Clemson University," openly questioning why the money wasn't used to build the athletic dorm.
In January, the NCAA found Clemson guilty of recruiting violations for the second time in eight years. In 1982 Clemson was slapped with a two-year probation -- including a ban on postseason play -- for violations under Charley Pell, who went to Florida in 1978 and was replaced by Ford. This time, the NCAA handed down a one-year probation with no sanctions, and Ford was forced to resign.
As a condition of the buyout of Ford's contract -- which could reach $1 million -- Ford agreed not to discuss the events leading to his resignation.
Three days after Ford's removal, Clemson brought in Hatfield, a no-nonsense, Bible-thumping coach who had compiled a 55-17-1 record in six seasons at Arkansas. Coupled with the last two years of his previous stint at Air Force, Hatfield's teams have made bowl appearances the last eight years, putting him in the select company of Nebraska's Tom Osborne, Auburn's Pat Dye and Florida State's Bobby Bowden.
But Ford loyalists protested the hiring of Hatfield at Lennon's home. Tailback Terry Allen, a junior, entered the NFL draft and spring practice began with players threatening mutiny.
"It was just an unknown situation of trying to blend a coaching philosophy and a lifestyle and a living philosophy with the confidence and the talents and the ways of the players here," Hatfield said. "That was probably the biggest thing that we've all had to take on."
Hatfield met with the players, kept three of Ford's assistants and managed to forge a truce with the team, still perplexed by the circumstances surrounding Ford's departure.
Hatfield brought to his new job a coaching manner that is a natural outgrowth of his devout Christian lifestyle, which began, he says, following a deeply religious experience in 1965. He cut Ford's marathon practices down to size, does not allow cursing or drinking, quotes Scripture to the team and laces many of his public remarks with words reflective of his beliefs -- especially in trying times such as the aftermath of the Virginia loss.
"I told the team that I loved them and I told them to stay together and love each other," Hatfield said. "A lot of times in situations like this you have an opportunity to find out a lot about your character."
That will come Saturday in Baltimore, when Clemson faces the Terrapins with several more streaks on the line. Clemson has not dropped its first two ACC games since 1974 and it has not lost to Maryland since 1985.
"They've been shooting at us for five years now," said Clemson defensive tackle Vance Hammond. "There's nothing wrong with losing. The wonderful thing about losing is everybody gets tighter and has more fire in their eyes. We put 82,000 people in our stands because we win -- that's our pride and tradition. In order to beat Clemson you got to have a great game and it's great for your university. That's what people make their press guides out of the next year."
It also is the material from which Virginia hopes to weave its most successful season, which if nothing else, will be remembered as the year the Clemson streak finally ended.
"Everybody likes to be your friend when you're winning," Hatfield said. "Sometimes you find out a lot about things when you're losing."