Learning on the job with Clemson's 1981 title team

It is not exactly true to say I paid $50 a week to cover Clemson on its way to winning the 1981 national championship. I graduated from college in June of that year, and turned down an offer of $350 a week from The Miami Herald to cover high schools in West Palm Beach. The Atlanta Constitution offered me $300 a week but promised me I could cover colleges.

Not Georgia or Georgia Tech, mind you, both way too important to Atlanta readers to trust to a kid. Clemson and South Carolina, both within driving distance of Atlanta, served as the perfect-sized beat for me. Neither team had national expectations. The Gamecocks had lost Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, and though the Tigers were expected to challenge North Carolina for the ACC championship, they had gone only 6-5 the year before.

I mean, really, what could I screw up? How good could Clemson be? I started out covering whichever team played at home on Saturday. Soon enough, I left South Carolina behind. Turned out Clemson could be pretty good.

Danny Ford, the young third-year coach of the Tigers, was 33 that season. I used to say that I knew Ford when he was dark-haired and skinny. Now I say I knew him when I was dark-haired and skinny. He turned 68 11 days ago, which means that championship was half his lifetime ago.

Just about every week that season I would drive the two hours up I-85 to Clemson for Ford's media luncheon. It must have been held on the second floor of a building, because I can remember hanging around on the landing afterward with Ford. He would have a postprandial wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, and as he talked he would spit over the balcony.

Clemson won its opener over Wofford easily, 45-10, (omen alert: Clemson opened this season against Wofford, too, paying $275,000, about four times the Terriers' paycheck in 1981) and followed with a 13-5 victory at Tulane, both mere formalities before Georgia Week. The rivalry with the Dawgs, only an hour away, hadn't blossomed as much as it had erupted.

South Carolina will always be Clemson's top rival, but Georgia in the early 1980s provoked the kind of passion that only college football creates. The Bulldogs had defeated the Tigers 20-16 early in 1980 en route to their national championship. Clemson pushed Georgia, lost late, and never recovered emotionally.

"I been looking forward to this all year," said Clemson defensive tackle Jeff Bryant, an Atlanta native of facing the Dawgs and their star running back, Herschel Walker. "I was getting a lot of hassle about the Georgia Bulldogs at home. It's time to get down to business. We're playing the defending national champion with a 15-game winning streak and Mr. All-World up there."

For 40 years, Clemson has staged a First Friday parade to kick off the season. In 1981, the school moved the parade to the day before the Georgia game. In those days, the parade began "downtown," also known as Main Street or, what the street signs said, College Avenue. It was not a long parade. The old joke is that when comedian Bob Hope came to Clemson to perform, former athletic director Frank Howard gave him a tour. They drove down College Avenue, and when Hope asked if he could see the town, Howard replied, "Again?"

The school tried to coax a national celebrity to serve as grand marshal. Only three years removed from slugging Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman on the sideline of the Gator Bowl, a reaction that ended his career, former Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes declined the offer.

The next day, Clemson wore the orange britches it had debuted the previous season when the Tigers upset South Carolina, and the clothes made the men once again. Clemson beat up Georgia 13-3, forcing nine turnovers, three of them from the All-American, Walker, who ground out 111 yards on 28 carries.

Yes, I covered Clemson that season, but no, I didn't see a single play of the Georgia game. Since the Dawgs played, our section's Georgia writers covered the game. I went to cover Alabama beating Kentucky, 19-10, which I bring up because it would be the only game I covered that Bear Bryant coached. I made sure I asked the first question in the postgame media conference.

By midseason, it dawned on my editors that Clemson had climbed from unranked in the preseason into the top 10, and The Atlanta Constitution had a 21-year-old covering the team. They began sending an experienced sportswriter with me to the games on Saturday. I still covered the team during the week and wrote sidebars at the games.

This being the Wild West of the early '80s, a team couldn't be a national contender without recruiting violations. At midseason, John Feinstein of the Washington Post -- yeah, that John Feinstein -- broke a story about two recruits in Tennessee who charged Clemson with offering them inducements to sign. I followed up and called the kids and the other people I could find and rewrote Feinstein's story a few days later.

I don't remember what became of that case, but a year later, Clemson would go on probation for two years (a loss of 10 scholarships per year, no bowls and no TV appearances), which Ford blamed on himself being young and stupid. But in 1981, the Tigers climbed steadily and inexorably to the top.

On Halloween weekend, Clemson humiliated Wake Forest 82-24, a game I did cover, jaw slacked. This was not the up-tempo spread era. Clemson had 15 possessions and never punted (11 touchdowns, two field goals, two turnovers). The Tigers gained 756 total yards. That game pushed them to No. 2 in time to go to Chapel Hill to play the defending ACC champion, No. 8 North Carolina.

"If we lose," senior wide receiver Perry Tuttle said, "a lot of people will say, 'I told you so.' ... We still want respect from big-time football, like Ohio State, Southern Cal, Penn State, teams like that."

I learned Kenan Stadium is a gem, with beautiful trees surrounding the stadium and peeking over the top row. And I learned just how good this Clemson team might be. A week after the Clemson offense gained 756 total yards, the Tigers and the Tar Heels combined to gain 517 yards. Clemson, again wearing orange pants, won 10-8, and by the end of the month, Penn State had humiliated No. 1 Pitt 48-14. Clemson finished the regular season at No. 1 and was matched with No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

I would love to be able to tell you that I discovered William "Refrigerator" Perry, the freshman nose guard who within five years would become an American celebrity. But that was so early in his development that his nickname hadn't devolved to "Fridge" yet. One of the upperclassmen named him "GE" after General Electric, which made refrigerators and other man-sized appliances.

The players I remember are junior linebacker Jeff Davis and senior wide receiver Perry Tuttle, roommates who went on to long NFL careers. Davis made the College Football Hall of Fame, as did safety Terry Kinard. Bryant was a favorite source, a guy my age with a soft voice and a mature attitude. That also would describe quarterback Homer Jordan, who became the leader that the offense needed as the season played out.

On the night of Friday, Jan. 1, Nebraska sniffed its first national championship in a decade. No. 2 Georgia had lost in the Sugar Bowl; No. 3 Alabama had lost in the Cotton.

Husker quarterback Mark Mauer came into the game with a bad arm, and Clemson harassed him all night. In the fourth quarter, the Huskers scored to pull within 22-15 with 5:24 to play. The Tigers held the ball for all but the final six seconds. Clemson, again in orange from head to toe, had won the national championship.

The Orange Bowl traditionally started late and included a halftime that always blew through its time limit. By the time the game ended, I had less than a half-hour to interview players, return up a slow elevator and write two stories. I was overwhelmed, which would explain the eight lines of white space in the second story. Deadlines waited neither for long halftimes nor rookie writers.

I fell asleep about 3 a.m., only to be awakened by phone at 6 a.m. The editor of the Sunday paper wanted to know if I had anything else I could write for him. I didn't like that guy before the phone call. I certainly didn't like him now that I was an ex-employee. The Orange Bowl was my final assignment for The Atlanta Constitution. Three weeks later I began as a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated. The magazine assigned me to baseball, and I didn't cover another college football game for three years.

I was offered a pass to stay in Miami on Jan. 2 for the Dolphins-Chargers AFC playoff. I decided to take my plane and go hang out with my friends, missing what is still regarded as one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history. San Diego won 41-38 in overtime, and the hero of the game, Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, was so exhausted that he had to be helped from the field.

I would like to think my news sense has improved.