Remembering Clemson’s 1981 championship season

It's time for some respect

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Credit: Zachary Hanby

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With the Clemson Tigers headed for the NCAA College Football National Championship for the second year in a row, it’s impossible not to think about the team’s 1981 team — and that No. 1 ranking they secured at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1982. All these years later, that moment ranks as the program’s shining moment.

It also highlights a persistent problem that has nagged every Clemson program since then: a lack of respect.

Long before Dabo Swinney lashed out at the media for propagating the inaccurate and asinine term “Clemsoning,” Danny Ford was bemoaning misconceptions about his squad.

“We really didn’t put a lot of stock in the fact that we were not ranked in preseason voting. We didn’t believe you all really know everything in the world,” Ford said, according to a 1982 New York Times report. “I’m sorry to let you know you all are just like us — human beings. We didn’t have to prove anything in the world. We only had to prove something to ourselves.” 

This lack of respect was well evident to then-star linebacker Jeff Davis, now a pastor and former leader of Clemson’s Call Me Mister minority teacher recruitment program. Speaking about the Orange Bowl win, Davis said, “What it means to me, is that when I go somewhere, I won’t have to listen to, ‘Y’all are a Cinderella team. Y’all haven’t played anybody.'” I’ve been hearing it all week. ‘Who’s Clemson? Where’s Clemson at? What’s Clemson like? Is it in North Carolina?'”

As the Times noted, “The Tigers had not only beaten Nebraska. In their minds, they beat the people who made the Cornhuskers a betting favorite over a top-ranked team, and the experts who dismissed the Atlantic Coast Conference as primarily a basketball conference with weak football teams.”

For Coach Ford and his players, the game was a vindication. “They can’t say much about your weak schedule no more,” said Coach Danny Ford, “or the ACC being a basketball conference, or being four-point underdogs. There’s not much they can say about anything.”

Nine months later, the day of the Tigers’ showdown with the University of Georgia Bulldogs to start the 1982 season, Clemson was still being treated as a bastard child living among NCAA royalty. Without question, this dismissiveness was bolstered by the feeling that the team had to commit NCAA recruiting violations to win a national championship, but, all things considered, it was an opinion that was largely unfounded. In hindsight, Clemson’s misdeeds were minor compared to the flagrant rules violations practiced by much more celebrated schools, violations that these days warrant little more than a slap on the wrist, if anything at all.

Malcom Moran of the Times writes, “Jeff Davis, Clemson’s all-America linebacker, has heard all the talk he cares to hear. He has heard from rival players who say they refuse to believe that an Atlantic Coast Conference school can finish the season ranked No.1 in the wire-service polls, and from reporters who have never passed over the orange tiger paws that line the highways that lead into Clemson, S.C.”

Although later years would prove the critics wrong — whether they admitted it or not — it’s easy to forget that prior to the Charley Pell years (1977-78), Clemson had not been to a bowl game in 18 years. For many of today’s Tiger faithful, much of that nearly two-decade drought has either been forgotten or else never learned. And with good reason.

Over the course of that three-and-a-half-decade run, the Tigers have been in 28 bowl games, a figure that would be higher if Clemson had been allowed to play in a bowl from 1982-85.

And yet, the belief that Clemson is not on par with teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Southern Cal and Notre Dame remains. The members of the Cult of Clemsoning are a fiercely prejudicial lot who worship at the altar of the SEC and the Big Ten, despite an ever-dwindling supply of idols to pray before.

All of which is why this anecdote from Davis about the ill treatment he received from his fellow 1981 All-Americans seems just as timely as ever. “In the air, you could feel it, that nobody could believe in Clemson,” he told the Times. “A lot of them were doing it for kidding, but you could tell, deep down, they believed it.”

But Davis knew his team better. He knew how far Clemson had come and that it deserved to be counted among football’s best. He knew they would win. “Watch out,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are going to be sitting in front of the television with their mouths wide open.'”

With a little luck, on Monday night the Clemson naysayers may just have to pick their jaws up off the floor again.

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