Clemson finds Hatfield the real McCoy

November 15, 1991|By Mike Preston

They still boo head football coach Ken Hatfield at Clemson University, but not quite as loudly. The tavern-goers call in less frequently to television and radio talk shows to criticize him, and there are no planned boycotts of practice by players or alumni.

As far as the Clemson players are concerned, the transition from good ol' boy Danny Ford to Bible-totin' Hatfield is complete.

"It is finished," said Clemson nose guard Rob Bodine, a candidate for All-America. "There are still die-hard supporters of Coach Ford, because he was a living legend. But this is Coach Hatfield's team now. He cares a lot about the person, what is going to happen to you after you stop playing. He tries to prepare you for life. His recruits are in now, and his philosophies are in place. He has proved himself."

What Hatfield has done in his second year is keep No. 15 Clemson in the national rankings, in the major bowl picture and atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. The Tigers (6-1-1 overall, 4-0-1 ACC) will play host to Maryland (2-7, 2-3) tomorrow at noon, and, if they win, they clinch the ACC title and secure a berth in the Florida Citrus Bowl.

"For the first time at the end of the last three seasons, we don't have to keep looking up at the scoreboard, worrying about what other teams are doing in the ACC," said Bodine. "This time, all we have to do is win, and the title is ours."

Hatfield, 48, replaced Ford in January 1990, after Ford was forced to resign during an NCAA investigation. Although the NCAA didn't find him guilty of any rules violations, his $2.2 million settlement with Clemson required that he remain out of coaching for two years.

But Ford was a winner, and he was loved for it. In 11 seasons, he guided Clemson to a 96-29-4 record, including five ACC titles and a national championship in 1981.

And Clemson fans and players adored him because of his Southern charm. He had a drawl and chewed Red Man tobacco. He intimidated his players, but gave them few rules.

And then along came Hatfield.

"Different, much different in their approach to dealing with players," said senior linebacker Levon Kirkland.

Hatfield also had a winning reputation. In the last two of his six years there (1982 and 1983), he took dormant Air Force to a No. 13 national ranking and a pair of bowls. During the next six seasons, he compiled a 55-17-1 record at Arkansas and was named the Southwest Conference Coach of the Decade for the 1980s by the Houston Post.

But Hatfield was also a born-again Christian. He made Clemson players sign in for breakfast. No more swearing on the field. No more trash talk. No more drinking during the season. Players were required to attend classes. He even changed the name of the Clemson recruiting hostesses from "Bengal Babes" to "Tiger Lillies."

His battle wasn't entirely with the players. Ford had friends, about 200 of whom showed up to demonstrate at Hatfield's introductory news conference.

"I was happy they cared that much," said Hatfield. "They were not against me per se, but against the situation, the administration."

But Hatfield soon got a lot of the blame. He tried to balance Clemson's offense with more passing and less option. The Tigers beat Long Beach State, 59-0, in the opener, and then lost to Virginia, 20-7, for the first time.

"Danny Ford, phone home," said one of the callers to a local newspaper.

"I knew what it was going to be like, because probably the hardest thing to do is to go into a successful program with good players coming back," said Hatfield. "You were going to get all the blame if things went bad, and somebody else would get the credit if it was good. The hardest thing was getting the players to adhere to your philosophy and gel."

The turning point came in Game 3 against Maryland. The Terps outplayed Clemson and had a 14-10 lead at the half. Clemson eventually won, 18-17.

"The coach came in [at halftime of that game] and said the transition was over," said Bodine. "He said, 'Let's go out and play Clemson football.' We've been playing it ever since."

Clemson went on to win seven of its next eight and the last five regular-season games. The Tigers then routed Illinois, 30-0, in the Hall of Fame Bowl and, afterward, Hatfield was given a 5.5 percent raise and a year's extension on a contract that will run through Dec. 31, 1995.

That still hasn't silenced the boo birds this season. Clemson returned 12 starters, and, after early season victories over lightweights Appalachian State and Temple, the Tigers struggled to a 9-7 win over Georgia Tech before losing to Georgia, 27-12, and tying Virginia, 20-20.

But the Tigers have rebounded, beating N.C. State, Wake Forest and North Carolina. They have done so with a defense that is second in the country, allowing 245 yards per game, and a rushing offense that is averaging 244.5.

"Clemson fans are rabid like all other fans," Hatfield said. "Grown men get tears in their eyes when the team goes running down the hill to play. It's a great tradition. Me, I'm just hoping I don't stumble and fall."

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