Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: Visiting former Clemson coach Danny Ford, down on the farm

This photo of former Clemson football coach Danny Ford was taken at his farm in Pendlelton, S.C., in 2014.
This photo of former Clemson football coach Danny Ford was taken at his farm in Pendlelton, S.C., in 2014.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 22, 2003.

The biggest man in South Carolina football, the state not the school, pulls into a Shell station off I-85 a mile north of the Clemson exit. He’s driving a truck with 153,156 miles on the odometer, dust over everything and dents on the side. Cows made the dents.

On his front seat is a rolled-up sports jacket and tie he wears only when he has to, a windbreaker somebody gave him, a box of chewing tobacco, half a Snickers bar and a minnow bucket.

“Got fuel?” Danny Ford asks.

Got fuel.

“Follow me,” Ford says.

I follow him down back roads devoid of cars to back roads even more devoid of cars to Dyar’s Diner, which is in Pendleton, a mile from Ford’s 170-acre farm.

Phil Clark, a buddy of Ford’s who used to coach at Greer High, is waiting. Clark, 78, steps out of his white Mercedes, looks at Ford and says, “You look like a farmer.”

“I am a farmer,” Ford says.

Before Ford was a farmer, he was a coach. Run-ins with the administration ended his career at Clemson after a 10-2 season in 1989. But in 11 years there, he won 96 games, lost 29, went to eight bowls and won six, one of them for the national championship.

His offensive line was always better than the other guy’s defensive line. His defensive line was always better than the other guy’s offensive line. He didn’t throw much. He didn’t have to.

Ford goes through the Dyar’s buffet line, picks up sauerkraut, pinto beans, a roll and iced tea, tells Becky Dyar she charges too much - lunch for three is less than $12 - and finds a table.

This is a place where you show each other how much you like them by getting on them, and Ford likes them a lot. He wears a Wolverine cap, a Reebok T-shirt, jeans and work boots. Compared to him, his truck is clean. He spent the morning moving three bulls to a pasture away from his cows. How big are bulls anyway?

“Bigger than William Perry, “ Ford says of his former lineman. “As big as my line in the good days.”

Ford is still gangly and in shape, but his hair and whiskers are pure white.

“I spoke at a little old elementary school here and one little old girl, she must have been 4 or 5, asked me how old I was,” says Ford.

“I told her I was the speed limit. She said, ‘You’re 75?’

“Double-nickel, lady.”

Ford and Clark and Ed Randall, who walks over from the next table,talk about farms and food and bulls and hay. They don’t talk about football. Somebody has to. I ask Ford if Clemson has talked to him about coming back?

“No sir, no sir,” he says. “They haven’t and they wouldn’t. Clemson wouldn’t talk to anybody while they got a football coach.”

What if they didn’t have a coach?

Ford is as easy-going and affable as anybody you’ll meet, but this is not a subject he wants to talk about. Clemson is still his school, and he cares deeply about the fans. He does not want to undermine anybody.

But the longer he’s gone, the more mythical he becomes.

“It’s always better when you’re gone than when you were there, in anything you do, “ says Ford. “Probably even in marriage.”

Even the man at the next table laughs.

“People always want it to be like it used to be, “ says Ford. “They don’t remember the used to be of Duke beating our fanny and N.C. State beating our fanny and going to Columbia and getting embarrassed on national TV. They remember the Oklahoma game or Tennessee game or Nebraska or something.”

Clemson has had four coaches since Ford left. So large is his shadow that he stays away from all of them. You can find him on a tractor.

You rarely find him at Memorial Stadium.

But if the opportunity arose to return to Memorial Stadium as head coach, what would you do?

“I wouldn’t even speculate, “ says Ford. “No. 1, that opportunity is not here and I don’t know that opportunity would ever be here.

“I don’t worry. I don’t spend my time thinking what would I do. I go out there and look at them cows every day.”

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Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen