State of the Hogs: Even a scientific rocket knew Ford deserved hall of fame

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, January 9, 2017
Arkansas coach Danny Ford watches from the sideline during a game against Southwestern Louisiana on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1995, in Fayetteville.
Arkansas coach Danny Ford watches from the sideline during a game against Southwestern Louisiana on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1995, in Fayetteville.

— Danny Ford came to Arkansas with a reputation for not spending time with the media. Before he left, he was inviting them to his office as he cooked bread or followed the stock market.

I'll never forget getting called from down the hall for a farewell visit in 1997 as he packed his bags for South Carolina. He pulled from his desk a 1964 Arkansas media guide.

“Won't need this and I wonder if you got one,” he said.

Smiling, the just-fired Arkansas football coach said, “You ought to read about some of these guys. There are some famous people here, smart and good people. A lot of them will be in the hall of fame some day. I knew a bunch from my Alabama days in that hall of fame and most of these guys should be there, too.”

Now, Ford will stand beside “some” of those Arkansas men, too. He was named to the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame on Monday.

Some forget that Ford was the man to get the ship righted at Arkansas after joining interim coach Joe Kines as an offensive consultant in 1992. The first thing he fixed were the special teams, reworking the punt unit after Memphis blocked an NCAA-record four punts on the way to a 22-6 victory that year.

Ford is most noted for winning the 1981 national championship at Clemson. At 33, he is still the youngest coach to ever win a national title. He deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame, both for what he did at Clemson and for getting Arkansas going in the SEC.

Folks in Arkansas remember him more for taking the Hogs to the SEC Championship Game in 1995 when Arkansas went 6-2 in the SEC and beat Alabama and Auburn while climbing to 14th in the national rankings. Arkansas finished the season 8-5 with a three-game losing streak to LSU, Florida and North Carolina, which all beat the Razorbacks by double digits.

I'll remember him for his country sayings full of poor grammar and straight-forward approach to coaching. It was easy to remember he hailed from Gadsden, Ala., because his speaking was right out of the hills of north Alabama. You had to remind yourself that he owned two college degrees.

Ford's use of double-negatives in his speaking was legendary. I asked him once if he minded if I gave some of that a good grammar cleanse before running it in Hawgs Illustrated.

“You better not do any of that, no one will know if it's not me,” Ford said, just as straight-faced as when he said he didn't know if his herd of cattle was going to “make it across that big river” after he took the job under Kines.

There were always farm references. It was known that he often stopped his truck along Arkansas highways, climbed a fence and offered help to a man on a tractor, or just talked about his cows. Maybe it was just his way of trying to fit in at his new job.

There was a time I was invited to ride along with Ford for a speaking engagement at the Siloam Springs Razorback Club. We were on time until Ford pulled into the auction barn on the outskirts of Siloam Springs.

“We'll be late,” I said.

“Maybe,” Ford said. “They can get started with the food. They'll wait on us. I've done this before and they've never left without hearing me. I want to see what these calves are selling for. Might buy some here next week or bring some to sell.”

Then, he said, “Sit here beside me, you might learn something. Look, sometimes you have to take a calf with the cow in recruiting. Two-for-one. It can be all right. Not something you'd think about, right? Not know what may happen or not happen at these sales. Know what I mean?”

Not really.

There was the time Madre Hill was trying to fight back from a second knee surgery. The recovery after his first ACL surgery was lengthy, almost 18 months. Ford predicted that he'd be playing inside of 12 months when the other knee had to be repaired with the same surgery.

“It's like a woman giving birth,” said Ford, who had four children. “The woman has trouble getting that first one out of there – tough, tough deal. But then she has a second child, it just pops right out. She knows the program. It's so much easier. That's how it's going to be with Madre.”

I tried to explain to Ford that you can't compare child birth to ACL surgery or call it a “program.” It would get him in trouble.

“Why?” he said. “You may not understand, but all of the mommas out there will get it. They know. You ever watched a mama cow give birth?”

I didn't answer or ask any more questions. I just hoped he was going a different direction with the conversation, but feared maybe he wasn't.

Thankfully, Ford didn't see any calves worth buying and we headed to the dinner. Hill's rehab came up that night, but Ford did not compare child birth and knee rehab. Maybe I did some good.

There are Ford sayings that still creep into Arkansas football discussions. Anytime something seems obvious, it's said it wouldn't take a “scientific rocket” to figure it out. Ford used that one a couple of times, never mind that the right reference would be a rocket scientist.

Ford's expertise was in recruiting. He could relate to farm boys and linemen. A former lineman for Bear Bryant, he knew the game was won in the trenches. When he was fired in 1997, Ford left a ready-made team for Houston Nutt, full of tough, competent SEC offensive and defensive linemen.

“You win up-front,” Ford said. “It's about blocking on offense. Get a hat on a hat and it's going to work out. Defense, you have to be able to control the line of scrimmage. If they are moving you back, it ain't gonna work. Tough linemen win games.”

Ford built tough linemen like Grant Garrett, Russ Brown, Chad Abernathy, Brandon Burlsworth and others that played well for Nutt. Many of his former players drove to Fayetteville when Ford came back years later to speak to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. Some brought their fathers because there was an understanding that Ford had turned their sons into men.

They wanted to shake his hand and say thanks. Thanks for teaching them life lessons. Thanks for teaching them how to become men.

"I think that's what he did for us," said Garrett, a member of Ford's second signing class at Arkansas in the winter of 1994. "He taught us how to work as a man."

"Coach Ford wasn't scared to put a load on you. He expected you to take it.

"I hear this from a lot of my teammates. And it's true. He was involved in our transformation from being a boy to being a man. My father started that process, but coach Ford finished it off."

Wide receiver Anthony Lucas, a team captain along with Garrett, said Ford was a masterful recruiter and knew the game of football better than some suspected.

"I learned something from every coach I ever played for," Lucas said. "He got the best out of you. And like Grant said, he taught you to be a man. He knew how to recruit.

"Not many coaches could find my hometown. He was one of the few to come to Tallulah, La. He impressed me when he came to my home."

Linebacker Mark Smith, captain in 1996, looks back on his five years with Ford with some regret.

"I wish I had listened more because he was trying to tell us something in his own way," Smith said. "Sometimes you thought what he was yelling wasn't making sense, but it makes a lot of sense now. I read some books after I was done playing, about Bear Bryant, his coach. Coach Ford told us some things that I know now came from coach Bryant.

"Coach Ford always told us we were playing for something bigger than us and that our mommas and daddies were better than the mommas and daddies from the other teams. He was teaching us about pride. It all makes sense now."

The Danny Ford stories from players are all classic. Many are not printable, according to offensive guard Russell Brown, a tough four-year starter.

"There were some great moments, some stuff like having to clean up his shirts after games because of the tobacco stains from his chew," Brown said. "You know, he had bubble gum, but it was laced with Red Man.

"He'd go to the trouble of taking the bubble gum out of the wrapper, wad it around a chew, then put it back in the wrapper. So when you'd see him blowing a bubble on the sideline, it had Red Man in it. You just need to get a real tight shot to see that the color was a little darker than it should be."

Smith said, "True, so true. They would give him clean shirts for the postgame interviews. I do remember that."

Brown remembers one pregame speech that was a little shorter than intended. It turned out to be a winner. The Hogs thrashed South Carolina to start the run towards the 1995 SEC West title. Hill scored six touchdowns as the Hogs rolled 51-21.

"We were in that old cafeteria in the dorm," Brown said. "Coach Ford had a big chalk board and some chalk. And he had a mug of coffee in the other hand.

"He was trying to make a point about taking advantage of every opportunity, finishing every drive. He was going to write opportunity on the board and we thought maybe he couldn't remember how to spell it.

"He had poured his coffee out, but he still had the mug. He wrote 'O-P-P' and then he hesitated. He started just pounding the board with the chalk to emphasize the point and the chalk crumbled in his hand. He got mad and threw the mug over our heads and it shattered the glass window behind us.

"He didn't finish, just told us to go play. Some pregame speeches don't need to be so long. We were ready to play after he busted out the glass. We weren't sure what happened — if he couldn't spell opportunity or what."

Maybe Brown didn't learn spelling from Ford, but he did learn life lessons.

"What Garrett said about growing up or becoming a man under coach Ford is on target," Brown said. "He was a lot smarter than most figured him for. What he really demanded were the details. He wanted our offensive line coaches to be structured in our steps down to six inches or he got another one. We may not have been complex in schemes, but we were detailed in structure.

"That's what I learned from him, how to grow into a man, how to work and how to be detailed. It works in business, it works in raising kids and in life. I owe that to him."

Brown is proud of what the Hogs did under Ford and when Nutt took what Ford recruited to win the first eight games of 1998. It energized the state for what later turned out to be an expanded stadium.

"I'm sure we had some good athletes and good talent in '98, but that's not why we won," Brown said. "I think what coach Ford had already done was to put work ethic and Razorback spirit back in our program."

Offensive tackle Chad Abernathy remembers the recruiting experience with Ford. Actually, he laughs about it. There was a memorable in-home visit to Mountain View from Ford and UA assistant Louis Campbell to close the deal.

"I was going to be a Razorback all along," Abernathy said. "I went to the Arkansas football camp as a sophomore in high school. They invited me back the next year and offered me. I told my parents the money for camp was the best $400 we ever spent."

Abernathy lived in the country. Ford flew to tiny Mountain View with Campbell on the UA plane.

"All we had was a single cab pickup," Abernathy said. "The air strip in Mountain View was just barely long enough for the plane. They came to see me and I picked them up in the truck. Coach Ford and coach Campbell got in it and we sat three across on the front seat.

"It was quite a sight. We drove 18 miles to the house sitting like that. I wish I had a picture of us like that now. My mom fixed chocolate chip cookies and coach Ford had them all over him. Then I took them back to the plane in my truck. That's all there was to my recruitment."

Abernathy said playing for Ford was tough. "I'm saying that nothing he gave us was easy," Abernathy said. "He told us about school and asked what degree I wanted when he came to my home and then he told me it was going to be really hard. It was what he said.

"We had guys leaving during two-a-days during the night. That first two years, Coach Ford weeded out those who didn't want to work. I learned hard work from him."

Would the Hogs have won in '98 had Ford stayed?

"I get asked that everywhere I go," Abernathy said. "Probably. You never know. Whether or not we would have won as much as we did, who knows? But we would have won plenty."

Garrett said the same.

"Yes, that's always the question, could coach Ford have gotten it going in '98," Garrett said. "I think he got us ready and that was going to be the year he won big. We all felt it coming."

Brown said Ford was good at breaking you down to start your college career. He recalls his mother bringing him to campus in August before the first day of practice as a true freshman.

"I know he'd been in my home two or three times," Brown said. "He knew my name. We walked up to him at check in and he said, ‘You are Brown? You are the offensive lineman from Bristow, Okla.?'

"He knew my full name, but he acted like he couldn't remember. He did that on purpose, trying to humble you. Then, he turned to my mom and said, ‘If it goes good for him, you will see him again after New Year's Day.' He meant it, too.

"After a couple of years, he acted like he knew your name. He knew it all along. "

They've told their fathers all of the Ford stories through the years. Some of them are sprinkled with Bear Bryant references.

If things didn't go right, Ford would take a few lines right out of the Bryant coaching manual with his post-game message to fans.

“I didn't help the boys enough,” he said. “It's my fault. I apologize. I'll try to help our boys a little more this week in practice. I didn't get it done.”

When he said he was going to “help the boys,” it meant practices were going to be long and brutal. The practices at the Carquest Bowl in Florida after the 1995 championship was a blood bath. After losing 28-0 to LSU to end the regular season and 34-3 to Florida in the SEC title game, Ford practiced the Hogs three times a day in South Florida leading up to the game.

Players said they had no desire for any late-night activities on South Beach after those workouts. That was partly by design, but Ford also believed bowls were to be used as another set of spring practices. The No. 23 Hogs had nothing left in the tank by the time they played the unranked Tar Heels in the bowl game and lost 20-10.

Ford did love to cook bread in his office. He had a dough maker and oven in a side room on the second floor of the Broyles Athletic Center. There was a barbecue smoker on the ground floor. He also had a desktop computer that he could check the stocks and commodities. He had stock from his firing at Clemson and wanted to also check the value of his herd of cows, still back in South Carolina.

“Let me look at this,” he said, stopping an interview. “We are having a good day. Cows are selling a little higher.”

Ford was not surprised at the value of the calves we saw in Siloam Springs.

“If I had my truck and trailer, I might have bought a couple,” he said. “I don't have any land here, but I know someone who'll take a few of my calves near Tontitown.”

It might have been tight end Joe Dean Davenport or his father.

“We just signed a tight end from around here and I know his daddy wouldn't mind me having a few there for a bit,” he said. “I may be about to buy some land here, put down a little more roots.”

Ford said he knew that would be risky. Coaching is an up-and-down business, just like the cow business. Prices go up and they go down quickly. He'd been forced out at Clemson and knew he'd probably be fired at Arkansas. It's just the nature of the business.

Coming from Alabama, Ford knew the SEC all too well.

“You are a two-game losing streak from being on the hot seat in the SEC,” he said. “The fan bases are that passionate. It's about winning and losing. You can be good, but a couple of losses and they get tired of you. They want to move on, even with good coaches. That happens every week in the SEC.

“You are talking about the pride of an entire state. They don't understand losing.

“You look around at Arkansas, we have a lot of nice things here for our football team. You ought to be able to win with this. But you look around the SEC, everyone else has the same thing or better. Fans don't know that, or they don't care. Not much patience with fans. No, there's not going to be no waiting.”

OK, lots of negatives in that last batch of Ford. That was our man.

In a few months if you hear a speech when he's inducted into the Hall of Fame and there are “not no” double negatives, someone edited that speech.

I can recognize a Danny Ford quote from the other side of the big river.

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