Danny Ford and The 1981 Clemson Tigers: National Football Champions

Danny Ford and The 1981 Clemson Tigers: National Football Champions

November, 13 2023

The Clemson Tigers’ late 2010’s teams weren’t the only times they were competitors for the National Championship.


The 1981 Clemson Tigers would like a word.


Before Dabo Swinney along with quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence became NCAA Championship winners, there was the Danny Ford era.


Only three years after being named the head coach of the Tigers, Ford became the youngest head coach to win a Division 1 National Championship at 33 years old, a record he still holds today.


The 1981 college football season saw the Tigers beginning the season unranked. In the previous three seasons, Ford had coached the Tigers to a combined 15-9 record.


The Tigers went on to win all their games in the 1981 regular season with a record of 11-0.


The Nebraska Huskers were a team that suffered two early losses and then won eight games in a row.

Entering the 1982 Orange Bowl, Nebraska was favored to beat Clemson.


The game began with Clemson scoring by way of a 41-yard field goal, taking a 3-0 lead. Nebraska followed with a 25-yard touchdown reception from Mike Rozier to Anthony Steels. Clemson followed with another field goal, finishing the first quarter trailing 6-7.


The next score came from the famous touchdown pass caught by Perry Tuttle. This catch landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, boosting his nationwide popularity. This would be a game-deciding touchdown, followed by another field goal by Clemson and a 25-yard touchdown run by Rodger Craig of Nebraska. The Tigers won the game by a score of 22-15.


Tuttle’s touchdown pass made him a hero in the Clemson Tigers’ community. The Jan. 11, 1982 edition of Sports Illustrated that Tuttle was on the cover of, was titled “Orange Bowl Hero Perry Tuttle of Clemson.”


In a 2021 phone interview with The Clemson Insider, Tuttle said that after he learned he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, there was one thing that he did.


“I went running to my room and called collect to my parents.” His parents told him, “Everybody has been calling here trying to figure out where you are.”


Clemson went on to tally a record of 96-29-4 under Ford.


It would be more than 30 years after their 1982 National Championship before Clemson would return to capture another NCAA title and become the powerhouse they’re known as today.


Danny Ford’s Tigers' dominance during the 1981-82 season is undeniable and his place in college football history was secured by his 2017 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.


For those who admire Dabo Swinney’s greatness at current-day Clemson, they must also acknowledge the only other coach and team to bring an NCAA Championship to Clemson. 


Visit the College Football Hall of Fame YouTube channel to watch our video on the Clemson Tigers' 1981-82 Championship season. 


Watch Video 

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