When Woody Hayes and Danny Ford led their teams onto the field for the 1978 Gator Bowl, little did they know they were approaching a crossroads for both the Ohio State and Clemson football programs.
The hint of change was already in the air.
Ohio State fans, eight years removed from celebrating from their last national championship, were beginning to get restless with the legendary, old-school Hayes, who had won more than 200 games since becoming the Buckeyes' head coach as a 38-year-old back in 1951.
Clemson, whose long-awaited football revival had been dealt a blow by Charley Pell's unexpected move to Florida, had gambled by handing the program over to 30-year-old offensive line coach Danny Ford, who would coach his first game against Hayes in Jacksonville.
Clemson won the game, 17-15 - a victory that boosted the Tigers' record to 11-1 and helped set the stage for a national championship three years later, and to Ford's tumultuous 11-year run of unprecedented success.
Hayes lost his job after punching Clemson player Charlie Bauman when the Tigers' backup middle guard ran out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline after a late-game interception that all but clinched Clemson's victory.
The Buckeyes, who won five national titles under Hayes, have been, in a sense, wandering in the wilderness ever since - successful, but never quite satisfied, plagued by a string of off-field issues and near-misses, including this year, when a Big Ten Championship loss to Michigan State denied OSU a shot at the national title against Florida State.
Ford recalls being in Charlotte, scouting and recruiting at the Shrine Bowl, when he got a call telling him to drop what he was doing and return to Clemson.
A day later, Ford was introduced as the Tigers' new head coach, replacing Pell, who had bolted for Florida with two of his assistants, Joe Kines and Dwight Adams, in tow.
"I had no idea," Ford said during a recent interview. "Bill McLellan and Dr. (R.C.) Edwards and the board of trustees took a big chance on me. I was way too young. I don't know how in the world they figured that out. I know wouldn't have done it."
Ford was offered a four-year contract, which was another surprise. "They went out on a limb to give me a contract like that," he said. "It's not that the job scared me. They asked me if I was scared of the job, and told them pretty much the only thing I'm scared of is a snake. Anything else I think I can handle. But still, when you've never done it, until you get in there you have no idea if you can do it or not."
Ford said he closely followed Pell's bowl preparation blueprint as he readied the Tigers for the game.
"We put Tom Bass on the field, who was an administrative assistant, but who'd coached with Coach (Red) Parker and Coach (Frank) Howard, and we put one of our graduate assistants on the field for the game," Ford recalled. "Honest to goodness, all I did was be the offensive line coach. All I really had to do was get them on the field on time and choose whether to receive or kick off. But it seems like nothing ever happened easy when I was coach."
When the Tigers arrived in Jacksonville, Ford found himself treated as something of an afterthought, as Hayes stole the spotlight.
"I'd never even been to a press conference, really," Ford said. "Coach Hayes would get up and talk, and I was sittin' over in the corner by myself. Everybody was just listening to what he said.
"We both spoke at the big Gator Bowl banquet, and he got up there and starting talking about the war, and Jacksonville and ships coming in and out. He was a great history and war guy who loved to read. When he got through talking, they gave him two red boxing gloves as a gag gift - no lie. It was before the game - things just seemed to fall into place, you know.
"Then I got up there and said what you're supposed to say and what we were taught to say - that we were glad to be there and that it was a great opportunity. So then they give me a big ol' thing of stomach pills - Rolaids. That was the first time I'd ever had to speak in front of more than 30 or 40 people. You can imagine how I impressed them that day."
As game day approached, Ford said his first-game jitters escalated.
"You always think you're ready, but I had no clue," Ford said. "The week before the game, I'd never even had a king-size bed, and here I was in this big suite, 10 floors up with everything in it you could have. I was enjoying it, thinking this coaching is pretty good stuff. But the closer I got to the game, I thought about just jumping out that window and not having to go on TV and having to put a football team on the field. But the window was screwed down and I couldn't open it.
"I guess it was like trying to drive a motorcycle, when it goes dead on you three or four times. But we had good enough players - some really great players that year - that we were able to overcome anything that I could screw up."
When the game began, Ford began to feel back in his element.
“I didn’t have to make many big decisions at all,” Ford said. “So I probably didn’t really know how to coach any more after that game than I did before...We had a couple of problems before during warm-ups. Ohio State went on the field about 10 minutes early, and I was griping about that to Butch Lambert, one of the officials I knew from the SEC. And then they exercised on our side of the field, and I was griping about that."
At the end of the game, Ford turned to Lambert again for an explanation after the fight broke out on the Ohio State sideline. He didn't know at the time that Hayes was involved in the altercation.
"All I saw was a fight break out," Ford recalled. "I ran out there and did like we were taught to do and tried to break it up. One of their boys thought I was a manager or something and grabbed me and threw me down. I got my hat and ran back to the sideline, thinking 'let somebody else break it up.'
"I asked him (Lambert) what happened, and he told me that one of their coaches had hit one of my players. I said 'dang, I don't even do that.' I asked what they were going to do about it, and he said they were giving them an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I told him that I didn't think that was correct - that they needed to do more than that. I was trying to show that I was the head coach, in case he didn't know.
"Then I told Butch that I was going to make history, and just take our team off the field and quit. He looked at me and said, 'son, you want some good advice?' I said, 'yes sir.' He said 'if you don't do something stupid, y'all are gonna win this ball game.' I said 'yes sir, Mr. Lambert. Carry on, sir.'"
The final minutes played out the way Lambert predicted. When the game ended, Ford headed to midfield for the obligatory coaches' handshake, but never met Hayes, who was escorted off the field immediately by police officers.
Following the Tigers' post-game celebration and interviews, Ford still didn't know that it was Hayes that had struck his player.
"When we got back to the hotel, I was starving to death because I hadn't eaten all day, sick and afraid we'd get the stew beat out of us, like Pittsburgh did the year before," Ford said. "So me and my wife walked down the beach and I found a meatball sandwich at some place at about 2 o'clock at night. I walked back, and there were a bunch of people waiting in the lobby, and I still didn't know anything about it."
The next day, 'the punch' was the hottest topic in college football, and Hayes was dismissed as OSU's head coach.
Ford said he would have preferred not to have been a part of Hayes' demise.
“I couldn’t have helped it, and our players couldn’t have helped it,” he said. “But we certainly didn’t want to see a legend go out, and we didn’t want to see Clemson not remembered for Coach Hayes being let go after that game, and not that Clemson beat a good Ohio State team with Coach Hayes as the coach. That would’ve been the proper way to do it. I wish it hadn't been us.”
As for Bauman, Ford said he's amazed that "he never said a word about it."
"We didn’t tell him not to say anything," said Ford. "I was amazed at his composure and what he did. I don’t remember saying anything about the opponent. We were celebrating a win.”
Looking back, Ford tipped his hat to his players and Clemson's former coaches for memorable beginning to his coaching career.
"Coach Parker and his staff recruited a lot of great players," Ford said. "It's foolish to think that they're not responsible for a lot of the good things that happened in the late 70s. And then Coach Pell did a tremendous job of coaching them and getting them ready to play, and of recruiting pretty well for his two years.
"And I'd like to think that once we got established, we did a pretty decent job and helped Clemson get better."