CLEMSON — The enormity of it all didnt hit Danny Ford until early on the morning of Dec. 30, 1978, with his nerves finally calm and his belly full of a meatball sandwich hed eaten with his wife at a Jacksonville (Fla.) Beach restaurant.
Hours earlier, Clemson had made Fords first game as the Tigers head coach special, hanging on for a 17-15 Gator Bowl win over Ohio State and legendary coach Woody Hayes.
Ford knew an Ohio State coach had punched nose guard Charlie Bauman after Bauman intercepted an Art Schilchter pass and wound up on the Buckeyes sidelines. He didnt know which one. But when he walked back into his hotel lobby, things started to click into place.
There were a bunch of people like yall waiting in the lobby, he said, speaking with a group of reporters in Memorial Stadiums WestZone on Wednesday afternoon.
Hayes had thrown the punch. Thus, the first game of Fords head coaching career would be Hayes last.
Thirty-five years later, one of college footballs most infamous moments is back in the spotlight. On Sunday, Orange Bowl organizers selected No. 7 Ohio State and No. 12 Clemson to face off in in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Jan. 3, 2014. It is the teams second-ever matchup, and first since that crazy night in Jacksonville.
Ford said Wednesday that he regrets how the situation unfolded.
I couldnt have helped it, our players couldnt have helped it, he said. But we certainly didnt want to see a legend go out, and we didnt 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 wouldve been the proper way to do it.
Ford, then only 30 years old, arrived in Jacksonville as the youngest head coach in college football. Nineteen days earlier, hed been elevated from offensive line coach after Charley Pell resigned to take over at Florida.
I was way too young, he said.
When he appeared with Hayes at a Gator Bowl function before 200 people, he said it marked the first time hed spoken before more than 30 or 40 people. Organizers gave Ford a giant tin of Rolaids antacid; ironically enough, they gave Hayes a big pair of red boxing gloves.
Things just seemed to fall into place, Ford said.
Still, Ford was nervous bowl officials gave him a 10th floor hotel suite, but the closer it got to the game, the more I wanted to lift up the window and not have to go on TV and put a football team out there.
Clemson led 17-15 with under three minutes to go when Bauman made the first and only interception of his collegiate career to thwart the Buckeyes hopes. But few of those in the Gator Bowl or watching at home on ABC realized the implications of a scuffle following the play on the OSU sideline.
All ABC replays were being run through network studios in New York, so the broadcast team of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian couldnt examine it closer.
Go listen to the replay, Ford said. You hear the announcers saying after they break to commercial, coach Parseghian saying, Did you see that?
Ford saw a fight and ran across the field to break it up.
One of their boys thought I was a manager, he said. He threw me down. I got my hat, went back to the sideline. Let someone else break it up.
Back on his own sideline, Ford asked official Butch Lambert what had happened. Told that one of Ohio States coaches had hit one of his players, he said, Dang. Even I dont do that!
Lambert told Ford OSU was being hit with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Angry, Ford responded, Well, Butch, I think Im going to make some history and take our team off the field and quit. Cut the TV off.
He said, Son, you want some good advice? Lambert told Ford. If you dont do something stupid, youre going to win this ballgame. I said, Yes sir, Mr. Lambert. Carry on!
After the next play, Ohio State got another 15-yard penalty, and Clemson ran out the clock.
Ford went to the middle of the field to shake hands, but Hayes never showed up he received a police escort off the field.
I knew I was supposed to go to the middle of the field, win or lose, Ford said.
The next day, Hayes was fired by OSU athletics director Hugh Hindman and school president Harold Enarson, who cited his assault on Bauman as the reason.
Ford says he was amazed by Baumans composure in the incidents wake.
He never said a word about it. We didnt tell him not to say anything. We didnt know it, Ford said. But I was amazed at his composure and what he did. I dont remember saying anything about the opponent. We were celebrating a win.
A few months later, Hayes called Ford, asking to speak with Bauman. The two eventually connected, although Hayes reportedly did not apologize to Bauman for the incident. Ford says Hayes was a great man and a great coach.
In June 1979, Hayes visited South Carolina, serving as the guest speaker at the South Carolina Coaches Association summer clinic before a standing-room only crowd of 1,200 coaches.
Of all the invitations Ive received to speak, none was appreciated more than this one from South Carolina, Hayes told the crowd, according to a 1979 Associated Press article on the event.
He was still his old, irascible self, however.
That was the first time the coaches came out with beards and mustaches, recalled Ford, who was in attendance. He chewed every one of them out that had a beard and mustache.
And Hayes didnt back down from the Gator Bowl, either.
Ive made my share of mistakes and had them publicized, he said, according to the AP article. I dont go around apologizing for what I have done.
Hayes received a standing ovation, Ford said, and he was glad Hayes was treated as well as he was.
Bauman hasnt said much about the incident. Ford recalls the New Jersey native as a little bit different from our guys, a little bit of a loner he chooses not to have anything to do with that situation, and I dont blame him.
Ford said that, at one point, Bauman took his wifes last name as his own to distance himself from the incident.
I guess he didnt want to be known as the one who was involved in a game like that, he said.
In 2008, Bauman told the Florida Times-Union, Why cant people let this rest?
Bauman, who now lives outside Cincinnati, declined interviews on the incident this week through Clemsons sports information department.
I dont have anything bad to say about coach Hayes, Bauman told the Times-Union. He made a mistake. We all make mistakes. I mean, he didnt hurt me or anything.
Ford feels the same way.
He was a good man, Ford said of Hayes, who died in 1987. Im sorry it had to happen against us.