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Tigers' perfect 1981 season tainted

In December of 1981 the Tigers left Clemson but did not travel all the way to Miami to prepare for the Orange Bowl. Coach Danny Ford wanted a retreat somewhere between, practice grounds free of disturbance.

He examined a road atlas and decided the Tigers would hold bowl practice four hours north of their bowl destination in New Smyrna Beach, which in late December, was a relative sleepy beach town on the east coast of Florida.

Ford wanted quiet. But the noise and controversy surrounding the season had become impossible to escape.

On Nov. 7 1981, the Washington Post's lead sports story, written by 26-year-old reporter John Feinstein, documented the Tigers' rise to its No. 2 ranking and details of an ongoing NCAA investigation.

Wrote Feinstein: "On this idyllic campus where the trees are just now beginning to turn color there is a darkening cloud on horizon, one that threatens to engulf Clemson at the very moment when it should be celebrating its greatest athletic achievements."

The NCAA was examining alleged recruiting violations including those involving two former Knoxville, Tenn., high school football players Terry Minor and James Cofer.

After signing with Clemson, Minor and Cofer asked for their releases from scholarship. Clemson refused and Minor then alleged a booster offered him $1,000 to attend Clemson, Cofer said he was offered $500. Cofer and Minor were released and never played for Clemson.

Clemson acknowledged the NCAA was on campus earlier in the year, but the story in conjunction with Clemson' undefeated season was now a national storyline.

ABC also became interested.

The television network sent reporter Jim Lampley to Knoxville and filmed a segment with Minor and Cofer scheduled to be aired at halftime of the No. 2 Clemson-No. 8 North Carolina game, which was to be televised on ABC on Nov. 7.

When learning of ABC's plans, Clemson athletic director Bill McLellan told ABC that not only would Clemson not respond to the interview, the Tigers would not take the field if the interviews were aired.

Danny Ford later told the Washington Post that Clemson "wouldn't have played had ABC aired the interview."

Clemson feared such an interview could influence poll voters and bowl representatives and keep Clemson from a national title game. ABC decided not to air the interviews during the game, though Lampley claimed the network did not succumb to Clemson's threats.

"We absolutely did not back down to any pressure from Clemson." Lampley told reporters. "We didn't put it on because Clemson didn't have time to respond adequately. We weren't sure it would be the fairest, most accurate responsible presentation of the issue."

Clemson played before 53,611 fans and a regional television audience which accounted for 60 percent of the country's households. ABC's Keith Jackson called the game. Eight bowl representatives were also on hand, according to the Greenville News. It was a defensive struggle, a 10-8 Clemson win, clearing a major regular season hurdle.

Three days later, Lampley wrote to Clemson University president William Atchley again requesting Clemson respond to the aired interviews.

Again, Clemson declined.

On Nov. 28, ABC aired the interviews without a Clemson response during halftime of the Pittsburgh-Penn State game. Clemson officials and fans were furious. Atchley went as far to accuse ABC of airing the interview to influence poll voters and keep Clemson out of the national title picture.

Wrote South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond to ABC president Roone Arledge: "Without question, ABC was within its rights to air this report, but Clemson school officials, students and alumni and supporters are extremely upset at the timing of this telecast and the unfairness which it was presented."

The university had never seen such national exposure -- both positive and negative.

"Everywhere you go in the state you see Tiger paws," Bob Bradley, Clemson's then 27-year veteran sports information director, told the New York Daily News.

"You can't get to Clemson without seeing 'em stenciled onto the highways and you can be sure there'll be a paw for every mile of road on Route 95 from here to Miami on New Year's Day."

As the team prepared for the Orange Bowl, stories of the enthusiasm back home trickled to team. The Tigers felt they was playing for something more than themselves, they felt they were playing for their community. They were playing to put Clemson on the map.

"Knowing Clemson could win national title," assistant coach Larry Van Der Heyden said, "that motivated kids a lot."

On Dec. 8, 1981, a story appeared in the New York Daily News documenting Clemson's rise to playing in a national title game.

"These are high times up there in the hills of Clemson, that tiny hamlet at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains whose population of 8,118 is about 3,000 less than the university's enrollment," wrote New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden.

"The entire state of South Carolina, never before blessed with such an athletic celebration ... Nevertheless there are ominous signs the high times might soon give way to more bad ones and that any national championship Clemson might win might be tinged with scandal.

"Clemson folks at long last have something to be proud of. At least for the moment."

Clemson would eventually be placed on two years of probation by the NCAA which documented a number of violations, many occurring under former coach Charlie Pell. Clemson had a third year of probation added by the ACC, but Clemson was able to keep its national title.