How Danny Ford finally got to read the letter that helped get him hired at Clemson 40 ago
CLEMSON — The year was 1978 and Clemson’s football history was about to change. Dramatically.
The Gator Bowl was days away. Clemson football coach Charley Pell was abruptly gone for another job at Florida. His assistant, Danny Ford, was pegged to lead the Tigers into the bowl game as the interim coach, and as the Tigers prepared to face Ohio State, Clemson administrators were pouring over who might be the next coach of their program.
Days before the game, a letter arrived on their desks.
It was two pages, cleanly typed, and signed by more than 75 active Clemson players. Its contents included a passionate plea to hire Ford on a full-time basis — a powerful statement of loyalty from those who knew him best.
Clemson beat Ohio State 17-15 and Ford got the job, then won a national championship at 33 years old in 1981.
Now the letter is coming full circle.
For nearly 40 years, Ford has gone through his adult life listening to stories about that letter — what it said, the impact it had and how it helped him land the head coaching gig before he left as a Clemson legend. But even after all this time, the now 69-year-old Ford had never read it.
That changed Saturday on a brisk day in Clemson, when for the first time, the former coach laid eyes on the words that helped forever mold his future. And with the letter, came its full backstory, too:
The man behind the letter, Ford would learn, was Michael Brown — Dabo Swinney’s longtime agent and a trainer on the Clemson staff when Ford was a coach in the 70s and 80s.
He carefully crafted it on behalf of Ford’s players, then about 75 of them signed it and Brown delivered a copy of it to the university’s most prominent administrators making the hiring decision. He addressed the university’s president and the Board of Trustees directly, along with the head of student affairs and the athletic director. But right when he wrote it, he also made a second copy, too. He wanted it for the future.
Convinced that Ford would one day be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, it was Brown’s mission of nearly 40 years to save that second copy until the occasion and give it to Ford as a keepsake once he was inducted. So for four decades, Brown kept the letter in perfect condition inside of a labeled folder in his files, taking it with him every time he moved homes or changed cities. But Brown died in January after a battle with cancer, weeks after he got to see the Tigers win their second national championship, and months before he would have had the chance to deliver Ford the letter.
In three weeks, on Dec. 5, Ford will officially be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Brown won’t be there to hand deliver him the letter like he planned, but Saturday, his sisters made sure Ford finally read the note that started everything.
Brigham Thomas and Janey Barnes found the letter alongside several of their brother’s childhood memories he had saved over the years. They scanned it, framed it and surprised Ford with it Saturday at his tailgate before Clemson knocked off Florida State for an ACC Atlantic Division championship.
“Michael at some time told Jennifer Ford (Ford’s daughter and his close friend) that he had this letter and that he was saving this letter for the time in the future when Danny was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” his sister Brigham explained. “Jennifer said, ‘That’s never going to happen!’ Michael said, ‘Just wait.’ And so after Michael passed away, Jennifer told us about the letter and said be on the lookout for it. We found it in Michael’s keepsake box.”
Close friends of the sisters, Jennifer helped plan her dad’s surprise, and when they arrived, Ford was in the middle of hopping from tailgate to tailgate, snapping photos with fans and saying hello to anyone who passed by. His signature grin split his face, the sisters introduced themselves and Ford was hit with a wave of gratitude when they explained to him the backstory.
“Oh Golly, I’ve heard about this letter all my life and there’s been seven or eight of my players who took credit for that,” Ford began, before cracking a light-hearted joke. “I knew my players couldn’t have drafted a letter that nice. I never would have gotten the job if they wrote it, so it had to be somebody with some sense and of course Mike Brown had plenty of sense and did a great job.
“I’m honored to get it to tell you the truth because I knew it was out there. I had never seen it. I heard what they did and like I said, there was a bunch of them who took credit for, it but now I know because of the sisters. Today, I now know the history of it and I appreciate it very much.”
Ford’s plan was to read the letter for the first time after the Clemson game Saturday evening — which he did — and by Saturday night, it was already hanging up in his home on the wall.
He thanked Brown’s sisters for their thoughtfulness, then he hugged them alongside daughter Jennifer and the four of them snapped a few photos together. Before Clemson kicked off, they all shared stories about Brown and his thoughtfulness and parted ways grateful for his legacy.
“We were glad we found it because he had told Jennifer about it and it was so cool that Danny got announced to be inducted right now,” Janey Barnes said.
She knew her brother would be ecstatic.
“This,” Brigham Thomas followed, “is typical Michael.”