There was a time when a fair number of college football fans couldn’t tell you what state Clemson is in, a time when nobody outside of South Carolina took the searing-orange Tigers seriously.
Clemson’s in the playoff mix now and for years to come. As the team prepares to battle LSU for a second straight title, and third in four years, one of the architects of its first-ever national championship is looking at the behemoth that Clemson has become, and he can’t help but laugh.
“Even back when I played, they believed in having the best of the best, great facilities,” says Homer Jordan, quarterback of the 1981 national championship Tigers. “Now, though … whooo!” He laughs at the opulence of Clemson’s athletic facility, which includes everything up to and including a slide from one floor to the next. “It’s like a penthouse in Vegas. It’s too much! You got to get your uniforms dirty sometimes!”
Jordan knows a thing or two about getting dirty. Playing under legendary hardass Danny Ford, Jordan won the starting quarterback job his freshman year, and then he and the rest of the Tigers scrapped their way to an unlikely 12-0 season the next. Dabo Swinney may claim his juggernaut gets no respect, but Danny Ford’s early Clemson teams truly got none … right up until the moment they decked Tom Osborne’s Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Running the show for Clemson that season was Jordan, a quiet, skinny — and this part is important — African-American quarterback in a state that, at the time and for decades afterward, flew the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol. Recruited right out of the shadow of the University of Georgia in Athens, Jordan fought his way to a starting job, winning Ford’s respect and support through a rocky 1980 season that included more than a few whispers and racially-based questions about his fitness for the position.
“We started out a little rough, but he believed in me, and that’s all that mattered,” Jordan says. “You always get the heat, no matter what’s going on. I didn’t hear a whole lot, but I know it was there.”
The Tigers didn’t make much of a ripple in 1980, going 6-5, but closed the season with a 27-6 thumping of rival South Carolina. That was enough to give the Tigers hope heading into 1981.
Championship vibes in Clemson
“We felt it during the whole season,” Jordan says. “The whole team was committed. A lot of guys were returning, and we all said, ‘We’re going to do it. We’re going to put in 100 percent, and see what happens.’ ”
What happened was a program-altering victory: a 13-3 win in the season’s second game over defending national champion Georgia.
“We came out of the gate a little bit better,” Jordan laughs. “Win, and it quiets a few things.”
Ford had a tradition: steak and lobster every Monday night after a win. They had an awful lot of steak and lobster that year, torching the ACC and climbing from an unranked also-ran to the No. 1 team in the nation by the last week of the season. Besides the victory over Georgia, Clemson’s run included an astounding 82-24 — no, that’s not a typo — win over Wake Forest.
Jordan says he didn’t notice too much of a difference in the way fellow students regarded him as the wins piled up, but he also conceded that he wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the wider world. “I was pretty shy, kept to myself,” he says. “I went to class, and went to practice, and went back to my room. I didn’t say too much in those days. I was just happy to be there.”
A Sports Illustrated article of the time illustrates what Jordan was up against, perceptually speaking:
“First of all, if the quarterback is black, he's usually not really what we think of as a quarterback at all, but one of those wishbone-option juke artists such as Thomas Lott or J.C. Watts. We think of a college quarterback and we think of Jim McMahon or Art Schlichter or John Elway or Dan Marino. Not only are they white, but they're also big and strong.”
Playing in a very different era than today, Jordan threw for 1,496 regular-season yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 440 yards and another six touchdowns. That’s a decent four-game stretch for, say, Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence. Still, it was good enough to win Jordan first-team All-ACC honors, good enough to lead Clemson to 11 straight wins heading into the Orange Bowl.
There, Clemson would face the bluest of blue bloods in Nebraska. The fourth-ranked Huskers were installed as 4 1/2-point favorites, and after Georgia and Alabama lost earlier in the day, the Orange Bowl turned into a de facto national championship game.
“We were pretty confident,” Jordan said. “We went in as the underdog. We went in with a little chip on our shoulder. Nobody knew where Clemson was, so we wanted to put ourselves on the map.”
They did just that, leaping out to a 22-7 lead and holding on for a 22-15 victory. Jordan’s speed flummoxed the Nebraska defense, and the Tiger lines — which included by a young William Perry — knocked the surprised Huskers into the Florida dirt.
Before the game, Osborne conceded the difficulty of defending against a multidimensional quarterback, saying, "I'd rather play against a set-up quarterback like Art Schlichter than a guy who sprints out and can run or pass like Jordan." Those words proved prophetic, as Jordan threw for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 46. He was so exhausted after the game that he had to spend an hour getting intravenous fluids, but he and the Tigers had done it: a perfect season.
Greatness becomes routine
After short stints with the Browns and the Canadian football League, Jordan returned to Athens, and he continues to hold an edge over his hometown friends all these years later. “I’ve got on my Clemson hat now, and nobody can say anything to me,” he says, laughing. “We still got a game to play, they don’t. All they can say is, ‘Wait ’til next year!’ ”
Jordan remains closely connected to the Clemson program, visiting the campus for a game or two each year and stopping by practice or a spring game “to show my face, let ‘em know I’m still around.”
Jordan takes pride in the quarterbacks that have followed in his wake, including Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, both of whom he’s spoken with on multiple occasions throughout the years. “Any time they need to ask me a question, I’ll be there,” he says. “They do pretty good without me.”
He’s had the chance to see two of Clemson’s most famous coaches close-up. “Coach Swinney, he’s a motivator, high-energy,” Jordan says. “Coach Ford, he’d get on your ass if you didn’t do right. He was all about that hard-nosed football. I was glad I had a quarterbacks coach between me and Coach Ford.”
Although Jordan’s Tigers wouldn’t get the chance to repeat — they were banned from bowl play in 1982 due to recruiting violations — Ford was nonetheless a demanding coach. One week after the national championship, winter workouts began. “They were like, ‘That was last year. This is this year,’ ” Jordan says. “We went right back to work. It was, ’What have you done for me lately?’ ”
This year’s Tigers can surely sympathize. Monday night, they’ll try to one-up Jordan’s feat, topping one undefeated season with another. His prediction for the game is as quick as it is unsurprising.
“Tigers going to get it!” He laughs, then clarifies. “Clemson Tigers.”
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