NWA TD Club At A Glance
WHEN: Lunch served 11 a.m. Wednesday, program begins at noon
WHERE: Northwest Arkansas Holiday Inn, Springdale
COST: $25 for nonmembers, $15 for members
SPEAKER: Former Arkansas football coach Danny Ford
NOTES: ArPreps.com will present its high school player and coach of the year award. Send RSVP to NWATDClub@yahoo.com
By Clay Henry
Danny Ford returns to Arkansas on Wednesday. Many of his former players plan to be there. It won't be to hear his speech at the final meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club at the Springdale Holiday Inn.
They want to shake his hand and say thanks.
Thanks for teaching them life lessons. Thanks for teaching them how to become men.
"I think that's what he did for us," said Grant Garrett, a member of Ford's second signing class at Arkansas in the winter of 1994. "He taught us how to work as a man."
Ford coached five seasons for the Hogs, including the 1995 campaign when the Hogs won their first Southeastern Conference Western Division crown after winning six of their first seven league games.
He was fired in 1997 after back-to-back 4-7 seasons, but the group he left behind went 9-3 in 1998 under Houston Nutt.
"Coach Ford wasn't scared to put a load on you," said Garrett, a four-year starter at center and captain in 1998. "He expected you to take it.
"I hear this from a lot of my teammates. And it's true. He was involved in our transformation from being a boy to being a man. My father started that process, but coach Ford finished it off."
Wide receiver Anthony Lucas, another team captain, said Ford was a masterful recruiter and knew the game of football better than some suspected.
"I learned something from every coach I ever played for," Lucas said. "He got the best out of you. And like Grant said, he taught you to be a man. He knew how to recruit.
"Not many coaches could find my hometown. He was one of the few to come to Tallulah, La. He impressed me when he came to my home."
Linebacker Mark Smith, captain in 1996, looks back on his five years with Ford with some regret.
"I wish I had listened more because he was trying to tell us something in his own way," Smith said. "Sometimes you thought what he was yelling wasn't making sense, but it makes a lot of sense now. I read some books after I was done playing, about Bear Bryant, his coach. Coach Ford told us some things that I know now came from coach Bryant.
"Coach Ford always told us we were playing for something bigger than us and that our mommas and daddies were better than the mommas and daddies from the other teams. He was teaching us about pride. It all makes sense now."
The Danny Ford stories from players are all classic. Many are not printable, according to offensive guard Russell Brown, a tough four-year starter.
"There were some great moments, some stuff like having to clean up his shirts after games because of the tobacco stains from his chew," Brown said. "You know, he had bubble gum, but it was laced with Red Man.
"He'd go to the trouble of taking the bubble gum out of the wrapper, wad it around a chew, then put it back in the wrapper. So when you'd see him blowing a bubble on the sideline, it had Red Man in it. You just need to get a real tight shot to see that the color was a little darker than it should be."
Linebacker Mark Smith said, "True, so true. They would give him clean shirts for the postgame interviews. I do remember that."
Brown remembers one pre-game speech that was a little shorter than intended. It turned out to be a winner. The Hogs thrashed South Carolina to start the run towards the 1995 SEC West title. Madre Hill scored six touchdowns as the Hogs rolled, 51-21.
"We were in that old cafeteria in the dorm," Brown said. "Coach Ford had a big chalk board and some chalk. And he had a mug of coffee in the other hand.
"He was trying to make a point about taking advantage of every opportunity, finishing every drive. He was going to write opportunity on the board and we thought maybe he couldn't remember how to spell it.
"He had poured his coffee out, but he still had the mug. He wrote O-P-P and then he hesitated. He started just pounding the board with the chalk to emphasize the point and the chalk crumbled in his hand. He got mad and threw the mug over our heads and it shattered the glass window behind us.
"He didn't finish, just told us to go play. Some pre-game speeches don't need to be so long. We were ready to play after he busted out the glass. We weren't sure what happened — if he couldn't spell opportunity or what."
Maybe Brown didn't learn spelling from Ford, but he did learn life lessons.
"What Garrett said about growing up or becoming a man under coach Ford is on target," Brown said. "He was a lot smarter than most figured him for. What he really demanded were the details. He wanted our offensive line coaches to be structured in our steps down to six inches or he got another one. We may not have been complex in schemes, but we were detailed in structure.
"That's what I learned from him, how to grow into a man, how to work and how to be detailed. It works in business, it works in raising kids and in life. I owe that to him."
Brown is proud of what the Hogs did under Ford and when Nutt took what Ford recruited to win the first eight games of 1998. It energized the state for what later turned out to be an expanded stadium.
"I'm sure we had some good athletes and good talent in '98, but that's not why we won," Brown said. "I think what coach Ford had already done was to put work ethic and Razorback spirit back in our program."
Offensive tackle Chad Abernathy remembers the recruiting experience with Ford. Actually, he laughs about it. There was a memorable in-home visit to Mountain View from Ford and UA assistant Louis Campbell to close the deal.
"I was going to be a Razorback all along," Abernathy said. "I went to the Arkansas football camp as a sophomore in high school. They invited me back the next year and offered me. I told my parents the money for camp was the best $400 we ever spent."
Abernathy lived in the country. Ford flew to tiny Mountain View with Campbell on the UA plane.
"All we had was a single cab pickup," Abernathy said. "The air strip in Mountain View was just barely long enough for the plane. They came to see me and I picked them up in the truck. Coach Ford and coach Campbell got in it and we sat three across on the front seat.
"It was quite a sight. We drove 18 miles to the house sitting like that. I wish I had a picture of us like that now. My mom fixed chocolate chip cookies and coach Ford had them all over him. Then I took them back to the plane in my truck. That's all there was to my recruitment."
Abernathy said playing for Ford was tough.
"I'm saying that nothing he gave us was easy," Abernathy said. "He told us about school and asked what degree I wanted when he came to my home and then he told me it was going to be really hard. It was what he said.
"We had guys during two-a-days leave during the night. That first two years, coach Ford weeded out those who didn't want to work. I learned hard work from him."
Would the Hogs have won in '98 had Ford stayed?
"I get asked that everywhere I go," Abernathy said. "Probably. You never know. Whether or not we would have won as much as we did, who knows? But we would have won plenty."
Garrett said the same.
"Yes, that's always the question, could coach Ford have gotten it going in '98," Garrett said. "I think he got us ready and that was going to be the year he won big. We all felt it coming."
Brown said Ford was good at breaking you down to start your college career. He recalls his mother bringing him to campus in August before the first day of practice as a true freshman.
"I know he'd been in my home two or three times," Brown said. "He knew my name. We walked up to him at check in and he said, ‘You are Brown? You are the offensive lineman from Bristow, Okla.?'
"He knew my full name, but he acted like he couldn't remember. He did that on purpose, trying to humble you. Then, he turned to my mom and said, ‘If it goes good for him, you will see him again after New Year's Day.' He meant it, too.
"After a couple of years, he acted like he knew your name. He knew it all along. "
Brown said he's grateful to Ford. Like Garrett, he'll be there Wednesday.
"We are both bringing our fathers," Brown said. "We just want to see him and thank him."
Danny Ford demanded hard work from his players.
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