To appreciate where you’re going, it’s sometimes helpful to stop and look at where you are and how you got there.
The Beaufort High Eagles football program elevated former defensive coordinator Devonte Holloman to head coach this week, but the program he inherits is in good shape because of his predecessor.
When Mark Clifford officially resigned last week after 14 seasons as head football coach, he said he was “a Danny Ford product.” It was an attempt at explaining the anachronism of his old-school philosophies in today’s football culture.
But it also gives insight into why the Beaufort High program is so much better now than before Clifford’s arrival in 2004.
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Drawing a comparison to a collegiate National Championship-winning coach is always precarious, but in Clifford’s case it’s deserved. A lot of what Clifford learned about coaching he learned from playing for Ford at Clemson in the late 1970’s.
“The main thing I learned from Coach Ford was work ethic,” said Clifford. “I didn’t learn X’s and O’s from him, but more of how to be tough and set goals as a team.”
Clifford was a senior tight end in Ford’s first season as Clemson’s head coach in 1979. The team went 8-4, but the groundwork was laid for a National Championship just two years later.
“Our first practice Coach Ford brought out trash cans,” said Clifford. “We didn’t know what they were for, but we soon found out.”
The team was worked so hard they needed something to be sick in, and better in the trash cans than on the field. Tough, full-pad practices were only the beginning. Clifford, who was playing for a coach who did not recruit him, even thought of hanging up his cleats.
“I worked my tail off for him, but to his credit he stuck with me,” said Clifford. “His glare alone could kill you, and I did what I could to please him. We would have all run through a brick wall for him.”
Clifford brought that same tough love mentality to Beaufort High, where he quickly transformed a moribund team into perennial winners, culminating in a trip to the state championship game in 2007. It might be forgotten now, but before Clifford’s arrival, Eagles football wasn’t exactly producing a Friday Night Lights atmosphere. Their last state championship occurred near the mid-20th century.
Newfound dedication to strength training and running a grueling, high-tempo practice program helped with the turnaround.
“We were so physical in practice that game day was easy,” said Clifford. “We wanted to always be competitive and be the team other teams circled on their calendar.”
Clifford’s record of 107-52 as a head coach bears out the success of that approach.
But his teams were more than just football players.
“His main lesson on and off the field was that we had to face adversity,” said former player Omar Cummings. “No matter if we’re down by 14 or 21 or facing adversity in the classroom if the teacher seems to not agree with you.”
That focus on life preparation — not just seasonal football prep — has led to a lot of former players coming back in recent weeks to tell Clifford how much they appreciate him, just as he himself went back to his mentor, Ford, in the week before making the decision to step down.
“I probably talked to Coach Ford three or four times about stepping down before I actually did,” said Clifford.
He recalled that Ford told him to “make sure you’re not disappointing anyone with that decision.”
There’s probably not a person out there — at least one with with a long memory — who could be disappointed with the state of Eagles football as Clifford exits.
New coach Holloman, a standout at USC a few years ago, will probably take a few things he learned from his college coach, Steve Spurrier, and implement them accordingly. As Clifford learned from Ford, surely Holloman picked up something from Spurrier. It might be a wrinkle or two in the playbook or a different approach to practices or how to develop a young quarterback, but it will probably work.
It worked out pretty well for the last guy.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at email@example.com.