MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Garrett Ford can remember meeting Jim Carlen for the first time like it was yesterday.
Carlen, young, self-confident and speaking with that thick southern accent that made his words sound like honey seeping out of a jar, was quite an intimidating man when he arrived on campus in 1966 as West Virginia’s new football coach.
“I think he was in his 20s when he got the job from Georgia Tech,” recalled Ford. “Even today it’s always been Coach Carlen. He came up here last year (for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function) and I was still intimidated. I remember telling (WVU teammate) John Mallory that Coach Carlen always had you nervous. I thought he was going to send me home.”
Carlen, Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti and Don Nehlen are among more than 700 people who will be at the Morgantown Events Center on Friday afternoon for an invitation-only luncheon honoring Ford’s 44 years of service to West Virginia University.
Ford, associate athletic director for student services, came to WVU in 1964 at a time when race relations in the country were changing at warp speed. Images of Bull Connor’s dogs attacking black children in Birmingham were plastered all over the evening news, as were the riots going on in Watts, Detroit and other cities around the country. It was a time of great misunderstanding and mistrust among races.
And there taking it all in was Ford, an all-everything running back at DeMatha High in suburban Washington, D.C. who was being pursued by colleges across the country wanting him to score touchdowns for their football team.
Ford said he eventually picked West Virginia over Syracuse because he could more easily identify with the people here. While on his recruiting trip to Morgantown he saw white garbage collectors for the first time in his life; back in D.C. in the neighborhood where he grew up, the whites he came in contact with had always represented figures of authority such as police officers or bill collectors.
“It wasn’t pretty when I first came here, but what attracted me were the people,” said Ford, admitting it was difficult turning his back on the school where his boyhood idol Jim Brown played.
“I knew (Syracuse Coach Ben) Schwartzwalder sent Jim Brown to talk to Ernie Davis and he sent Ernie Davis to talk to Floyd Little. I will never forget, John Mackey, who played tight end for Syracuse and the Baltimore Colts, he came to see me and took me out to lunch on a Friday afternoon.
“So I’m going to Syracuse, and all of a sudden Coach (Gene) Corum called me and he asked me to come to West Virginia. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t even know where it was. I remember Jerry West playing basketball here, but Coach Corum said I could bring a couple of friends with me and one of them was Ike Jackson. He was my buddy since the seventh grade and he will be here on Friday.”
Ford performed well for Corum as a sophomore in 1965, teaming with the school’s first black players, Dick Leftridge and Roger Alford, to give the Mountaineers a formidable offense in ’65. But after a strong start, the team faded down the stretch and Corum resigned under pressure at the end of the season.
In came Carlen and his young offensive coordinator Bobby Bowden, another coach from the Deep South who happened to be from the worst city for race relations in the country at the time – Birmingham. It was quite easy for a young African-American to be suspicious of anyone speaking with a southern drawl, especially someone from Birmingham.
Bowden knew right away that he had to win over Ford and John Mallory, the team’s two best players (who also happened to be the first two black players Bowden had ever coached), so he invited them over to his house for dinner. It was the first time Ford had ever been in a white person’s house to eat and after spending a few hours bouncing Bowden’s sons Tommy and Terry on his knees, and after eating Ann’s fabulous cooking, Ford came to the realization that first impressions are not always the right impressions.
“Coach Bowden taught me how to respect athletes and how to deal with athletes,” Ford explained. “He taught me how to be kind to people. He was a very religious person. He had the team going to church, and I learned so much from Coach Bowden. That carried over when I got into coaching and when I started dealing with people. He gave me my first job here in 1970.”
Ford became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher for Carlen in 1966, but an ankle injury kept him from exceeding that total during his senior year in 1967 - as well as a longer career in professional football - his one season with the Denver Broncos already in the rearview mirror by 1970. That’s when out of the blue Bowden called Ford, who was working for a bank in Boston at the time, and asked him if he was interested in becoming a college football coach at West Virginia.
Bowden had just replaced Carlen and he was hunting for a young African-American to round out his new coaching staff. Ford was the first minority coach ever hired at West Virginia University.
Ford coached all six years Bowden was at WVU and a couple more with Frank Cignetti when he came to the realization that a full-time academic coordinator was sorely needed for the football program. At the time, Donnie Young coached the linebackers and was also responsible for academics, but those on-field coaching duties consumed most of his time. One day Ford went to Cignetti and told him about the academic program Penn State had started under coach Rip Engle, laying out the case that something similar would also work well at WVU.
“I always saw a need to have somebody take care of the kids. Frank would watch film for eight hours straight, whether a snapped ball was coming back this way or that way, but I would see these kids coming in from different backgrounds and (struggling with the adjustment) of being in college,” Ford explained. “Donnie Young was in charge of academics. He coached linebackers and he did academics, and I saw that you couldn’t do both.”
So Ford asked Cignetti if he could coach the freshmen team and also oversee the players’ academic needs when they first arrived on campus.
“When the kids would come in I would make sure they got their rooms, make sure they got their books, their classes, and set up their study halls,” Ford said.
In 1978, Ford started the academic support program for Mountaineer football working with players such as Oliver Luck and Darryl Talley.
“You would come across that professor who was so brilliant but he couldn’t relate to the kids, well, some coaches can’t relate to the kids either,” Ford noted. “I really saw a need for a person to bridge that gap.
“I only did football and then after about three or four years, I went to see Dr. (Leland) Byrd and I wanted to be the academic coordinator for the entire athletic program. First of all, this is the 1970s and the white kids on the team thought I was only for the black players, so I had to find a way to let everybody know that I was there for them,” Ford said. “You do it through your actions and by showing that you care. There were white kids on the team who were attracted to me, and eventually it no longer became an issue.”
The second obstacle Ford had to overcome was the impression some had that he was only interested in helping the football players.
“The hardest part was going to basketball or to tennis or to track and talk to them. They saw me as a football guy,” Ford said. “Even to this day, it’s very important for me to make kids feel like I’m here for everybody.”
Three decades later, the academic support program that Ford started in 1978 now serves more than 500 student-athletes per year in all sports. Ford said he is most proud of the fact that a high percentage of the student-athletes who come to West Virginia will eventually leave with their degrees.
“Playing sports is not a given. It’s a privilege to play sports,” he explained. “I really believe the key to this whole thing is getting an education. I know it sounds corny, but I think sports has gotten to be such a business and I think we’ve gotten away from that, and I worry about the kids coming in today because they see (professional athletes) making large sums of money and it’s just unreal. That check you get playing professional sports is not the real check you get in life.”
Ford says West Virginia University’s national reputation has come a long, long way during his career here.
“When I came from D.C. people thought Richmond was the capital of West Virginia. Now we’re on the map,” Ford said. “Don brought the football program along. He had the undefeated season (in 1988) and people started talking about us. Then Rich (Rodriguez) took us to the top five.
“I remember we would go into a school and we would have to wait around until school was over (to talk to a prospect),” said Ford, recalling his days as a football recruiter. “If Ohio State went in they got first priority and we would sit there and wait for Ohio State to finish. Now when we go into a school we get respect. We can go anywhere in the country with that (flying) WV on and you are going to come across West Virginia people.”
On Friday afternoon, Ford, who is officially retiring June 30, will once again come across hundreds of former teammates, colleagues, coaches and WVU student-athletes that he has touched in one way or another through the years. Ford admits it will be difficult controlling his emotions.
“I will be a mess over there,” he laughed. “When you reach a certain age you start getting emotional.”
Ford is proud of what he has accomplished during his four decades of service to West Virginia University, and rightfully so.
“Our kids graduate,” he said. “We don’t always get player one, two or three from Florida. We get maybe eight, nine or 10, and when they come up here we work with them. We do a good job with the kids because we stay on top of them. A coach from Florida knows if he sends one of his kids to West Virginia there is somebody here to look out for him. New York, Philly, D.C. … the same thing. We’ve got a good thing going here.”
Ford, 66, says he plans on spending more time with his family - his childhood sweetheart Thelma, their two grown children Tracie and Garrett Jr., and their five grandchildren. Tracie is living in Chapel Hill, N.C., while Garrett Jr., a former WVU running back playing for Nehlen, is now residing in Detroit.
Ford bought a place in Ocala, Fla., five years ago and he plans on spending time down there as well.
“It’s going to be an adjustment for me not being here,” he said.
After 44 memorable years at the same place not having Garrett Ford around every day will be an adjustment for everyone.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik