About Midnight on Monday, what started in the heat of August will be over and we will officially be without college football for 9 long months. It’s Championship weekend for College Football’s top two Divisions headlined by the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday Night in Tampa. It’s a rematch of last year’s game, won by Alabama 45-40 over Clemson. These two programs have a little more in common than just meeting in the last two championship games.
There’s no disputing Alabama’s accomplishments and they are clearly the nation’s best program right now as Nick Saban seeks another National Title, but Clemson football may not be what it is today without some assistance from of all places, Alabama.
Current Coach Dabo Swinney is a native of Alabama and played on the Crimson Tide’s 1992 National Title team coached by Gene Stallings. He’s the latest Clemson head coach with ties to Alabama. He’s been called this generation’s Bobby Bowden, which is a nice comparison if you are Swinney. Honestly, his shtick and corny phrases get a little old, and some of it actually sounds like it’s been pulled from late-West Virginia Head Coach Bill Stewart’s “Hee-Haw Handbook for Head Coaches”, but there’s no questioning the fact that Swinney has proven himself to be a brilliant recruiter and has assembled a coaching staff comparable to any in the country.
The fact that he’s even here with a chance to secure Clemson’s first National Championship since 1981 is a testament to the unplanned journey that is life. Swinney came from an impoverished single-parent home in Pellam, Alabama. He walked on to the team at Alabama and earned both a scholarship and became a three year letter winner. His position coach at Alabama was Tommy Bowden, which would become significant in future years.
Once his playing career was over, he joined the Alabama staff as an assistant coach. In 2001 however, whether it was to take care of his family or seeking something more stable, Swinney gave up coaching and began a career in commercial real estate. As often happens however, fate intervened and it was Tommy Bowden who was then the head coach at Clemson who convinced him to re-join the coaching profession. Swinney ditched his day job, took a position as Clemson’s Wide Receiver’s coach and Assistant Head Coach and the rest is history.
With Clemson struggling it’s way through the 2008 season, and no doubt sensing restlessness among Clemson fans, Athletic Director Terry Don Philips fired Bowden in the middle of the season, installing Swinney as interim head coach. At the time, Swinney had never been a coordinator which is generally considered a stepping stone to a head coaching job. He led Clemson to 4 wins in their last 6 games and galvanized the student body and fans behind the program. It was the ultimate audition and one Swinney passed being named the permanent head coach in December of 2008.
Swinney – like Saban – understands his CEO role in the program although I’m certain that he’s heavily involved in the weekly “x’s and “o’s”. He hires good coaches and let’s them coach. Swinney and his coaches have also proven themselves as adept at recruiting as coaching. Two of the nation’s best players reside in Knoxville, Tennessee. They are both going to Clemson, bypassing what is frankly a floundering Tennessee program under Butch Jones who’d much rather find some 5-star player who his staff will actually struggle to coach.
In his first full season in 2009, Clemson went 9-5. As often happens, 2010 was a dip going 6-7, but since 2010, Clemson has gone 10-4, 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, 14-1 and this year are 14-0 with two straight ACC Titles. Clemson has also won 28 of their last 29 games, losing only to Alabama in last year’s National Championship game.
But, Clemson’s ties to Alabama go much deeper than Swinney. The school’s all-time winningest coach Frank Howard was also a native of Alabama and graduated from the University of Alabama. Howard, who once said his hometown of Barlow, Alabama was three wheel greasin’s from Mobile, was a fixture at Clemson for 39 years, 30 as head coach. He won 165 games and his impact continues to this day. In 1966, Howard received a rock that a friend of his picked up in Death Valley, California. Clemson calls its stadium Death Valley as does LSU. Howard put the rock on a pedestal on the top of the hill leading into the stadium and on September 24, 1966 had his team rub it before taking the field. Clemson defeated Virginia that day 40-35 and beginning with the 1967 season, Clemson players have always entered Memorial Stadium by first touching Frank Howard’s rock.
Clemson’s only national title came in 1981 under the coaching of another Alabama native, Danny Ford. Ford, from Gadsden, Alabama played at the University of Alabama for Bear Bryant. Ford’s career at Clemson ended in the wake of NCAA Sanctions, but with a 22-15 win over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl, Clemson won the National Championship on a day when one of his best players wasn’t certain to make it to the game having spent two hours caught in a hotel elevator.
Ford succeeded another Alabama alum in Charley Pell. Pell won 18 games in just 2 years, going 10-1 in 1978 while winning an ACC Title. Pell left after the regular season to take the job at Florida where his career was also marred by NCAA Sanctions earning him the name, Cheatin’ Charley Pell. At Florida Pell was found guilty of 59 NCAA Infractions including paying players and spying on other teams’ practices. The NCAA hammered Florida with the loss of 20 scholarships over three years effectively crippling the program that was not rescued until Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990.
When Clemson has tried to go outside of its Alabama zone, the fan base has been less than enthusiastic. When Ford was forced to resign at Clemson, the school replaced him with then-Arkansas coach Ken Hatfield, a staunch proponent of the Wishbone offense. Hatfield won an ACC Title at Clemson, but was never accepted by Clemson fans prompting some to say about Clemson football that “Howard built it,” “Ford Filled It” and “Hatfield killed it.” Hatfield, who often began his weekly coaches’ show by quoting bible verses, left Clemson for the coaching wasteland known as Rice after the school refused to extent his contact.
Regardless of the final score on Monday night, the University of Alabama will be a winner in one way or another. I’ve often said that there is a general perception among Alabama fans that their school invented football. It’s sort of annoying, but while they may not have invented football, the University’s fingerprints are all over it and with Saban winning championships by getting the best players, which he gets by winning championships, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Before Monday’s CFP National Title, the NCAA’s FCS Division has its championship game on Saturday afternoon in Frisco, Texas. For the first time since 2010, the FCS will have a Champion not named North Dakota State as the Dukes of James Madison face the Penguins of Youngstown State. Youngstown State has won 4 FCS Titles, and appeared in 6 Championship games, but hasn’t won a championship in 19 seasons. James Madison is back in the championship game for the first time since 2004 when they won their first and only championship. The Dukes haven’t lost an FCS game all season, as their lone loss in a 13-1 season thus far was to FBS North Carolina on September 17th. Youngstown State seeks to win the title with 3 losses and thus become the first team to do so since JMU’s in-state rival Richmond did it in 2008. Youngstown’s previous 4 titles were all won by Head Coach Jim Tressell before he departed to coach at Ohio State. Tressell is now YSU’s President.