After being carried off the field of Miami's Orange Bowl Stadium in the waning hours of New Year's Day 1982, Clemson head football coach Danny Ford, the youngest in the nation at just thirty-three years old, evinced considerable relief alongside extreme euphoria as NBC's Jim Brodie pulled him aside amidst the celebratory tumult of the Tigers' locker room and asked him to reflect on the game and its import. Ford, who played end for the legendary "Bear" Bryant at Alabama from 1967-1970, often vacillated between a typically "Bear-ish" pre-game/in-game stoicism and a loquacious "aw shucks I ain't nothin' but a good ol' boy from ‘Bama" post-game posture. On this evening he shed the former and unwittingly unleashed the latter in doling out thanks in his response [for post-game celebration and interview, start at 2:30:00 mark]:
"Well...first off you gotta start with all these mammas and daddies of all these boys in here, cause without their mothers and daddies they wouldn't be here; and then you gotta start with our players and our assistant coaches who did a great job; and then you gotta start with the wives of all the coaches who let ‘em coach all the time . . . and a great university, Clemson University."
It was off the cuff and wholly genuine; an unguarded, unfettered, and unapologetic celebration of a supreme accomplishment by a group of men, young and old, committed to each other and the institution, alumni, and fans they represented and who had believed in and supported them throughout their unlikely journey to the top when almost everyone else had doubted. Sound familiar?
Dabo Swinney's Tigers continue their 15 for '15 dream tour with one final stop: THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Glendale, Arizona on Monday, January 11, 2016. It's been thirty-four years since a college football game involving a team from the state of South Carolina had this high of stakes, and the similarities between that legendary 1981 Clemson team and the 2015 edition are many, enough to give even the most jaded veteran of the Hatfield, West, and Bowden years hope against hope that our Tigers can
awaken the Force invoke the memory of glories past and perform like the Jedi knights legends of old to prevail against college football's evil empire elite on the game's biggest stage for the highest stakes. Can the 2015 Tigers trek the final 1,981 miles to Glendale, AZ, roll the Tide, and join the 1981 squad atop the mountain with an undefeated national championship season? Will they complete an unprecedented 15-0 season of perfection to claim Clemson's second national title?
On the field, history is stacked against our Tigers in their matchup against the Tide. The 2015 national title bout will mark just the sixteenth time these two programs have squared off on the gridiron, and Alabama sports a convincing 12-3 record in the all-time series. The Tigers roared out of the gate, winning the first three games by shutout. John Heisman's 1900 Tigers blanked the Tide 35-0 in Birmingham. Four years later Heisman's successor Shack Shealy repeated the feat in the same place by an 18-0 score. The following year Eddie Cochems succeeded Shealy and made it a three-peat with a 25-0 drubbing in Columbia, SC. That three-game streak would turn out to be the last wins for the Tigers over the Tide. In 1909 in Birmingham, and again in 1913 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama turned the tide by shutting out the Tigers 3-0 and 20-0.
The two programs would not meet again until the 1930s, when Jess Neely, an assistant for the legendary Wallace Wade at Alabama from 1928-1930, renewed the series with matches in 1931 (Bama 74, Clemson 7), 1934 (Bama 40, Clemson 0), 1935 (Bama 33, Clemson 0), & 1936 (Bama 32, Clemson 0). All obviously ended abysmally for the Tigers, who were no match for Frank Thomas's Crimson Tide juggernaut that compiled 115 victories between 1931 and 1946, including a perfect 10-0 national championship season in 1934. None other than Paul "Bear" Bryant starred at end on those early 1930s Tide teams.
The man who took over the Clemson program from Jess Neely after his departure for Rice University in 1940 was Frank Howard, another "Bama boy" who played for Wallace Wade between 1927 and 1930, and had followed then-Alabama assistant Jess Neely to Clemson from Tuscaloosa in 1931. After a thirty-year hiatus, Howard renewed the series with Alabama in 1966, by then headed by his slightly younger friend and fellow Bama alum Paul "Bear" Bryant, who had assumed command of the Alabama football program in 1958. The two met every year between 1966 and 1969, with Bryant's Tide going 4-0 against Howard's Tigers (1966: 26-0 in Tuscaloosa; 1967: 13-10 in Clemson; 1968: 21-14 in Tuscaloosa; 1969: 38-13 in Clemson). The self-proclaimed "Baron of Barlow Bend" would retire as Clemson's head football coach after the 1969 season "due to illness," as he later explained; "the alumni got sick of me." Hootie Ingram, who succeeded Howard and coached the Tigers from 1970-1972, had starred as a defensive back for the Crimson Tide from 1952-1954. He would later return to Alabama as athletic director from 1989-1995, during which time one William Christopher "Dabo" Swinney walked on and eventually earned a scholarship playing wide receiver for the Crimson Tide, who claimed the 1992 national championship in his senior year.
Since 1975 the Tigers and Tide have met just twice, a 56-0 Alabama victory in Tuscaloosa over Red Parker's Tigers in 1975 and the 34-10 shellacking of Tommy Bowden's 2008 Tigers in Atlanta that catapulted Nick Saban's Crimson Tide back to dominant prominence, spelled the doom of Bowden's tenure with Clemson, and provided the opportunity for Dabo's emergence as the head man in Tigertown.
Despite this dismal historical record on the field against the Crimson Tide, all Tigers can take considerable solace in the fact that many if not most of Clemson's greatest football achievements have their roots deep in Alabama's crimson clay. Neely coached with Wallace Wade, whom Clemson legend Frank Howard played for and then followed Neely to Clemson, eventually succeeding him and extending his success across nearly forty years at the helm of Tiger football. Hootie Ingram succeeded Howard, and though he found little success as the Tigers' head coach, eventually presided over the Alabama athletic program that would produce Dabo Swinney. Swinney's program has reached heights not attained since the glory day sunder head coach Danny Ford, who like Swinney hailed from Alabama and played for the Crimson Tide. But Ford came to Clemson because of another Alabama graduate, head coach Charley Pell, in 1977.
Charley Pell had played defensive tackle for "The Bear" from 1961-1963 and was a member of Bryant's first of seven career national title teams his freshman year. Hired as the Tigers defensive coordinator by Red Parker in 1976, he was promoted to head coach following Parker's firing in 1977. Pell hired Danny Ford away from Virginia Tech to coach the offensive line. When Pell bolted for the University of Florida prior to the 1978 Gator Bowl, Ford assumed control of the Clemson program and guided the Tigers to a 17-15 victory over Woody Hayes's Ohio State Buckeyes to notch the first of 96 career victories in Tigertown, highlighted by a perfect 12-0 national championship season in 1981, five ACC championships, six bowl victories over national powers, and three straight ten-win seasons before being forced to resign following the 1989 season.
Like Ford, Swinney also followed a coach with Alabama connections to Clemson when Tommy Bowden hired him to coach wide receivers in 2003. Tommy Bowden had served as Swinney's position coach at Alabama in the early 1990s. When Bowden resigned after a 3-3 start to the 2008 campaign, he recommended Dabo Swinney as his successor. Promoted to interim head coach mid-season, Swinney earned the permanent position after finishing the season 4-2 and earning a Gator Bowl bid. He has guided the Tigers to at least a share of four ACC Atlantic Division crowns, two ACC titles, five consecutive ten-win seasons, and five bowl victories, including four-straight over some of the nation's elite programs.
Not since the late 1970s and 1980s under Pell and Ford has the Clemson football program experienced this level of sustained success, and it is altogether fitting that the man now in charge shares a common football lineage with all those greats who have presided over these triumphal moments of yore. Clemson and Alabama for the 2015 National Championship and a chance for Swinney to equal Ford with an undefeated national championship season feels like destiny. Here's hoping that destiny is fulfilled and the dream season becomes a historical reality once the final whistle blows Monday night. For then our Tigers will once again stand at the pinnacle of the college football world, with their leader securely ensconced in the pantheon of Clemson coaching legends alongside his fellow Crimson Tide-turned-Clemson Tigers forebears.
CU in AZ & GO TIGERS!