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Historical Eye of the Tiger—National Championship Edition: Clemson v. Alabama

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Close program ties promise redemption with a vengeance as the Tigers battle the Tide in an unprecedented national title rematch

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Though the 2015 Tigers fell just six points short of achieving the almost-fated “15 for ’15” and securing the program’s second national title in their loss to Alabama in the Arizona desert, the road to redemption and path to vengeance began immediately and has culminated in the first-ever national title rematch with Clemson v. Alabama 2.0, this time along the Gulf Shore in sunny Tampa, Florida. In the rematch it’s the Tigers that come in ranked number two with one regular-season loss, looking to turn the unanimous number-one and undefeated Crimson Tide’s fortunes and reclaim the championship crown for the first time since 1981.

2016 CFP National Championship Game: Clemson v. Alabama

Last week, the Historical Eye declared “the” Ohio State University to be bona fide college football royalty, and though it also included Clemson among the royal court, outlined the many ways in which the Buckeyes outclassed our Tigers in historic gridiron prestige. Looking ahead to this week’s finale-rematch with Alabama, the disparity in status widens further. If Ohio State was college football royalty, Alabama is in the immediate royal family. Whereas the Buckeyes might garner the title of duke or lord, the Crimson Tide have earned a princely status, and have a legitimate claim to the throne itself. Alabama ranks no lower than fifteenth in any of the twelve primary statistics by which college football programs are judged (fifteenth with a .602 bowl winning percentage at 37-24-3), are in the top ten in all but one (eleventh with two Heisman Trophy winners), and are in the top five in all but three (tenth with 326 NFL draft picks, ninth with thirty conference championships, and sixth with sixty-four consensus All-Americans), including first overall in perhaps the two most important categories, national championships (15) and bowl games (65). No wonder then that much of Clemson football’s historic success has come under the direction of coaches with Crimson Tide credentials: deep, long roots between the Clemson Tigers’ coaching tree and the Alabama Crimson Tide uncovered by the Historical Eye of the Tiger prior to last season’s national championship bout.

College Football Playoff National Championship trophy Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

In anticipation of this season’s epic national title redux, the Historical Eye peers even deeper into the most heralded of these coaching connections and their historic consequences, proceeding from Frank Howard and Paul “Bear” Bryant to Bear protege Danny Lee Ford to Danny’s second-coming in William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney.

The Rematch: Clemson v. Alabama in the 2017 CFP National Championship Game

Alabama football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant didn’t even hail from the “Yellowhammer State,” but was born in Moro Bottom, Arkansas in 1913. He began his football career as an offensive lineman and defensive end at Fordyce High School in Fordyce, AR, where he played well enough to earn a football scholarship from the University of Alabama in 1931 to play under then-head coach and future hall-of-famer Frank W. Thomas, who had just replaced another Crimson Tide coaching legend and future hall-of-famer Wallace Wade. Upon receiving this scholarship offer, Bryant left his high school in Arkansas immediately without graduating, forcing him to enroll in a local Tuscaloosa high school to complete his education and thereby gain eligibility to enroll at the University of Alabama and play football for the Crimson Tide. It was during this time that the younger Bryant met an older Crimson Tide footballer named Frank Howard.

Howard, four years Bryant’s senior, had starred as the “Little Giant” on the offensive line of Wallace Wade’s last Tide team in 1930, dubbed the “Herd of Red Elephants,” who pummeled the Washington State Cougars 24-0 in the 1931 Rose Bowl. That triumph proved to be the last in Wade’s tenure with the Tide (1923-1930), as he departed Tuscaloosa shortly thereafter for Durham, North Carolina and another successful head coaching stint with the Duke Blue Devils (1931-1941; 1946-1950). Frank Howard and Paul Bryant thus began a relationship that would last until Bryant’s premature death in 1983 at just sixty-nine years old. Howard, the self-described “Baron of Barlow Bend,” Alabama, parlayed his playing prowess under Wallace Wade into a coaching career that saw him follow Alabama assistant coach Jess Neely to Clemson following the conclusion of the 1930 season. Howard would eventually replace Neely as the Clemson head coach when Neely left to become the head coach at Rice University following the 1940 Cotton Bowl in which Clemson won its first bowl game over future hall-of-famer Frank Leahy and his Boston College Eagles. Given their Alabama connections, Howard and Bryant remained close, and even squared off periodically over the course of their respective careers.

Howard recalled in 1990 that “I first met Bear Bryant in 1928… [but] I didn’t play with him. Between my sophomore and junior years at Tuscaloosa they brought him in while he was still in high school and tutored him for two years to get him into college. He never did get out. I always tell people that The Bear was the president of the freshman class at Alabama for six straight years. Although he didn’t start college until the fall after I graduated,” Howard continued, “I got to know Bear pretty well because he stayed over in the gym with us boys on the college football team while he was still in high school.” Howard recalled fondly that “Bear and I became good friends over the years, although we’d kid back and forth so much and tell stories on one another so often that some people became convinced that we hated each other. When I became the head coach at Clemson in 1940,” Howard remembered, “he was still an assistant at Vanderbilt…he called me up wanting a job as one of my assistants here at Clemson. But I tell people that not hiring Bear was one of the smartest things I ever did,” Howard joked before explaining “If I had, within six months time he’d have cut my throat, drank my blood, had my job and had Clemson on probation for life.” (Howard, 95)

“The Legend” made a career out of such antics, and “The Bear” often bore their brunt. Two incidents stuck out most vividly in Howard’s mind on that score. The first came in 1968 after one of the more closely contested matchups between the two “Bama” boys, a 21-14 Tide victory in Tuscaloosa. As Howard retold it, “Bear always had a couple of patrolmen with him on the sidelines to escort him on and off the field. One time we were playing him down in Alabama…after the game I went over to shake hands with him. I had an old black hat on. I took that hat off and started swatting him with it. One of those highway patrolmen took a picture of my doing that. Everybody got a big laugh.” (Howard, 99)

The other came from an annual coaches’ golf outing, and involved not only Howard and Bear Bryant but also Iowa Hawkeye coaching legend Hayden Fry. As Howard remembered it, “A bunch of us from around the country get invited every year to a coaches’ golf outing. I’ve never played golf, but I go to see all the guys. The same goes for Hayden. One year the event was in Arkansas where a river ran right alongside the golf course. The organizers, knowing I didn’t play golf, arranged for me to go fishing down the river with a guide. Now that I liked.” According to Howard, Hayden Fry asked to go along despite having equally little experience fishing as he did on the links. He illustrated that lack of experience early in the trip, when he chose “a big ‘ol spinner lure and cast it out with all his might. You’ll never believe this, but the thing sailed a mile high, went up in a tree alongside the bank—and hooked a squirrel. The squirrel tumbled out of the tree, splashed into the river and Coach Fry stood up in the canoe to reel him in. Between him standing and me dying of laughter, the canoe tipped over. Soaking wet,” Howard concluded, “we managed to make it to the river bank. When we climbed up we found ourselves on the edge of one of the fairways of the golf course. And who is coming down in the next foursome but The Bear. ‘Frank, what in the world happened to you?’ Coach Bryant asked. ‘Well, Bear, I’ll tell you,’ I answered, ‘Everybody’s always told me that you could walk on water, so I thought I’d try it myself.’” (Howard, 99-100)

Though the younger “Bear” would ultimately surpass the elder “Legend” in terms of national acclaim, the only other coach in Clemson lore to even hold a candle to Howard in the esteem of the Tiger faithful was a disciple of Paul “Bear” Bryant in all his glory: Danny Lee Ford. Born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1948, Ford graduated from Gadsden High School in 1966 and earned a football scholarship to play end for the Bear at Alabama from 1967-1969. After graduating in 1970, Ford began as a graduate assistant coach, then continued as offensive line coach at Alabama through 1973 before departing to join fellow Tide alum and Bryant disciple Charley Pell’s staff at Virginia Tech. From Tech, Ford would follow Pell to Clemson, and upon Pell’s departure for the head coaching position at the University of Florida following the 1978 regular season, Danny Ford ascended to the head coach’s seat for the Clemson University Tigers.

Thrust into the head coach’s spotlight at the young age of thirty, Ford drew heavily upon his mentor and role model, Alabama’s Coach Bryant. “He taught us everything about football we know. I just wish we’d remembered about half of what he taught us. I’d have been a lot better football coach, because he was the very best there was.” Ford’s philosophy mirrored the simplicity of his mentor’s. As former Clemson beat-writer Ken Tysiac later phrased it, [Bryant] wanted players to be the very best they could be, and he believed in outworking people. Because Ford played at Alabama late in Bryant’s tenure, the legendary coach had long since finished with the Xs and Os of coaching by that point. The Alabama assistant coaches did most of the actual coaching and Bryant delegated authority and served more as a CEO. Ford later dealt with his own assistant coaches in a similar fashion.” As head man, Ford also “believed in pulling his own weight in recruiting…if the assistants were going to spend time recruiting on the road during the season, Ford would do it, too. He also wanted to leave his assistants time to craft a game plan.” (Tysiac, 2-3)

Ford, like Bryant before him, demanded the best from himself, his coaches, and his players. And to achieve that “best” consistently, “Ford’s way” was to be “tough on them, yet [he] related to his players better than many coaches.” Former players repeatedly testified to his sternness, his physically and mentally demanding expectations, but also his compassion and genuine care for them and appreciation for their efforts and the responsibilities his position thrust upon him for their well-being. (Tysiac, 9-10)

But like Frank Howard before him, Ford also evinced a jovial, country charm that endeared him to players, coaches, and fans despite his often-demanding expectations and sometimes less-than-polished demeanor. Frank Howard had frequently caught flak from the press, especially those from outside the South, for his “tobacco habit,” and he just as frequently referenced that habit in his own self-deprecating style for comedic effect. When asked why he never left Clemson for other opportunities, Howard characteristically quipped, “I had a lot of offers to go to other schools, but I turned ‘em all down. Clemson was the only place I could bum chewin’ tobacco off the professors.” (Freeman, ed., 72) Ford continued this “tradition,” and the protuberance in his jowls as he prowled the sidelines on gameday never failed to elicit a comment from the media. Perry Tuttle, the star wideout on the Tigers’ 1981 title team, didn’t always like Coach Ford, but he always respected him, even in his most “unpolished” moments, like the time during a game when Ford administered “some heartfelt discipline” to quarterback Homer Jordan that left a brown tobacco-juice stain on Jordan’s facemask and undoubtedly some residue on his face itself. Tuttle later said he just thought “Oh, gross.” Such “backwoods belligerence” proved both a blessing and curse for Ford in the players’ minds and the public eye, but he countered it with a good-natured “aw shucks” persona. In so doing, Ford followed Howard’s example, and like Howard he also couldn’t resist a good yarn, quip, or prank, and he was a master motivator, all of which made him both enigmatic mystery and mythological hero to those who played for him, coached with him, and cheered for him and his teams during his tenure on the Clemson sideline.

That tenure, from his first game against Ohio State in the 1978 Gator Bowl to his last against West Virginia in the 1989 Gator Bowl, saw Clemson rise from a middling-at-best regional program to a national power. He compiled a record of 96-29-4 (.760) overall and a 6-2 bowl record, second in Clemson history only to Howard’s 165-118-12 (.559) overall record compiled over a much longer thirty-year tenure (1940-1969). Among Ford’s bowl victories was the 22-15 triumph over Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1982 Orange Bowl to complete a perfect 12-0 season and secure the national championship as the nation’s only undefeated team. Ford still stands as the youngest coach to win a national title at just thirty-three. In addition to Woody Hayes and Ohio State in ’78 (17-15 in the Gator Bowl) and Osborne in ‘82, Ford also bested Jack Elway’s Stanford Cardinal (27-21 in the 1986 Gator Bowl), Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions (35-10 in the 1988 Citrus Bowl), Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners (13-6 in the 1989 Citrus Bowl), and Don Nehlen’s West Virginia Mountaineers (27-7 in the 1989 Gator Bowl). In short, Ford presided over the “Golden Age” of Clemson Tigers football, a run of success that went unequaled until…

Dabo Swinney Named Clemson Head Coach - Press Conference Photo by Rex Brown/Getty Images

William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney, another “Bama Boy” from Pelham, Alabama who played wide receiver for Bill Curry and Gene Stallings at the University of Alabama from 1989-1992, became the head coach of the Clemson Tigers following the resignation of Tommy Bowden in the middle of the 2008 season. Swinney never met “Bear” Bryant, but he vividly recalled meeting Frank Howard as a child and never forgot it or his connection with Clemson. Taking over a program on the cusp of a return to national prominence, but frustratingly mired in good-but-not-great mediocrity, it had been nearly twenty years since the Tigers had won ten games, won a conference title, or been consistently relevant in the national championship race. In eight full seasons at the helm, Dabo’s Tigers have knocked down all of those walls and more: six straight 10+ win seasons; three overall ACC titles (2011, 2015, 2016) and back-to-back titles for the first time since Ford’s late eighties run of three straight conference crowns (1986-1988); the program’s first BCS bowl appearance (2012 Orange Bowl) and win (2014 Orange Bowl), first back-to-back eleven-win seasons (2012 & 2013), and the program’s only two seasons of more than twelve wins (14-1 in 2015, 13-1 so far in 2016) that include back-to-back College Football Playoff and national championship game appearances. He’s beaten the likes of Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier (twice), Bob Stoops (twice), Urban Meyer (twice), Les Miles, and Jimbo Fisher (thrice); has toppled perennial powerhouse programs like Florida State, LSU, Oklahoma, and Ohio State; and has done so while maintaining an unprecedented degree of academic success to complement these on-the-field exploits.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 CFP Semifinal - Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

His appreciation for Clemson’s past, it’s people, and the place itself have enabled him to “bloom where he’s planted” and the program has thrived to an unprecedented degree under his direction. As he himself said during and after last season’s magical run to the national title game in the desert, “these are the good ol’ days” of Clemson football. Prior to Swinney’s success, it would have been blasphemy to even mention another coach in the same breath as Danny Ford. Now, with the accumulated accomplishments and promising prospects for even greater future glories, it’s difficult not to mention Dabo and Danny together. Given the tumultuous circumstances surrounding his hiring in 2008, very few foresaw such a comparison coming to fruition. But one man who did was the one who made the hire. As former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips fittingly asserted in the forward to Larry Williams’s recent book chronicling the Tigers’ 2015 season, “Ironically, my decision to hire Dabo was greatly influenced decades earlier by a fellow football staff member when I was coaching defensive line at Virginia Tech. In the 1970s I was on the same Hokies staff with a young offensive line coach named Danny Ford…I came to admire how hard Danny worked his players,” Phillips explained, “all the while creating and maintaining strong relationships with them. Danny had great rapport with his players in spite of the significant demands he placed on them. This had a lasting effect on me. Great coaches are those who can demand and get tireless effort and commitment while building strong relationships. Not all coaches can do that.” Three decades later, serving as athletic director at Clemson, Phillips drew upon this earlier lesson in making a contested decision to replace Tommy Bowden by promoting Dabo Swinney. “It became obvious to me that, just like Coach Ford, Dabo genuinely cared for each and every player regardless of status…for six seasons I watched Dabo’s passion to be a great coach and mentor to his players and knew he was special” Phillips then concluded that “I was convinced Dabo Swinney was a great fit for Clemson’s unique character, values, and passion.” (Williams, 7-9)

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 10 College Football Playoff National Championship - Head Coaches Press Conference Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

So as Dabo leads our Tigers into the rematch with his alma mater, let all the Tiger faithful take solace in the simple truth that our greatest strengths as a program have been forged in the home-fires of Alabama. Rather than be overwhelmed by the Crimson Tide, our Tigers have historically withstood its surge and even ridden its wave to glories of their own creation. With another head coach carrying Crimson Tide credentials at the helm, presiding over the latest and greatest “Golden Age” of Clemson Tigers football, the journey back to the top of the college football world has no doubt been joyous in spite of—in truth, because of—the long penance of wandering mediocrity endured to get here. But the road back has not been wholly foreign. There’s a familiar twang in the voice, twinkle in the eyes, temerity in the heart, tenacity in the mind of Dabo that harkens back to those former founding greats who laid the foundation for the immaculate edifice of Clemson Tigers football at it stands today. What more fitting way to complete the resurrection of this proud program to its former glories than to achieve the one goal yet unrealized—another national championship—by vanquishing the program from whence nearly all great things in orange-and regalia have traditionally flowed: the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The embodiment of “Redemption with a Vengeance”

Believe, my fellow Tiger brethren, and it shall be so. For woe unto to those who dare stand in the path of the righteous in their pursuit of righteousness long denied and long overdue. For one among them has risen to lead us against them, and the Tide henceforth shall ebb, and the Tigers shall once more reign supreme over the wilds of the college football landscape.

#CUinTampa & GO TIGERS!

SOURCES & FURTHER READING

Sam Blackman & Tim Bourret, If These Walls Could Talk: Clemson Tigers—Stories from the Clemson Tigers Sideline, Lockeroom, and Press Box, (Triumph Books, 2016)

Al Browning, ed., I Remember Paul “Bear” Bryant: Personal Memories of College Football’s Most Legendary Coach, As Told by the People Who Knew Him Best, (Cumberland House, 2001)

Paul “Bear” Bryant & John Underwood, Bear: My Hard Life and Good Times as Alabama’s Head Coach, (Triumph Books, 2007 ed.)

Keith Dunnavant, Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005 ed.)

Criswell Freeman, ed., The Wisdom of Southern Football: Common Sense and Uncommon Genius from Dixie Gridiron Greats, (Walnut Grove Press, 1999 ed.)

Frank Howard, Bob Bradley & Virgil Parker, eds., Howard: The Clemson Legend, (Howard Publishing, 1990)

Jerome Reel, The High Seminary: A History of the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, Volume I, 1889-1964, (Clemson University Digital Press, 2011)

Jerome Reel, The High Seminary: A History of Clemson University, Volume II, 1964-2000, (Clemson University Digital Press, 2013)

Ken Tysiac, Tales from Clemson’s 1981 National Championship Season, (Sports Publishing LLC, 2006)

Larry Williams, The Danny Ford Years at Clemson: Romping and Stomping, (Arcadia Publishing, 2012)

Larry Williams, Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory Under Dabo Swinney, (History Press, 2016)