'Little brother' Clemson gets its chance to knock off Alabama
Clemson is “Auburn with a lake.”
That was the oft-repeated assessment made by late Southern humorist and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist (and University of Georgia alumnus) Lewis Grizzard.
Yes, like Auburn, Clemson is a large, public university with a prominent agriculture school located in a remote part of its state near the Georgia border. Both universities are named after the town they are located in. Orange is one of two colors for each school’s athletic teams. Tigers is each school’s nickname.
Auburn has Toomer’s Corner and begins home games with an eagle fly-around. Clemson rubs Frank Howard’s (more on him later) rock and takes the field by running down a stadium hill. Clemson’s football program was founded by Walter Riggs, who played on Auburn’s first team. Clemson’s former football field — now home to its soccer teams — is “Historic” Riggs Field.
But Auburn is not the SEC comparison Clemson football fans have always wanted, though Auburn fans can point to a 34-13-2 edge in the series.
In football, Clemson wants to be like Alabama — like a little brother looks up to a big brother. Not in-state rival South Carolina, which the Tigers have dominated, leading the series 67-42-4.
Clemson’s coaching ties to the Tide are everywhere. On Monday night, former Alabama player and assistant coach Dabo Swinney will lead the Tigers against his alma mater in the National Championship Game.
The top three coaches in Clemson history (at least in modern times) — Howard, Danny Ford, and now, Swinney — played at Alabama.
Two other prominent Clemson coaches were former Alabama players — Hootie Ingram, who later served as Alabama’s athletic director, and Charley Pell, who rejuvenated the Clemson program before Ford took over. Together, Alabama grads account for 52 percent of Clemson’s all-time football victories.
Former Tide assistant coach Jess Neely brought Howard to Clemson after becoming Tigers coach. Howard took over in 1940, when Neely left for Rice.
“They (Alabama) represent the best, and there is no way you can argue with that,” Swinney said. “This is their fourth national championship appearance in seven years. They’ve won 15 already. We’ve got one lonely trophy sitting down there in that trophy case.”
Swinney came to Clemson as an assistant to Tommy Bowden, who coached Swinney at yes, Alabama, where his legendary father Bobby had played briefly for the Tide. When forced out in 2008, Tommy Bowden recommended Swinney as his successor.
Clemson’s football field is named after Howard, who allegedly placed a chew of tobacco in each corner before the concrete for the school’s current stadium was poured. Howard had played for Wallace Wade at Alabama before going to Clemson to coach linemen for former Tide baseball coach Jess Neely.
The popular Ford coached Clemson’s only national championship team in 1981 and makes his home on an area farm paid off by a settlement with the university made in the midst of an NCAA investigation.
Swinney seemed destined for similar reverential treatment long before treating 30,000 Clemson fans to pizza to celebrate the Tigers’ No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.
And Clemson doesn’t hire only head coaches with Alabama ties.
Swinney’s first full-year defensive coordinator was Kevin Steele, who he hired away from Saban after the 2008 season.
Each team has assistants who have worked at the other school.
Alabama receivers coach Billy Napier was Swinney’s first full-year offensive coordinator at Clemson.
Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns served with Swinney on Tommy Bowden’s Clemson staff.
Clemson special teams coach Danny Pearman played for the Tigers and coached with Swinney at Alabama.
Clemson fans point to their football program’s Alabama connections with pride, though they worry that when Nick Saban retires, Swinney will pack his bags for Tuscaloosa.
Since coming to Clemson, Swinney has been sensitive to questions about his Alabama ties, seemingly worried about leaving any doubts about his allegiance to Clemson.
When asked a days ago when asked if God has Bear Bryant’s voice, Swinney’s response was intended to please Clemson fans.
“I don’t know,” said Swinney. “He may have Frank Howard’s voice.”
Alabama owns a 12-3 series edge against Clemson, including a 34-10 victory in 2008, five games before Swinney took over for Tommy Bowden.
For decades, Clemson has looked up at Alabama, hiring its coaches and players, hoping to give its program a championship edge.
On Monday night, little brother gets its chance to step out of big brother’s shadow.