By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
TAMPA, Florida – Finally, someone beat Alabama with the national championship on the line. Before Clemson’s last second, 35-31 win over the Crimson Tide last week in the national championship game, this had not happened since Jan. 1, 1975, when 10-2 Notre Dame edged 11-0 Alabama, 13-11, in the Orange Bowl in Miami. Oklahoma, 11-0, and USC, 10-1-1, shared the national title.
The Tide went on to win bowls that amounted to national championship games or won outright national championship games seven consecutive times – twice under Bear Bryant in the 1978 and ’79 seasons, once under Gene Stallings in the 1992 season and four times under Nick Saban in the 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015 seasons.
But not this time. Alabama entered the game having allowed three rushing touchdowns all season and gave up two in this one. Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner from 2 yards out with :01 remaining to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
In the stat of the century department, Alabama was 97-0 in games under Saban in which they entered the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead. The Tide led Clemson, 24-14, after three quarters, and they lost.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and linebacker Ben Boulware, the defensive MVP, were crazy and captivating after the game.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stomach watching that one any time soon,” Swinney said of the classic that featured three lead changes and four touchdowns in the final period. “That had to be one of the greatest games of all time.”
Boulware, who grew up 17 miles from Clemson in Anderson, South Carolina, knew his history and did the math. It was Clemson’s first national championship in football since 1981.
“Thirty-five years,” he said. “Thirty-five long years. It’s finally coming home baby. It’s coming home!”
This was all very refreshing compared to the often rote comments from the frequently robotic Saban and his players after yet another national title. Last year’s 45-40 win over Clemson gave the Tide its fourth national title since only 2009. Yawn.
Then the press conference gradually turned into a praise Alabama fest, and we were all reminded that Clemson is basically a spin-off of Alabama. Swinney is from Birmingham, Alabama, and was a walk-on wide receiver on the Tide’s 1992 national championship team and a graduate assistant and assistant coach there for eight years.
Woody McCorvey, who is a Clemson associate athletic director in football administration, was an Alabama assistant coach from 1990-97. Assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Danny Pearman also was on the staff of the 1992 national champions as he was a Tide assistant from 1990-97. Co-defensive coordinator Marion Hobby is from Irondale, Alabama. Lemanski Hall, an All-SEC linebacker at Alabama and member of the ’92 national championship team, is a defensive analyst at Clemson. Director of recruiting and external affairs Thad Turnipseed was also on the Bama national championship team in 1992. Stallings’ grandson, J.C. Chalk, is a freshman tight end at Clemson. Freshman defensive back Nolan Turner is the son of the late Kevin Turner, who played at Alabama and in the NFL before dying last year from a concussion related illness at age 46.
The 1981 national championship coach at Alabama was Danny Ford, a Gadsden, Alabama, native who played offensive tackle for Bryant from 1967-69. The coach he replaced at Clemson was the late Charley Pell, an Albertville, Alabama, native who played guard and defensive tackle for the Bear from 1961-63. Legendary Clemson coach Frank Howard was from Barlow Bend, Alabama, and played guard for the Tide before the Bear from 1928-30.
What is this?
“So many Alabama-Clemson connections,” swooned Swinney, who would likely one day like to replace Saban.
When Swinney praised his wife Kathleen, whom he has known since childhood in Birmingham, it was all about Alabama.
“She encouraged me to walk on at Alabama, and she was there when I got the job,” he said. “She was there when Coach Stallings hired me full time. She was there when we won the national championship (the one at Alabama). I wish Coach Stallings had been here. I know he’s watching. I talked to him yesterday. Oh man, I can only, I can’t wait to talk to Coach Stallings. His grandson is on the team. Kevin Turner’s son is on the team. Lemanski Hall is here. Guys that I won the national championship with, and to do it again is something that I didn’t know if it would ever happen. Been working since 1993 to get back, and we got it done tonight. (But it’s not an Alabama national championship.) So it’s just special. Wish I could hug Coach Stallings’ neck, too, because I wouldn’t be here without him, and can’t wait to talk to him.”
Stallings has no ties to Clemson.
Swinney also couldn’t stop praising Alabama, his possible future employer.
“Just first of all, I’d say congratulations to Alabama. What an unbelievable, unprecedented run they’ve been on,” were his first words at his first press conference after winning Clemson’s first national championship since 1981. “Never seen anything like it. Incredible. Just a great champion.”
He spoke of Saban as if he was Bryant, but much nicer.
“He’s been incredibly gracious to me,” he said. “He was that way last year. I kept trying to find him, and we finally got each other, and he was great. I mean, what are you going to say? His team played their hearts out. It was an unbelievable game. Coach Saban and his team, obviously, they’re very disappointed that it didn’t go their way. But I promise you, his team fought their tails off. But we were the better team. We got it done. But he was very gracious.”
And he looked forward to Alabama-Clemson III.
“We absolutely expected to win the game, with full respect to the University of Alabama, because they are incredible,” Swinney said. “I mean, just incredible what they’ve done. And they’ll be back. Heck, they’ll probably be right back next year. Nick is going to buy my dinner this year, though. But I guarantee you, they’ll be right back next year, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to have a rubber match. Love nothing more.”
For a minute there, I thought Swinney was going to leave us all with a big, “Roll Tide.”
He could very well be saying that at press conference in the not so distant future.