After emulating Alabama, Clemson aims to overtake Tide

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Clemson wide receiver coach Dabo Swinney got the chance eight years ago to become the Tigers' head coach, the university board of trustees summoned him to a meeting. Swinney wasn't quite 40 years old, had never been a head coach and was a few years removed from a career of leasing out retail space in strip malls.

"Now imagine this," Swinney's director of football administration, Woody McCorvey, said Saturday. "When he got over there, they said they wanted Clemson to become the Alabama, the Ohio State, of the college football world. Right out of his mouth, he said, 'I want the Ohio States and the Alabamas to be the Clemson.'

"He said, 'That's what I envision, and that's what I want to be able to handle.'

"And in a short period of time, here we are," McCorvey said. "We [are going to] play on a big stage Monday night."

That big stage, the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8:30 ET, ESPN), is the 60 minutes that separates No. 1 Clemson from winning its first national championship in 34 seasons. To do so, the Tigers must beat No. 2 Alabama, the most successful program of our time. A victory by the Crimson Tide would be the school's fourth in seven seasons, all under head coach Nick Saban.

"They've been the standard in college football for a long time," Swinney said Saturday.

The Clemson head coach, who walked on at Alabama, played at Alabama, graduated from Alabama, got his master's from Alabama and coached at Alabama -- indeed, the only other place besides Clemson he has ever coached -- now must beat Alabama to win the ultimate prize in the game.

"To win a game like this for Coach Swinney, playing against his school?" Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said. "That would be a great feeling for us."

It is so treacly that it would give a Hallmark movie diabetes. But truth, in this case, is sweeter than a teleplay. The modern-day connection between the schools has its roots in the friendship between two Hall of Fame coaches, Frank Howard of Clemson and Bear Bryant of Alabama. Howard, a native of Barlow Bend, Alabama, "three wagon greasin's from Mobile," played on the 1930 Tide team that won the Rose Bowl. Bryant began his freshman year in Tuscaloosa the following fall and played on the 1934 team that also won the Rose Bowl.

Howard, whose booming voice filled a room long after he retired, coached Clemson for 30 years (1940-69), the last four of which included Alabama on his schedule. Bryant agreed to the deal as a favor to his old friend, and the Tide beat the Tigers all four seasons.

"In 1969, when Alabama played at Clemson, and Danny Ford was the [Tide] captain," said Tim Bourret, who has been the sports information director at Clemson pretty much since John Heisman coached there, "this was the 100th year of college football. So Bear Bryant won his 100th game at Alabama at that game [38-13]. After the game, Danny peeled off his sticker, slapped it on the football and presented it to Coach Bryant after the game in the locker room in front of the team."

Ford, who coached Clemson to the 1981 national championship, was the fourth of five former Tide players to coach the Tigers, following Hootie Ingram and Charley Pell, both of whom coached Clemson in the '70s. Ford molded Clemson into a national power, winning not only the 1981 title but five ACC titles. Pell and Ford didn't win without taking a dip in the NCAA violation pool, which may explain why Ford, who also coached at Arkansas, has a career record of 122-59-5 (.669) and isn't member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Time and again, Clemson has reverted to Alabama men to find success. The five former Crimson Tide players to coach at Clemson have won 366 of the program's 703 victories.

A year or so ago, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin discussed why the school had hired Dan Mullen after nearly two decades in which former Tide players and assistant coaches had coached the Bulldogs. "We were never going to do what Alabama does better than Alabama does it," Stricklin said.

Swinney is on the verge of doing just that. It's not that he is modeling Clemson after modern-day Alabama. Swinney has no ties to Saban, other than a friendship. But Swinney's right-hand man, McCorvey, was his position coach in Tuscaloosa. Another assistant from that Tide staff, Danny Pearman, is Swinney's assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. He believes that Clemson should try to emulate Alabama.

"Say that and don't flinch," Pearman said.

That may be Swinney's best trait. He dreams big and he's not afraid to put those dreams out there. That's how a walk-on wins a scholarship. That's how a real estate salesman becomes a head coach. That's how Clemson has climbed within 60 minutes of a national championship.

The task isn't easy. Alabama tailback Derrick Henry is well-rested and ready to pound inside the hash marks. Lawson, the Clemson All-American defensive end whom coordinator Brent Venables depends upon to "set the edge," said Saturday his injured left knee is "60 percent."

Clemson has gained more than 500 yards in 10 consecutive games, thanks to the big-play capability of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third to Henry in the Heisman voting. The Tigers have gained 20 yards or more on 74 plays from scrimmage, an average of more than five per game. The Alabama defense has allowed only 47 big plays, and got stingier as the season got longer.

The stats may define the final game of the 2015 season, but they don't tell the story. Clemson is one victory away from success; Alabama, that same victory away from re-establishing a dynasty. As always, history will be written by the winners.