By Eric Boynton
NEW ORLEANS — Clemson received an authentic New Orleans welcome upon Wednesday afternoon’s arrival to the Louis Armstrong International Airport when the Third Line Brass Band cranked up some traditional jazz as players and coaches filed off a pair jumbo jets.
The band has been at it far longer than Clemson’s been in playoff contention, with a career spanning 40 years. Yet these musicians proclaim a motto similar to what Clemson’s feeling in saying, “We are the Third Line and we are here to jam!”
The top-ranked and defending champion Tigers (12-1), making their third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance, will be in for a physical tussle against No. 4 Alabama (11-1), making the CFP for a fourth straight year.
“Obviously there’s a lot of connections personally and professionally and I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Alabama and that’s never going to change,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who played and coached with the Crimson Tide. “But it’s kind of become, ‘all right, I’m getting tired of this. Let’s get somebody else in here,’ but they just don’t go away. That’s why they’re Alabama.”
Swinney doesn’t have any deep ties to New Orleans, especially in recruiting, with freshman running back Travis Etienne the first player Swinney has signed from Louisiana while at either Alabama or Clemson. But he does have some fond memories, going back to his pre-teen years and something he was reminded of during his annual visit home to Alabama for Christmas.
Swinney’s mother presented him with a photo of his first trek to New Orleans as a 10-year-old. He was invited by a baseball teammate to watch Alabama’s Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1980.
“It’s funny, my mom gave me a picture and I was in the street tap-dancing with a tap-dancer and with a bunch of people gathered around,” Swinney said. “So that was my first time to experience anything like that.”
Swinney came back to the Sugar Bowl twice as an Alabama player, losing to Miami in the 1990 New Year’s Day game before winning the national championship in a 1993 rematch. In leading Clemson to last year’s title, he joined Bud Wilkinson as the only ones to win an AP national championship as both a player and head coach.
Swinney said Wednesday his mind has already drifted back “a ton” to his Sugar Bowl experience as a player, with the Tigers practicing at the same facility (Tulane) and staying at the same hotel (the Hilton).
Swinney estimated “95 percent” of his players had never been to New Orleans and it’s his first time back since accompanying former quarterback Deshaun Watson for a couple of hours last spring during the Manning Award banquet.
After a monologue on how much he admires and respects the leadership and accountability shown among his players, Swinney then drew laughs in a small and packed building adjacent to the tarmac when acknowledging the allure of New Orleans’ most famous tourist attraction.
“Now, I’m a little concerned about the culture shock of Bourbon Street for some of these guys, having been there, so we’ll have a little chat about that,” Swinney said. “But these guys are great. It’s pretty easy when the best leadership comes from within. So we’ve got curfew and they’ll have a little more time (Wednesday night) and then we kind of tighten down as we go.”