NEW ORLEANS – It’s hard to grow something on artificial turf.
It took more than two decades for the roots of Clemson football’s championship program to grow from seeds that were planted on the surface of the Superdome, but now they have taken hold.
When Alabama and Clemson face off for the third straight season in the College Football Playoff in Monday night’s Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff, it will be 25 years to the night since the Crimson Tide defeated Miami in the same stadium to win the 1992 national championship.
Clemson’s head coach, Dabo Swinney, was a senior walk-on wideout on that team. He has built the Tigers’ program around players and coaches from that Alabama team. Those championship seeds have blossomed.
Swinney still has a souvenir from that game.
“I remember I stole a game ball,” he said Saturday at Clemson’s Sugar Bowl media day. “The managers run the balls in and out, so I said, ‘Hey, I need one of them. I’m a senior. I’m taking a ball.’”
Swinney clutched that ball as he took a victory lap around the stadium at game’s end, slapping hands with Alabama fans leaning over the railings. He’s never really let it go.
“And to this day I have kept that ball forever, just sitting in my house,” he said.
That championship was Alabama’s first since 1979. Swinney last season directed Clemson to its first national title since 1981. He reached into his Crimson Tide past to do it.
Woody McCorvey, his position coach at UA, is associate athletics director for football administration at Clemson. Danny Pearman, who serves as assistant head coach and coaches special teams and tight ends for the Tigers, coached offensive tackles and tight ends at Alabama. Thad Turnipseed, director of recruiting and external affairs, was an outside linebacker at UA when Swinney played. Mickey Conn, who coaches safeties, was a cornerback. Senior defensive analyst Lemanski Hall was an Alabama linebacker.
All of them were at the Superdome the night that Swinney got his first taste of national championship football.
Conn remembers getting his teeth knocked out on an out-of-bounds hit.
“I’m coming off the field some guy just clobbers me,” Conn said. “It was so far after the play it didn’t even get on film. It put four stitches in my chin, knocked my teeth out, literally.
“The game was over so late I couldn’t get them fixed that night. I’d been saving up all week to eat at Cafe Du Monde and get those beignets and here it was, I couldn’t even chew them. I tried to get them down, but, boy, it hurt.”
Pearman looks back and recalls a dominant performance.
“I remember it was an electric night. I remember it being Alabama’s night,” he said. “Our kids definitely came to play and we played an extremely good game.”
For McCorvey, the lasting memory is of jubilation.
“One of the biggest things I remember was being in the locker room after the game with that group that had worked all year long together, coaches and players and managers and trainers and how everyone was really happy,” he said.
“The other thing, when got on those buses and we headed back toward the Hilton, just riding down the street and seeing all the crimson as we were going back to the hotel and how happy our people were because we had beat a program like Miami.”
Swinney’s most vivid memory is of standing on the sideline, knowing he had played his last play. He soaked in the atmosphere and jubilation.
“The game was a blur,” he said. “It was almost like it was moving in slow motion.”
When Swinney was elevated to head coach at Clemson in 2009 (after coaching the final seven games of the previous season as interim coach), one of his first calls was to McCorvey.
“He knew he needed to bring the Clemson people together to really get it going, but on the other part he wanted people around him that he knew, that knew him,” McCorvey said.
Piece by piece, Swinney assembled a championship coaching staff. To do so, he often reached back to that 1992 Alabama team.
“We’ve done it real similar to the way we did it in 1992, with a good group of kids and people on our staff and program,” Pearman said. “The band’s been back, and (Swinney has been) adding pieces to it and keep plugging along.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.