TAMPA, Fla. — It began with a walk. Eight years ago, Dabo Swinney took over Clemson’s football program as an interim head coach and instituted a pregame constitutional for his players before every home game, a “Tiger Walk” that sent the players through a mob of fans on their way into the stadium.
The purpose, Swinney said, was to instill a greater sense of pride and purpose. The larger hope, he thought, was that it could be the beginning of Clemson’s rise from a should-be-great program to one of real national prominence.
From that first walk (which was followed, it should be noted, by a late blown lead and crushing loss to Georgia Tech), Swinney pushed and prodded and raised Clemson — finally — to the place he had imagined. The coronation came here at Raymond James Stadium late Monday, when Swinney and his players upset Alabama, 35-31, to win Clemson’s first national championship since the 1981 season.
“It’s a blessing; it’s surreal,” Swinney said afterward, his voice rising. “But tonight, at the top of that mountain, the Clemson flag is flying!”
How did the Tigers do it? With an indefatigable quarterback and the most thrilling of game-winning touchdown passes; with a host of slinky, stretchy wide receivers and an unbending will; with a goal-line leap from a bull of a running back; and with Swinney in the middle of it all, screaming and shouting and cajoling and inspiring. Over the past six seasons, only one program had won more games than Clemson, and it was Alabama, which also defeated Clemson in last year’s national championship game. Given a reprieve, Swinney and his players were determined to seize their second chance at glory.
They did, and in a finish that was frenzied and frenetic. Trailing by 24-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Tigers cut the deficit to 3 with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Mike Williams. After both teams traded missed opportunities, Clemson finally took the lead for the first time in the game with just four minutes remaining when Williams made an acrobatic catch to extend a drive and running back Wayne Gallman dove into the end zone from a yard out.
Alabama, which had been moribund on offense for most of the second half, nearly stole the game away when it pulled off a lateral trick play complete with a wide receiver pass for a 24-yard gain and then scored on a 30-yard touchdown scramble by quarterback Jalen Hurts with about two minutes remaining.
After last season’s meltdown, it would not have been surprising to see Clemson crumble. Instead, Watson went into the huddle as the Tigers began their final drive and delivered a message.
“It was calm; no one was panicked,” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s be legendary.’”
It took nine plays. A completion to Jordan Leggett. Williams stretched to pull in a pass for 24 more yards. Hunter Renfrow caught one to get the ball to the Alabama 26-yard line. Leggett made an athletic catch to get the Tigers inside the 10. After an incompletion and a penalty, Clemson lined up with just a few seconds remaining for one last play before it could try a game-tying field goal.
Watson took the snap, rolled to his right and found Renfrow at the side of the end zone to send the Tigers fans in the announced crowd of 74,512 into jubilation.
“I told them tonight that the difference in this game would be the love they have for each other,” Swinney said. “I knew they wouldn’t quit.”
Moments after the game ended, Swinney embraced Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban. Swinney was a part of the Crimson Tide’s national title in the 1992 season (he was a wide receiver), so he understood better than most what Saban was hoping to accomplish on Monday: five national titles in eight years, a run that would have pushed Alabama beyond the dynasties of Notre Dame or Miami and into a rarefied place in the sport’s history.
Instead, this night was about Watson, Clemson’s quarterback, who was 36 of 56 passing for 420 yards and three touchdowns. It was about four Clemson receivers recording more than 90 yards receiving each. It was about Alabama’s offense, working under Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator for the first time, struggling to mount anything productive. It was about the Crimson Tide’s defense being ripped open at the most critical time.
After stifling Clemson for most of the first three quarters, the Crimson Tide allowed 21 points in the fourth quarter, while the Alabama offense had only one drive longer than four plays in the second half.
“It’s tough to lose this way,” Saban said. “We never got done what we needed to do. There’s nobody we can blame but ourselves.”
Saban was quick to give credit to Swinney, who has marked himself as a coaching star. In addition to an imitable smile and affability that serves him in recruiting, Swinney — whose given name is William but has been known as Dabo (“DAH-bo”) since he was an infant and his older brother tried to call him “that boy” to their parents — also has a sharp savvy as an in-game manager that allowed him to motivate his players to pull off an upset they will always remember.
A year ago, Swinney was flummoxed by Saban’s bold call for an onside kick early in the fourth quarter of the title game, a gamble that paid off when Alabama recovered and went on to beat the Tigers by 5. Typically genial, even Swinney admitted in recent days that he was still peeved by the sequence and how it crushed the Tigers’ hopes.
This time, however, Clemson did not buckle, even after Alabama pulled off that lateral trick play on its way to scoring what it hoped would be the decisive points. Instead of wilting, Clemson simply punched back.
Standing on the stage after accepting the championship trophy, Swinney launched into a long and loud soliloquy about the players who played on his earlier teams and how everyone had contributed to building something that he hopes will last.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” he shouted as the fans cheered. Swinney laughed. “Hopefully, before they put me out to pasture, we can do this a few more times,” he said.
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