If Walter Riggs was the father of football at Clemson University, the University of Alabama was the incubator, so the national championship game might resemble the reunion of a dysfunctional family.
Clemson’s first coach and later its president, Riggs graduated from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn), and since 1940, five University of Alabama graduates have served as head coach at Clemson, including Dabo Swinney. Dozens of others have ties to both schools as coaches and administrators.
“It’s kind of cool,” Swinney said Tuesday. “I mean, you know, I think it’s neat. I think God has got a sense of humor.”
Born into a Crimson Tide family, Swinney dreamed of playing for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. When he was 10, Swinney met Frank Howard, a friend of Bryant’s and an Alabama alum who served as a coach and administrator at Clemson for 40 years.
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Swinney walked on at Alabama, played on a national championship team in 1992 and served on Gene Stallings’ staff after graduation. Bryant died when Swinney was in high school, so they never met, but Stallings played for Bryant at Texas A&M. Swinney believes he knew Bear through Stallings, whom he described as a cross between Bryant and John Wayne.
Two other members of Stallings’ staff and one of Swinney’s former teammates work for him at Clemson. Swinney’s chief administrator, Woody McCorvey, was his position coach at Alabama and was previously at Clemson for seven seasons. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman was on Alabama’s staff with Swinney. And Lemanski Hall, a teammate and captain on the 1992 Alabama team, serves as a member of Swinney’s support staff.
The ties are as broad as they are deep.
Howard’s first job after graduating from Alabama in 1931 was as line coach at Clemson, and it was the only place he worked until he retired as athletic director in 1971. After 30 years as head coach (1940-69) he hired former Alabama player Hootie Ingram, who coached at Clemson for three seasons (1970-72). Ingram later returned to Alabama as its athletic director.
Charley Pell, an all-conference lineman under Bryant, joined the staff of Ingram’s successor Red Parker in 1976 then served as head coach for two season (1977-78). When Pell slipped out of town for the job at the University of Florida, another former Alabama lineman, Danny Ford, was chosen as his replacement.
It was under Ford for more than 11 seasons (1978-1989) that Clemson began to flourish. After Ford was fired, Stallings brought McCorvey, Pearman and a number of former Clemson people to Alabama.
“I knew about Clemson, but I started kind of intimately learning about Clemson through Woody McCorvey and Ellis Johnson and Chip Davis and Danny Pearman and Curley Hallman,” Swinney said. “Hootie Ingram was my AD for years at Alabama. The ties are crazy.”
Charlie Harbison, a member of Swinney’s original staff, coached at both Clemson and Alabama twice. Former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was on both staffs, Alabama twice. Defensive assistant Chris Rumph left Swinney’s staff for Alabama.
Two current members of the Alabama staff coached at Clemson. Billy Napier, Swinney’s first offensive coordinator, now coaches receivers. Burton Burns, a member of Tommy Bowden’s first staff, coaches running backs.
Swinney said many of his friends and family may be conflicted.
“There’s a lot of closet Clemson fans at Alabama. They don’t want to admit it, but there’s a bunch of them,” he said. “I think we’ve kind of become a team in that state where people pull for. Kind of gives them another team.”
His passion for Alabama football came from his father, who died in August, but Swinney said he couldn’t have scripted a better finish.
“If you could say, hey, you’re going to get a chance to play the National Championship game at some point, who do you want it to be against, I would pick Alabama, because they’re the best,” Swinney said.
“I’ve got a lot of people that want to be in my family right now, by the way. It’s a big family. I’ve got a bunch of cousins and nephews that I didn’t even know I had,” he said. “All I know is they’re not getting a ticket from me unless they’re wearing orange.”