If you’ve never been to Clemson, you’re not alone. It’s a destination. You’re not going to accidentally end up in Clemson. In the northwest corner of South Carolina, Clemson is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the shores of Lake Hartwell.
While the university has always been known as “Clemson.” The town was originally called “Calhoun” until the 1940’s when the name was changed to Clemson. The town is pretty much only there because of the school and Princeton Review named it the top place in their “town and gown” ratings where they rank the relationship between the school and the town.
They once shot a Burt Lancaster movie in Clemson, the producer saying they were looking for a place “where nothing was going on.”
There’s no lack of support for Clemson Tiger sports and the football team though. The university is committed to having a nationally competitive program. And the fans do their part. Their football program is bolstered by the “ITPAY” fundraising organization founded in 1934 specifically to raise money to keep the team competitive. Originally it stood for, “I Pay Ten A Year.” Now IPTAY is just the moniker: it has raised over $360 million in the last six years.
The private fundraising group keeps them competitive with schools from the Big 10 and the SEC that bring in nearly $150 million a year from television rights, bowl revenue, ticket sales and student fees as well as private donations.
“If not for IPTAY,” one donor said, “We’d be Wake Forest or Duke.” And that means no football championships.
The Tiger’s Reeves Football Complex is a $55 million, 142,500 square foot facility with the standard football training spaces and equipment but also has a barber shop, a bowling alley, a nap room, outdoor basketball court and a miniature golf course.
LSU is equally passionate about sports and their football team. This year they unveiled a $28 million renovation to their “Football Operations” facility.
They’ve been playing football there since 1893. They’ve won 16 conference championships. They crank out All-Americans and NFL players on a regular basis. They’ve won three National Championships. And, maybe by coincidence, after their first national title was claimed in 1958 (awarded after the regular season), they went on to beat Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl.
In Baton Rouge they made nearly $87 million just on football in 2018 with a nine-win season. Over $22 million of that was from donations. They spent over $34 million running the Tigers football program that year. Their coaches made $14.3 million of that. They have one of the few college baseball teams that turn a profit.
Both schools call their teams the Tigers. Both football teams play in a stadium nicknamed “Death Valley.” Both of their coaches are from the South. Dabo Swinney is from Alabama, played at Alabama, coached at Alabama and got his MBA from Alabama. He’s the highest paid college coach in the nation at $9.3 million a year. Ed Orgeron is from Louisiana, started his football career at LSU. He’s been at a myriad of schools, including coaching at Arkansas, Miami, USC, Tennessee and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. He landed his first head-coaching job at Ole Miss. He’s making about $4 million a year.
And besides their southern roots, the similarities don’t end there. Both aren’t afraid to make a change, take chances and live with the consequences.
Much has been said about Orgeron hiring Joe Brady to revamp the LSU offense and build a passing game around quarterback Joe Burrow. That decision propelled Burrow to the Heisman Trophy and LSU to an undefeated record. It’s a big leap for a coach to scrap what he was doing, what he was comfortable with and take things in a whole different direction. The last time anybody paid attention to the LSU passing game, Bert Jones was the quarterback. They’ve had Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr. and D.J. Chark at wide receiver but never produced like the Tigers did this year with Burrow.
With much less fanfare last year, Swinney was equally bold with his quarterback. Deshaun Watson helped Clemson win the national championship and his backup, Kelly Bryant, was the natural successor for the Tigers. And he played great when he got his chance, compiling a 12-2 record in his first year as a starter, won the ACC Championship and put Clemson in the college football playoffs. But four games into Bryant’s second season, still undefeated, Swinney made a change to Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman. Sure Lawrence might have been the number one recruit in the nation but still, he was a freshman! Swinney’s instinct was right as Lawrence led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the National Championship. Swinney’s move allowed Bryant to transfer and play his final year at Missouri. But it also left Clemson without a real backup at quarterback.
“My job is to make decisions that put the team in the best possible path to win,” he said last year of his quarterback move, “and after four games he was the best player.”
So boldness won’t be an issue for either team Monday night. Burrow with throw it, and run it for LSU’s Tigers. Lawrence will throw it and run it for Clemson’s Tigers. Both coaches will reach into their bag of tricks, probably more than once, to change the momentum of the game.
When they square off for the National Championship Monday night, both teams will have played one game in the last five weeks. Both won their conference championship games on December 7th, and played in the National Semi-Finals on December 28th. It’s a one-year anomaly according to the College Football Playoff Committee. There were some quirks in the schedule and venues already booked in New Orleans that pushed the game back a week. Next year, the semifinals will be on January 1st and the title game played on the 11th in Miami.
While LSU is a favorite in this game, Clemson is vying to win their third national championship in four years. That’s dynasty kind of stuff that doesn’t normally fit in the ACC but Clemson is not your normal ACC school.
Writing this column got me pretty fired up to watch the game, and after all of the talk about quarterbacks, it’ll probably be defense that decides the outcome. As good as Clemson’s defense was last year, that’s where I think LSU’s is in 2020. Many of you know that I attended Clemson and played football there as a freshman. I could say something silly like, “I’ll take the Tigers,” but it’s the Baton Rouge version that will come out on top Monday night in a lower scoring game than you might think.