In many ways, Clemson, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., are as alike as two Moon Pies.
Both are deeply southern outposts with identities wrapped in the colleges they house. And being so deeply southern, it follows that both elevate college football to a level that is just this side of the choir loft.
If you live in either place, chances are you’ll know your team’s record before your own social security number (and, really, which more accurately defines who you are?).
Their approach, however, to Monday’s college football national championship game is a little different, given their respective places in sport’s the food chain.
When it has been 33 years between championship possibilities for one team (Clemson) and basically the day before yesterday for the other (the Crimson Tide), there is bound to be slight emotional variances.
As Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach who schooled at Alabama, put it, “This is their fourth national championship appearance in seven years, and, what they’ve won 15 already (depending on who’s counting). We’ve got a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case and they’ve got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa.”
The free market clearly spells out the differences. At the stores where tribal gear is sold, the Clemson merchant is better positioned today than her counterpart in Tuscaloosa.
“We’ve seen very, very brisk sales,” smiled Julie Ibrahim, owner of the Tiger Sports Shop in Clemson.
Among the big sellers have been the “Party Like It’s 1981” shirts, referencing the last time the Tigers were in a championship game (beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl).
And early in the week they’d almost sold out of ink pads and little tiger paw stamps that Clemson fans use to mark their money before spending it at road games.
(A small detour here: The story goes that in 1977 Georgia Tech was considering dropping Clemson as an opponent, figuring the Tigers just weren’t worth the effort. Insulted, and in an effort to prove how much they brought to the table economically, fans custom-stamped $2 bills and spent them freely in Atlanta. Born was the tradition of the Tiger Twos. Ibrahim herself ordered up $1,000 worth of $2 bills to hand out as change last week. Clemson wants people to know it was there; and Arizona figures to be awash in slightly defaced quirky currency this championship weekend.)
While Ibrahim stocked an assortment of college football playoff wear, David Jones, whose family has traded in Alabama merchandise since 1939, doesn’t traffic so much in the prelims. Speaking for his customers, who would have little need to celebrate the journey to Glendale, he said, “It’s not about getting to the game, it’s about winning the game.”
Jones saw a big spike in sales with the 2009 national championship, Nick Saban’s first at Alabama, and the one that revived the Crimson Tide’s winning tradition after a 17-year hiatus.
Since, trips to the big game have become almost commonplace — championships in 2011, ’12 and a semifinal loss in the first college playoff last season. An Alabama fan could go broke trying to keep his championship wardrobe current. And the expense of constantly expanding the closet would be prohibitive.
So, Jones says he has to be careful with his inventory, realizing that, “if we lose, I could be stuck with a lot of stuff.” There’s just no market in Tuscaloosa for second place.
It’s only natural that Clemson people go into Monday’s game a little more wide-eyed and enthusiastic. A generation of fans has awaited this moment. They are the Red Sox of 2004. Alabama is the Yankees (at least back when the Yankees were the Yankees).
At one landmark watering hole, Clemson’s Esso Club, a famously re-purposed gas station near campus, Donnie Kraps was lunching with his wife and daughter in advance of her next semester. His claim is that he has missed only two home games in 35 years, and that while 1981 was a great ride, this one may be even better.
Alabama simply can’t match that new experience smell.
“Listening to SportsCenter the other day, they summed up it up perfectly,” Kraps said. “Our opportunity to play in this game is unbelievable compared to Alabama. Alabama wins, it just throws another title on the pile. Clemson wins, it would mean so much.”
At another noted gathering spot, Rama Jama’s, directly across the street from Bryant Denny Stadium, owner Gary Lewis broke long enough from delivering baskets of burgers and fries to add the Alabama perspective.
“It’s always a big deal here. It never gets old. It’s something we look forward to every year,” he said.
You see, championship runs in Alabama is a part of the calendar, like Thanksgiving and Boxing Day.
This Alabama season had some built-in drama when the team got sloppy in September and lost to Ole Miss. Some media wise guys began writing off this edition of the Tide, and suggested that the dynasty had crested. But since, it has been pretty much business as usual, Alabama relentlessly marching toward Monday’s appointment. It has won its last three games by a combined score of 116-25. It is a touchdown favorite vs. Clemson.
When the one-loss Crimson Tide secured its spot in the four-team playoffs, there was a lot of very satisfied nodding, tsk-tsking and defiant arm-folding going on around town. See what happens when you write us off?
When unbeaten Clemson locked up its invitation following the ACC Championship victory, 30,000 fans showed up at Death Valley for a pizza party. A DJ spun tunes, the ESPN college playoff show was spread across the stadium video board and a great celebration seized the campus.
“Only in Clemson do you have a day like today,” Swinney told the gathering.
“It has been special for me to see the sheer joy that the Clemson fans want to take out of this season and the pride they have in their program. It’s been a lot of fun,” Swinney said last week.
Among the chores that Clemson radio play-by-play man Don Munson has retained from his days as Swinney’s aide is sorting through the coach’s email he receives from fans.
This year the job has included more messages than Munson could count from parents and grandparents testifying to the joy of getting to share a special season with another generation.
“(Alabama) is more used to this,” Munson said. “You see the excitement every week. Look at the Orange Bowl. There, you saw the Orange Surge — 40,000 Clemson folks. It was a home game. You saw that at the ACC championship game, even more. It won’t shock me to see 30,000 Clemson fans in Glendale.”
There is a much smaller collection of Clemson folk gathered on a midweek afternoon at the Sloan Street Tap Room. Frank Howard was one of those foundation coaches, who elevated Clemson from 1940 to 1969. His son Jimmy has run this little hole-in-the-wall beer joint for better than 30 years.
On one wall hung a huge sign that used to trumpet town pride out near I-85: “Home of Clemson University — The National Football Champions.” It is faded and pitted, like an antique weathervane. Everyone’s anxious to maybe put up some new highway signs one day soon.
The prospects of Monday’s game thrills both the Alabama and the Clemson fan. Certain Clemson fans, though, seem to be taking the experience to heart more than others.
“I used to say that I hoped I lived long enough to see Clemson win another championship,” the 71-year-old Howard said from behind the bar.
“I just hope if they do (Monday), I don’t drop dead.”
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