Tennessee gave Clemson a boost toward excellence

Marvin Westwestwords

Through the years, Tennessee and Clemson have not exchanged Christmas cards.

I have long surmised that recruiting was the cause of friction. I’m not sure the two ever liked each other. Their shirts are different shades of orange.

They played a few games early in the previous century. The record is 11-2 since 1906. The series, if you can call it that, concluded in 1976. The Volunteers had won seven in a row, all in Knoxville.

The Peach Bowl coaxed the two together in 2003. Clemson won.

Tennessee gave Clemson a bigger boost in 2008. Both schools changed coaches. Phillip Fulmer was told it was time to go. The Tigers’ Tommy Bowden got fired mid-season. Clemson promoted receiver coach Dabo Swinney to interim head coach. Some fans yawned. Some were openly critical.

Famous journalist Pat Forde rated it as an absolutely terrible move. He scored it as D-plus.

“Swinney was part and parcel of a failed season, but somehow got a promotion out of the deal. Who knew that beating Duke and Virginia could lead to such ample rewards?

“Clemson fans loved the fact that the Tigers closed the regular season by beating South Carolina. But hey, Bowden beat the Gamecocks seven times and look where that got him.”

Tennessee fans thought athletics director Mike Hamilton had hit a home run … wow, he brought in Kiffin, a former NFL coach…Kiffin was going to change things and probably win the world.

You know what Kiffin did. You may have forgotten that he rejected Tennessee quarterback commit Tajh Boyd. Lane told him he did not fit the new system.

Boyd went to Clemson and helped Dabo begin the process of turning the Tigers into a powerhouse.

Tennessee helped Clemson in other ways. Here are examples.

A year after the Tigers won a national championship, Dabo and Butch Jones happened to show up at the same Oak Ridge high school basketball game to recruit five-star receiver Tee Higgins.

Coach Jones, a celebrity in his mind, had a police escort to keep fans from interrupting his work. Dabo worked his way up into the stands, rooted out a seat beside Tee’s mother, signed autographs, posed for photos and had a delightful time interacting with the crowd.

Higgins signed with Clemson. So did Amari Rodgers of Catholic High. He is the son of former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin.

Former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence grew up a Peyton Manning fan. Trevor’s long blond hair was a minor distraction, but he wore Peyton’s old number 16 with pride and dignity.

Lawrence was born in Knoxville. His parents attended East Tennessee State. They lived in Washington County. His mom, Amanda, went to Daniel Boone High.

Trevor remembers time spent in Fall Branch. His grandmother and uncles lived there. He recalls their horse farm. He knows for a fact that his relatives are lifelong Tennessee fans.

“I used to be a Tennessee fan.”

The Lawrence family moved to Cartersville, Ga. Trevor became a national prep star, No. 1. He said he rooted for the Vols and considered choosing Tennessee early in the recruiting process. He concluded that the decision of where to play went far beyond being a fan.

Clemson beat Georgia to sign him. He became an All-American – and rich. The NFL has a good pay plan. Oh, the things that might have been.

Dabo Swinney makes several million a year thinking and talking. I have long thought he talks too much. He made fun of Tennessee for being unprepared on Nov. 19 when South Carolina scored 63 against the Volunteers.

He said they took the Gamecocks for granted, that they were too sure they had earned a place in the playoffs, that they were “flipping hamburgers” and looking forward to party time after the Vanderbilt game.

One week later the same South Carolina team upset Clemson, by one instead of 25. The shocker was devastating but not as deadly.

Based on a stroke of fate or the humor of God, Tennessee and Clemson are now matched for the Orange Bowl. Tennessee fans have elephant memories. The last week in December, in Miami, some may want to ask Dabo if he has flipped any hamburgers lately.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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