NEW ORLEANS – It’s become a familiar narrative as the preeminent powers of Alabama and Clemson have clashed the last two years in the College Football Playoff: Nick Saban and the no-nonsense Crimson Tide sport a different approach than Dabo Swinney and the fun-loving Clemson Tigers.
And neither is changing as they prepare for the so-named and hashtagged “#threematch” at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night in New Orleans.
Hours after Saban and Alabama players spoke of the opportunity for redemption on a business trip, Swinney and Clemson players took to the same stage off the landing strip at Louis Armstrong International Airport and whistled their same different tune of mixing in pleasure.
“I want our guys to enjoy everywhere we go, all these bowl trips,” Swinney said. “We try to enjoy the journey. That’s what it’s all about, to me. It’ll be a great moment Monday night… but it’s really the journey that I try to always enjoy. Just enjoy the day, enjoy checking into the hotel, enjoy practices, just enjoy being around these guys. This could be the last week being around this team. Hopefully we can earn one more bus ride, pregame meal and all that stuff. You’ve got to earn that. That’s what it comes down to.
“But I want them to enjoy it, have some fun and look back on their time. But we always say the fun is in the winning. Ultimately it comes down to that. You want to win the game. But I don’t think you’ve got to be miserable to do that in the process.”
Process — that’s a hallmark of Saban and Alabama. And it’s not like they’re miserable. Saban smiled at least twice during his press conference Wednesday and said something very similar to Swinney: “the fun of it all is having success.” The only team to compare to Alabama’s success in recent years is Clemson.
And Clemson is out to have a little fun in the Big Easy.
“I would say probably 95-percent of my team has never been to New Orleans,” Swinney said. “It’s been 25 years since I’ve been here outside of a couple of hours… for the Manning Award. We’re excited to be here and look forward to participating in a great week. I know it’ll be an unbelievable game on the first against Alabama. This will be a dandy; that’s for sure.”
All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is among those who’ve never been to New Orleans before. He said he hopes running back Travis Etienne, a Louisiana native, can show him and teammates around.
“We are who we are. We’re a team that likes to have fun,” Wilkins said. “We enjoy ourselves, so we’re going to talk and we’re excited to play, we’re ready to play, but we’re also focusing like them. Because it is a business trip.
“It’s pretty business-as-usual for this trip, but I’m going to find time to try to enjoy some things, just look around. I didn’t grow up traveling much, so I always enjoy when I can travel, just seeing a different part of the country, seeing a different state that I’ve never been to, just getting a vibe for it.”
Swinney said players will have their latest curfew on Wednesday night before the schedule tightens approaching Monday night’s late game.
“We know that when it’s time to grind, it’s time to grind,” Wilkins said. “You put your best foot forward. You’ve still got to stay locked in and focused at all time. But we’ve earned the right to be here, like I said, and earned the right to enjoy ourselves — have a little fun but not too much, nothing that would be too much of a distraction or getting you worn out or anything like that before the game. Rest when you can rest. Kick back and also have fun and enjoy the trip.”
Michael Burns, The Greenville News