When they get set to face off in this year’s Orange Bowl, Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel and Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney will be in familiar territory. It goes back to the start of the century.
On New Years Day in 2000, Swinney was on the sidelines as the wide receivers coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl. They lost to the Michigan Wolverines.
A year and two days later, Heupel was starting in the Orange Bowl as quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners. He led them to a 13-2 win over the Florida State Seminoles and their only national championship under Bob Stoops.
“I know, having played in it and coached in it two previous times, this bowl game is as good as it gets,” Heupel said. “It’s a very unique and special opportunity for our football program, and one that we couldn’t be more excited to partake in.”
Swinney was part of an Alabama team that won the SEC Championship with Shaun Alexander at running back in their Orange Bowl. They went up 14-0 on Michigan and blew the lead. Then they went up 28-14 on Michigan and blew that lead.
The game went to overtime, and after Michigan scored a touchdown to go up 35-28, Alabama scored but missed the extra point to lose 35-34. Leading Michigan at the time was a guy named Tom Brady in his final college game.
“That was special,” Swinney said. “That was the Y2K days. That was an unbelievable experience for me as a young coach.”
Both coaches have become even more familiar with the Orange Bowl since then. Heupel went back four years later with OU as they got blown out in the national championship game by the USC Trojans.
Four years after that, the Orange Bowl’s stadium was the official designated host of the BCS National Championship game, where OU lost to the Florida Gators. Heupel was OU’s quarterbacks coach.
“At the end of the day, at the end of the week, man, you’re going to get an opportunity to play in a very special game,” Heupel said of the Orange Bowl. “This is an historic, iconic game. A lot of these guys have grown up in an era of watching the importance of this football game.”
Of course, that’s not Heupel’s only connection to the region either. He has coached in three other bowl games in the state of Florida, two as a head coach.
Oh, and those two as a head coach were when he was leading the UCF Knights, which is obviously in Florida. Although it’s in Orlando, Fla., Heupel’s ties to the state are pretty strong. Tennessee football quarterback Joe Milton III is from Orlando too.
“Joe is certainly going to be excited about having an opportunity to go play in an area that he certainly is familiar with, but so many friends and family, coaches and mentors that have been a part of his life will have an opportunity to come see him play in the football game,” Heupel said. “Certainly for me, having familiarity with the state of Florida, having been down there — a lot of our staff as well, having recruited down there — it’s a place that we certainly know well, but not just through my experience down there as a coach — also, just having played in this bowl game as a player, having coached in it two previous times as a coach, as well.”
Swinney, for his part, has made a habit out of going to the Orange Bowl since taking over Clemson. He first went again in 2011, and his team gave up a record number of points in a bowl game in a 70-33 loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers.
That’s ironic because Kevin Steele, a former Vol, was a candidate to replace Justin Wilcox as the new Tennessee football defensive coordinator under Derek Dooley. However, then this game, happened, Dooley hired Sal Sunseri, and it wrecked his final season.
Two years after that game, Clemson beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl. Another two years after that, they beat OU in the Orange Bowl, which was their first ever College Football Playoff game.
“I think this is a great experience for our team, the staff, both teams, then also our fans,” Swinney said. “It’s Miami. It’s the Orange Bowl.”
Each of them was nostalgic to a degree about heading back to the bowl game, even if it’s Heupel’s first trip since 2008. Their experience in this historic setting is extensive.
Swinney, though, can always goes back to that 2000 Orange Bowl. He says being caught up in the moment at the time, there was no way to know he was witnessing history with Brady on the other side.
“I’ll never forget that either,” he said. “You go on about your business. Next thing you know 60 years later Tom Brady is still doing that (laughter). He’s making a living doing it.”