On Saturday, Notre Dame will play against Clemson in the College Football Playoff. For most college football fans, when your alma mater is playing, picking a side in a big game is a no-brainer. For me, this one is a little bit trickier: I attended both schools.
In 2012, I was a freshman at Clemson while Notre Dame was completing a historic 12–0 season, led by its Heisman finalist linebacker Manti Te'o. Although the Irish were demolished by Alabama in the national championship game (as if anyone could forget) the undefeated season was a high point for a program that struggled since the glory days of the 1980s. Having grown up a Notre Dame fan with two alums for parents, I was happy for the Irish, but more focused on my own school’s success 700 miles away in upstate South Carolina.
During my freshman year at Clemson I learned all about how to be a Tiger fan. Everyone knows that college football is a big deal in the South, but I didn’t fully realize how big a deal it really was until I arrived on campus. Luckily, getting the hang of Clemson’s Saturday rituals was pretty easy. Simply learn the words to the Cadence Count (If someone starts counting “one-two-three-four,” Tiger fans must respond with “C-L-E-M-S-O-N T-I-G-E-R-S, fight Tigers, fight Tigers, fight, fight, fight WOO!”) and “Tiger Rag” (under no circumstances should you say “Woo-Hoo!” when people spell out C-L-E-M-S-O-N at the end of the fight song); memorize at least the last line of the alma mater; treat Howard’s Rock like it’s more than just, well, a rock; rush the field after every home game, no matter the opponent or final score; and hate the South Carolina Gamecocks with every earthly ounce of your being; the rest falls into place.
During that year, I got a firsthand look at a Clemson team that was slowly joining the national conversation. “Clemsoning”, a phrase brought from the Internet to the national dialogue by a slew of high-stakes losses, was still swirling around in fans and analysts’ minds as the Tigers finished the 2012 season with an 11–2 record, including losses to rivals Florida State and South Carolina that left a lot to be desired. Still, the Tigers hadn’t won 11 games since their only national championship season in 1981.
Somewhere between Manti Te’o’s catfish scandal and Everett Golson’s academic suspension in the spring of 2013, I decided to transfer to Notre Dame for my sophomore year of college. Attending a school as polarizing as Notre Dame could be intimidating to some, but I received a warm welcome the second I stepped foot on campus. Notre Dame fans are stereotypically stubborn, unwavering and elitist, but from the inside, I experienced the same family-like atmosphere that prevails at Clemson and found that a large public school in rural South Carolina and a Catholic school less than half its size in northwest Indiana have a surprising amount in common.
Like most universities, Notre Dame and Clemson cherish their unique traditions. The word “tradition” can be a loaded term these days when deployed as an excuse to hang on to antiquated beliefs, and many times a closer examination of a tradition can reveal the ugliness of the past that it honored. But when it comes to football, Clemson and Notre Dame protect their traditions as exercises in bringing people together with powerful results.
Notre Dame has more football traditions than there are crucifixes on campus: At games there is dancing, singing, swaying back and forth to the alma mater (just like at Clemson, you really only need to know the last line). Notre Dame’s fan base does include a faction known for its reluctance to change anything for fear of losing those traditions. There’s no better example of this than the fact that Notre Dame Stadium did not install a video board until 2017—many fans feared such a thing would besmirch the purity of the stadium. Winning itself is a tradition at Notre Dame. The football team has 11 consensus national championships, seven Heisman winners, and the second-winningest record in college football history. As far back as legendary head coach Knute Rockne, there’s always been an enormous amount of pressure on the Fighting Irish to win not just games but national championships.
Clemson has a history of legendary head coaches too, from Frank Howard and Danny Ford to Dabo Swinney. Despite not having as many championships or Heisman winners as the Irish, Clemson fans revered their program’s recent and distant past.
It might be weird to read this about two undefeated teams, but Clemson and Notre Dame fans both are carrying big chips on their shoulders heading into the playoff. For Clemson fans who endured decades of national irrelevance before becoming a mainstay in the playoff conversation, winning another national championship is key to finally moving out from behind Alabama’s shadow. Tigers fans remain irritated that for as dominant as Dabo Swinney’s teams have been, there’s still someone winning more in Tuscaloosa.
Notre Dame fans have been trying to prove for years that the program remains nationally relevant in the 21st century. The Fighting Irish have always been an international brand, but without a conference title to compete for, their own metric for success is national championship or bust. After being talked down to throughout most of the 2018 season by college football pundits, the Irish have earned their spot in the playoff, but they still need to prove that they belong.
Both teams have come a long way since 2012. Clemson has won a national championship, and Notre Dame has gloriously bounced back from one of the worst seasons in school history. When I told friends and family in Chicago where I was attending school, they didn’t know where Clemson was, but I’m certain that almost anyone who cares even a little bit about sports can tell you where Clemson is in 2018 and that “Clemsoning” has long gone out of style.
Whenever I return to Notre Dame for a football game, people stop me and say, “Welcome home.” I only spent one year at Clemson, but I’ve received overwhelming amounts of southern hospitality from the friends that I met there, and we’ve kept in close touch since. At the Cotton Bowl, I’ll be pulling for my alma mater, Notre Dame, but any of my Clemson friends want to start a Cadence Count, I’ll probably join in.