Sports

Clemson and Alabama get closer to their big get-together Monday

Suspense hung in the air like a jumbo jet late Friday afternoon as Clemson and Alabama arrived for the College Football Playoff championship game.

Would Clemson's traveling party exit the tarmac before Alabama touched down and rolled in for its photo opportunity?

After a bit of a scramble, all went smoothly as the teams took the first local steps toward Monday night's game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

Clemson's charter landed first, and Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney appeared to want to take everything in, as his suit-and-tie-clad players walked the tarmac to buses.

Swinney shook hands with well-wishers and then stopped, whipped out his cellphone, grinned and pirouetted as he photographed and videorecorded the 360-degree scene around him.

About 30 minutes later, members of the Tigers' traveling party were still collecting luggage and on the tarmac as Alabama's charter approached in the overcast sky. An Alabama reporter surveyed the scene and wondered aloud if it that was jet exhaust or smoke coming out Coach Nick Saban's ears.

Clemson's buses pulled away just as Alabama's plane taxied to a stop.

Out came Saban. He waved as he came down the steps and then briefly greeted well-wishers before making a beeline for Bus No. 1, where he sat stone-faced in the front-row passenger seat as players in warmups and the rest of the traveling party made their way to the buses.

Not far behind Saban came offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, wearing a similar expression.

The last time Kiffin was on a Phoenix airport tarmac with a football team, it was after USC's 2013 loss to Arizona State. The 62-41 rout ended Kiffin's tenure as Trojans head coach. He was fired by Athletic Director Pat Haden after the team plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport.

No coaches figure to be fired at an airport after Monday night's game. But there could be plenty of drama in a matchup that pits No. 1 Clemson (14-0) and quarterback Deshaun Watson against No. 2 Alabama (13-1), Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and its dominant defense.

Unlike a bowl-game week, the run-up to the championship game is not filled with sightseeing trips and activities. It's all business.

Players and coaches will participate in a Media Day on Saturday. The teams also will practice.

Both will have walk-throughs Sunday and then play for the championship the next day.

Clemson won its only title in 1981.

Swinney was a player on Alabama's 1992 national championship team. Saban is trying to win his fourth title in seven years at Alabama.

"They represent the best, and there's really no way you can argue with that," Swinney said this week during a news conference on campus, adding, "We've got a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case. They've got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa."

Force play

Add a new theory for the precipitous drop in television ratings for the semifinals that were played on New Year's Eve.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, said Friday that one person he spoke with blamed it on "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which is setting box-office records.

"Somebody said to me on the phone [Thursday] that 'Star Wars' was a factor," Hancock said, chuckling. "This guy said, 'The Force was not with you, Bill.'"

The Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma earned a 9.7 overnight rating, the Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Michigan State 9.9. Last year's semifinals, played on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, drew 15.5 and 15.3 ratings, respectively.

Despite the drop in TV ratings, Hancock noted that ESPN reported its digital and mobile numbers were "off the charts."

Hancock said more competitive games might have made a difference in television ratings and "one year does not a trend make," so there are no plans to move the semifinals from New Year's Eve in the years they are scheduled to fall on that date.

The semifinals are scheduled for Dec. 31 seven times in the next 10 seasons, including next season in the Peach and Fiesta bowls.

"We will not make a knee-jerk reaction after one year," he said.

Hall of Fame

Pat McInally, who played at Villa Park High before going on to become an All-American tight end at Harvard, was among 14 players and two coaches elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

"My goal in life was to go to Harvard and be an All-American," said McInally, who played 10 years in the NFL as a punter and receiver and is now coach at Huntington Beach Brethren Christian. "I know that was crazy. My parents always thought that was the most bizarre goal. But I wanted to show you could have an education and you can excel in football of all sports."

Others players in the class: Nebraska Omaha quarterback Marlin Briscoe, Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks, Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau, Nevada Las Vegas quarterback and punter Randall Cunningham, Iowa State tailback Troy Davis, North Carolina defensive tackle William Fuller, Louisiana State quarterback Bert Jones, Wisconsin defensive lineman Tim Krumrie, Colorado defensive end Herb Orvis, Washington State offensive lineman Mike Utley, Georgia defensive back Scott Woerner and Purdue defensive back Rod Woodson.

Also, Bill Bowes, who coached at New Hampshire from 1972 to 1998, and Frank Girardi, who coached at Lycoming (Pa.) from 1972 to 2007.

Cunningham joins his brother, former USC fullback Sam Cunningham, in the Hall of Fame. Both played at Santa Barbara High.

"To be able to just see two in the same family is truly an honor," Randall Cunningham said. "I thank God to be able to follow in his footsteps because he was a great example for me as a person in high school and college and then when he played with New England in the pros.

"And he's always been the kind of person who has been kind and generous and really cared about his younger brothers and his family. So this is a great honor to share with him."

Randall Cunningham's son, Randall Jr., is a high jumper for USC's track team.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 09, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Snappy Landings - Tigers and the Crimson Tide nearly have to share photo ops after arriving in Arizona. But the real get-together will be Monday night." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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