Canes coaches King, Tucker discuss national championship game experience

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Kyle Tucker was 9 months old when the Clemson football program won its first national championship in 1981.

A former punter for Clemson — who earned a varsity letter his senior season in 2003 — Tucker had grown up attending games in Death Valley with his father, due in large part to Tucker’s grandfather (a former Tigers player himself) being on the coaching staff.

Having suffered plenty of heartache along the way, Tucker, the Cartersville High baseball head coach and football assistant coach, thought that 1981 championship might be the only title the Tigers would win in his lifetime.

Well, that turned out not to be the case. Clemson has made the championship game three times in the past four years, facing Alabama every time, including Monday’s 44-16 rout of the Crimson Tide in Santa Clara, California.

After a heartbreaking loss in the 2016 title game, Tucker witnessed the Tigers’ thrilling last-second win in 2017, when Deshaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.

“I never got to experience [the 1981 championship], so it was always kind of this dream or thing you’d love to see happen,” Tucker said. “It was like pie in the sky. I don’t know if it will ever happen again.

“So to see them win it two years ago was amazing, especially after being so close the year before.”

Tucker, who helped lead the diamond Canes to a spot in the state championship series in his first season in charge, celebrated the 2017 triumph while also knowing lightning might not strike again any time soon given the impending departure of Watson.

Ironically enough, a quarterback Tucker had the pleasure of helping coach at the time made sure he (and all Clemson alumni and fans) got to revel in another national championship just two years later.

Cartersville product Trevor Lawrence took over the starting job at Clemson in Week 5 of this season. The true freshman led the Tigers to an ACC Championship, a Cotton Bowl victory and a College Football Playoff title.

In Monday’s blowout win over Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama, Lawrence completed 20 of 32 passes, for 347 yards and three touchdowns. His surgical precision through the air carved open the Tide in a way few have been able to replicate over the past decade, leading to the Tigers scoring the game’s final 30 points.

Thanks in large part to Lawrence’s contributions and a Clemson defense that completely stifled Alabama’s high-flying offense, Tucker and his father got to enjoy another title-winning performance.

“The other night was just really cool,” Tucker said Wednesday. “It’s awesome to see Clemson win the national championship. A lot of the guys on that coaching staff were my teammates at Clemson. I’m so happy for them to see them get to have this success. Coach [Dabo] Swinney, I think the world of him. His first year as an assistant was my senior year [as a player], and I just immediately thought the world of him. To see him have this success is unbelievable.

“And then Trevor Lawrence, a freshman from Cartersville — the high school I went to and now going to the college I went to — I’m just happy to have been on the coaching staff he played for in high school. It’s not even real. It’s just an awesome thing. I’m so happy for Trevor and everybody involved with it.”

Tucker wasn’t the only Cartersville football coach to attend the game, although he was the only one decked out in partisan attire. While 90-plus percent of the stadium wore apparel adorned with Clemson or Alabama, head coach Joey King took in the game while wearing a white and grey Canes pull-over jacket.

Even though King had seen plenty of spectacular outings from Lawrence over the years, most from a better vantage point than even his seats in the corner of the end zone of Levi’s Stadium, he was still impressed to see what his pupil conjured up against Alabama.

“To be honest, it’s kind of what you hope to see, what you know he’s capable of,” King said of Lawrence’s performance. “I thought he settled in and did what everybody here has seen him to do before. He was Trevor, and he played really, really well. It didn’t come as a surprise to me, but I was definitely proud of him, the way he handled himself and the way he performed.”

King had the rare privilege of having coached players on both teams competing for a national championship. Besides Lawrence, former Cartersville tight end Miller Forristall saw action for the Tide, including being on the field for Alabama’s second touchdown of the night.

Forristall, who won a title with the Tide last season, and Lawrence now make up half the list of former Canes to win a football national championship, according to a tweet from the Cartersville football Twitter account. (The others being Kevin Jackson on the 1980 Georgia team and Billy Chubb a decade later when Georgia Tech split the title with Colorado.)

“Super proud of both of those guys to see them in that atmosphere,” King said of Forristall and Lawrence. “I saw both of them when I was out there. It was really, really special.”

King, who guided Cartersville to the state championship game in December, said he got to see both former players on Sunday as the teams prepared for the game. He also received a hug from Lawrence and got to talk to the offensive MVP for a few moments after the game.

“There were so many people wanting pictures and autographs and pulling him in a thousand different directions,” King said of Lawrence. “I was just glad to be a small part of it.”

While King admitted last week, prior to making the cross-country trip, he doesn’t generally find himself watching games from a fan’s perspective, even he had to admit that the excitement of the moment caught up with him Monday night.

“It was enjoyable to be in the national championship atmosphere,” King said. “But I’m still kind of one that I don’t necessarily look at a game, as a fan. At least I say that most of the time, about halfway through that one, I was cheering pretty hard.”

Meanwhile, Tucker has no problem acknowledging he was rooting hard throughout the game.

“Obviously, that was an unbelievable moment,” he said. “One I’ll never forget. Obviously, super thankful to have been at that [game]. Just happy to be able to go with my dad and experience it. We’ve been going to games since the 1980s. I was fortunate enough to be able to go [to Clemson] and earn a letter as a punter. … It’s a special place to me, a lot of that is family history and spending so much time there.”

For both coaches from Cartersville to get to experience the national championship game environment is something neither will likely ever forget. And with Lawrence running the show in Clemson for at least another two to three years, trips to see the Tigers compete for the CFP crown could become an annual tradition.