OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – There was a tinge of orange scattered around Oak Ridge High School’s gym Tuesday night. The familiar shade attached to the Power T.
There was a buzz in the air, too. But not because two former Tennessee Vols, Aaron Green of Oak Ridge and Jon Higgins of Knoxville Central, were coaching against each other on the court.
Up in and around Section J, there was a cluster of orange … and purple. This orange had a tiger paw for a logo.
Eight days after Clemson’s Tigers beat Alabama for the football national championship, it was unofficial Clemson appreciation night at Oak Ridge. One lady clad in Tiger garb unfolded a life-size cardboard cutout of coach Dabo Swinney swigging a soda.
“He’s a great coach,” said Clemson fan Jud Hightower. “And a great man, too, I think.”
Late in the first quarter, the man himself, William Christopher Swinney, arrived, led by a police escort. He took his seat in Section J, surrounded by family and friends of Tee Higgins.
Down on the court, Higgins, a multi-talented 6-foot-4 Oak Ridge senior, was doing impressive things with a basketball. He had offers from Tennessee, Louisville and Auburn, among others, to pursue hoops in college.
“He’s one of the better players I’ve coached,’’ Green, his coach, said. “You see a lot of good athletes play high school basketball. The thing that makes Tee different is his skill level.’’
You should see his skill level in football. Higgins will sign in a couple of weeks to play football for Swinney at Clemson. He’s a five-star wide receiver coveted by marquee schools from coast to coast. Tennessee had his pledge for about six months. Last February, Higgins decommitted from the Vols. On July 4, accompanied by a fireworks video presentation, he announced he would attend Clemson.
So will Amari Rodgers, the star receiver from Knoxville Catholic. UT’s backyard was fertile pickings for Clemson in the class of 2017.
Brothers Jim and Rick Kirk of Knoxville couldn’t have been more pleased. They’ve been Clemson fans as long as they can remember.
“Our dad went to Clemson on the GI Bill right after World War II,” Jim Kirk said. “He had too many kids and had to drop out but he was a Clemson fan from Day One.”
At halftime, Swinney posted up in a corner just off the court near the Oak Ridge locker room. From there he watched as Higgins was recognized with the Class 5A Tennessee “Mr. Football” trophy for a 2016 season in which he caught 57 passes and 15 touchdowns. The trophy can sit next to the one Higgins collected for 2015.
As Higgins jogged to the locker room he and Swinney exchanged a smile, nothing more.
Swinney disappeared behind a set of doors, but several Clemson fans emerged with autographs. Swinney signed each of the Kirk brothers’ T-shirts.
“I won’t wash it again, I promise you that,” Jim Kirk said.
And then the national championship coach was gone into the night.
But we haven’t seen the last of Swinney in these parts. For one thing, there are no signs Clemson is retreating from the national stage.
For another, Swinney, 47, is the vogue candidate to return to his alma mater when Nick Saban grows weary of dominating the SEC.
Before he was a Clemson man, Swinney was an Alabama man. He made the team as a walk-on, lettered on special teams from 1990-92 and coached receivers for a bit.
For the past two national championship games, Swinney and Clemson have battled Saban and Alabama down to the wire. This year, Swinney won.
Denying Alabama another national title should make Swinney a popular man in East Tennessee. Now if he’d just quit stealing the best recruits.