Fiesta Bowl Football

Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri).

NEW ORLEANS — By my somewhat unofficial count during the cattle-call scrum that was the national championship media day Saturday, Clemson star running back Travis Etienne was asked some variation of the same question 29 times in an hour-long grilling session.

Namely, What does it feel like — how excited are you? — to be coming home to play for a national championship?

Jennings isn't exactly a suburb of New Orleans.

But close enough. Same state.

And, while it was the most repeated inquiry of the day, it certainly wasn't the dumbest.

Example:

Q: Is your name Etienne now?

A: It's always been Etienne.

Q: Etienne?

A: Yes, sir.

He even clarified that while the family name is pronounced Eh-tee-in, they long ago gave up and accepted the more common AY-chan pronunciation without complaint.

Most people call him one of the keys to Monday night's game against LSU.

You can even call him a Tiger who plays in Death Valley.

But not an LSU Tiger, and not that Death Valley, whichever is the real one.

And that seemed to be the round-about point for most of the questions he fielded Saturday — How will it feel to a Louisiana native to be playing in Louisiana against LSU and not for the home-state Tigers?

It's a long story.

Long story short: LSU was late to the party. And it had no one but itself to blame.

It haunts LSU head coach Ed Orgeron to this day. He didn't need to watch Clemson film to know what his team has been missing out on.

"Everytime I heard about Clemson playing or everytime I've seen him … I'm sick to my stomach," Orgeron said.

"Obviously we like our running backs … but we wanted Travis Etienne at the end. But it was too little too late."

For a while LSU had lots of company.

But Etienne's high school coach, Rusty Phelps, remembers the day the recruiting for his star heated up.

At the time, Etienne had only two offers, neither from anything remotely resembling a Power Five school. Both were hoping Etienne might slip through the cracks of the larger schools.

One day a coach from one of the smaller schools drove through Jennings on Interstate 10, right past the airstrip, and there, parked at the end of the runway, was a small jet with the familiar Clemson Tiger paw on the tail.

"I assume that's bad news for us," the coach said when he called Phelps.

It was. Suddenly Etienne was big time. The offers started pouring in.

Except from LSU.

"My recruitment, it was wide open. I mean, any team could have came and offered me, and I would have been open to it," Etienne said

Orgeron was still an assistant coach at LSU at the time.

"His name kept coming up," Orgeron said. "But for one reason or another we never offered him a scholarship."

Four games into that season, Orgeron became LSU's interim head coach. LSU suddenly wanted Etienne much more than under the Les Miles regime.

But "We had a couple of other (backs) we had been recruiting … thought we were going to get them, thought if we offered someone else, might lose them. Then got shut out."

Actually, LSU landed Clyde Edwards-Helaire and it's certainly worked out well. But the other, Cam Akers of Clinton, Mississippi, went to Florida State.

"I offered Travis really late as interim," Orgeron said. "Had a home visit with him, told him how much I wanted him … but he had made up his mind already."

Jennings is a close-knit town that Etienne described as the kind of place where "if I was doing something (wrong), my neighbors were able to spank me until my mom got there."

If Etienne had grown up an LSU fan like many in Jennings, maybe those Tigers' late push would have worked.

But he liked Tennessee as a youngster. No real reason. He kind of liked the color orange, maybe a clue as to where he ended up.

"When I took my visit there, I just didn't really — I knew it wasn't the place for me. I didn't like vibe with it … things just kind of went elsewhere.

"I had no idea where I was going to go, and Clemson just kind of came in and offered me."

It was love at first sight — "Great place. It just left an impression on me and my family. I just knew I had to be there.

"It happened how it happened."

It's been mutually beneficial — Etienne has been a starter since day one and already has one national championship ring with a chance to play for another Monday night.

And, yes, as he answered some 29 times Saturday, it will be in his home state against the Flagship University.

"I'm just happy … to have all my family here at the game and not having to take an 11-hour drive."

Maybe if LSU had been there earlier, but …

"For me, there were no bad feelings at all … I had to make the best decision for me, not for anyone else … no hard feelings."

It doesn't keep Orgeron from getting those upset stomachs.

"We should have done a better job, should have recruited him at an earlier age," Orgeron said. "He's the one that got away."

And it could come back to haunt the Tigers.


Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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