Before the Tigers found their soul in Dabo Swinney, their Road to Dominance was long and painful
It was dark outside. A chill filled in the air. It was eerily quiet.
Thanksgiving was only eight days away, but the people who crowded around Clemson University’s football practice fields that somber evening in 1998 weren’t talking about pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce. Their mood, in fact, matched the drab weather in the South Carolina Upstate.
Practice had ended that Wednesday evening. Players jogged off quickly, staring at the ground. Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring wasn’t as meek. Briskly walking through the gathering, fire appeared to shoot from his eyes as he stared at dozens of reporters and shouted, “You got what you wanted!”
Then here he came.
Head coach Tommy West walked slowly off those fields and straight into a convention of television lights. A small group of friends and family clapped politely. His wife, Lindsay, hugged him. They both had watery eyes.
This was no ordinary day. He’d been fired. After weeks of speculation about his job, he asked Athletics Director Bobby Robinson about his future that afternoon, Nov. 18, and Robinson told him the decision was final. West would be allowed to coach the team’s final game that weekend against rival South Carolina, then move on.
“This is not a resignation,” said West, then 44 years old, a tall man with a deep bass voice and the pride of a former three-sport letterman at Gainesville (Ga.) High School who played tight end at Tennessee. “It’s not a mutual agreement. It was a business decision. They made their decision, and I’ll live with that decision.”
All this sound a little depressing? It was. Gather the millennials around the fireplace and tell them the truth: 20 years ago Clemson football wasn’t cool.
—Deshaun Watson, the fleet-footed, strong-armed quarterback who would one day lead this program to the 2017 national championship, had just turned 3 years old.
—Dabo Swinney, the down-home coach, master recruiter and energizer bunny, who today has the Tigers among college football’s elite, was still in his 20s and coaching wide receivers at his alma mater, Alabama.
—And let’s not forget our surroundings, either. That night West made the slow walk back to his office, he wasn’t walking into the $55 million, 140,000-square-foot cathedral that would open more than 18 years later.
No, this was Clemson with a 30-28 five-year record under West, enduring a 3-8 season and — the Thursday before West’s firing — losing its fourth straight game, 24-21 to Georgia Tech.
This was before Clemson became a College Football Playoff regular, widely expected to make its fourth consecutive appearance this season.
This was Clemson before it became King of the Atlantic Coast Conference, annually shoving Florida State to the ground and stealing its lunch money, and heading this season for a likely fourth consecutive league championship.
And this was Clemson before its current streak of eight consecutive 10-plus win seasons.
So, what gives? How did this program get from West’s death march to its 2018 standing as arguably college football’s top program not named Alabama?
“One word — Dabo,” said veteran sportswriter Bob Gillespie, who is retired from The State newspaper in Columbia and has followed Clemson football for decades.
Ah, there will be plenty more on the Swinney Magic and decade of success in a moment. He’s done it the best, but he wasn’t the first to win big at Clemson. There was already a national championship trophy in the building that day West was fired. It came courtesy of Danny Ford, a personable leader who connected with the Clemson fan base and, in 1981, led the program to an unbeaten season and consensus national championship. Ford lived on a farm just outside town in Seneca and many of the old-timers never quit calling for his return to the sidelines despite an NCAA probation and subsequent rules investigations that shadowed him throughout his career.
“Tommy connected with the fans, too (like Ford),” Gillespie said, “but couldn’t coach them (like Ford) apparently.” West currently serves as defensive line coach at Middle Tennessee after stints as Memphis’ head coach (2001-09) and assistant stops at UAB and Southern Miss.
And that day 20 years ago, Clemson folks realized he wasn’t right for them. The Tigers were searching for the right leader, searching for prolonged success.
Searching for themselves.
A TRIP TO THE FRENCH QUARTER
The journey wasn’t easy.
Today you can YouTube the famous highlight of Watson finding little 5-foot-10 former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for a game-winning touchdown over Alabama with 1 second remaining for the national championship on January 9, 2017.
But getting that YouTube moment wasn’t as smooth as Clemson hoped it would be during a quick search for West’s replacement. “We’re going to try to get the best coach in America for the Clemson football program,” Robinson said after West’s firing.
He immediately looked southwest to New Orleans, where a young up-and-comer with a famous last name was doing big things at lowly Tulane. Tommy Bowden, son of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, had just led the Green Wave to an 11-0 record and Top-10 ranking in 1998. Talk radio shows in Louisiana that year actually took a little time away from their Saints and LSU coverage to discuss, of all things, that little private school about 4 miles west of downtown.
Sure, other names were mentioned publicly for the Clemson job. A couple of Virginia Tech guys — head coach Frank Beamer and offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle — were high on some lists.
And of course, Ford’s name came up again. He was out of coaching and available. But Clemson had been placed on NCAA probation from minor infractions under Ford’s watch, barred from bowl games in 1982 and 1983 and banned from television in 1983 and 1984. Ford eventually resigned after the 1989 season after relationships with the administration soured. Robinson had been the athletics director at that time, too. Not a good match.
So, Robinson pursued Bowden from day one. He got him, too. It was an easy decision for Bowden, then 44, to accept even though he admitted they treated him like “king, governor, mayor” during Tulane’s unbeaten season. He knew he’d miss his home that overlooked Lake Pontchartrain and included a swimming pool and lighted basketball court. But, after all, Bowden had worked on staffs at Florida State, Auburn and Alabama before getting his first head coaching opportunity. He missed the big time.
“The only thing that Clemson could offer me that Tulane couldn’t was the environment,” Bowden said. “That is what I’ve been accustomed to.”
The 81,000-plus fans at Clemson Memorial Stadium, better known as Death Valley. The pregame tradition of players running down “The Hill” and rubbing “Howard’s Rock” for luck. Tiger Rag blaring out from the Tiger Band. That ‘81 dream season under Ford that still danced in Tiger fans’ heads like visions of sugar plums at Christmas. It was all part of the lore that made Clemson history special.
It did not, however, make Clemson a slam-dunk destination job. After all, following Ford’s departure, the program achieved seven or less wins in the following nine seasons under West and his predecessor, Ken Hatfield.
“We are the ones accountable — (the players) are the ones not getting the job done,” Clemson offensive lineman Holland Postell told The State after West’s firing.
But was that true? Was the right leadership and infrastructure actually in place? By most accounts, no. What it would take to go from a good program with bouts of mediocrity to a great program that looks like — well, like it looks today, as you watch five-star freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence torch ACC defenses for wins like this year’s 77-16 romp over Louisville or a 59-10 demolishing of once-mighty Florida State — was tremendous change.
It took the right man to start it, and it took a lot of money to sustain it. And that would have to wait a while.
First came the Bowden years, where many people will tell you that at least some consistency was restored. Bowden was an offensive mind with a a top pedigree. He inherited West’s roster and went .500 in his first season and then produced only winning records. The trouble was, he didn’t produce championships and, in the eyes of influential alumni, didn’t take enough personal accountability for his team’s struggles. Bowden’s nine full seasons produced marks of 6-6, 9-3, 7-5, 7-6, 9-4, 6-5, 8-4, 8-5 and 9-4. Lots of bowl games, but that’s only the bare minimum at Clemson. He was expected to win the school’s first ACC title since 1991. But he never did.
Additionally, Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com wrote that “Clemson fans want someone they can reach out and touch and relate to, someone who speaks their language. Bowden just wasn’t that type of guy.”
The 2008 season began. It took a loss to Maryland and 12 days later a loss to Wake Forest — things that aren’t supposed to happen — for Clemson’s next coaching search to commence. The Tigers had been ranked No. 9 in preseason and favored to win the ACC, but started the season with a 34-10 loss to Alabama in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Later, the 12-7 defeat at Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday night national TV dropped their record to 3-3 in mid-October and dropped a hammer on Bowden’s decade-long tenure. AD Terry Don Phillips asked to meet with Bowden the Monday after the loss. And even though Phillips intended to fire Bowden after the season, he told ESPN he was surprised when Bowden offered his immediate resignation.
“There wasn’t a gun to his head,” Phillips told ESPN. “He put it on the table for the sake of the program.”
According to Gillespie, “nobody knew it was coming.”
Bowden left somewhat gracefully, despite the mid-season departure. He even attended the news conference with Phillips at McFadden Auditorium. Though he didn’t take any questions from the media, he did wish the program “nothing but success” and said he’d “be their biggest fan.”
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper told ESPN that it was “karma” that Bowden got what he deserved. He said players perceived that Bowden had started to publicly blame them and his assistants for the team’s struggles and had weakened his level of respect.
“It’s what he deserved,” Harper said. … “I thought it needed to be done.”
Running back C.J. Spiller told ESPN he liked Bowden but “in the end he was yelling at us to be leaders and it wasn’t working. He did all he could to motivate us, but guys weren’t buying into what he was saying.”
Bowden would go on to be a studio commentator for ACC football, a position he still holds today. First, however, he recommended Swinney to take over as the interim coach.
And so it began.
WAIT, DABO WHO?
It certainly surprised many that Swinney, a little-known assistant coach to the casual football fan, was named interim head coach. Two former head coaches were already on staff (Brad Scott and Vic Koenning). “Many don’t know what to think about this decision by the athletic department,” wrote Matt Elmore of Bleacher Report.
Swinney, a then-38-year-old Birmingham, Ala., native with a Southern drawl who’d been part of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team, had never even been a coordinator. The year before he’d been making $135,000 as the Tigers’ wide receivers coach. But Alabama’s Nick Saban had reportedly tried to lure him away to a spot on his staff. Oh, Swinney had a fantastic reputation as a recruiter alright. And a motivator. Phillips had been watching this for some time.
“I don’t want you to be the interim head coach,” Phillips told Swinney that day, according to Sports Illustrated. “For the next seven weeks, I want you to be the head coach. And I want you to think and walk and talk like the head coach. I want you to do whatever you think you need to do to fix us.”
Swinney’s confidence was off the charts. “I’ve never failed at anything in my life,” he would later say.
Maybe not, but this former Crimson Tide walk-on was caretaker for a program still considered a gold mine of opportunity. Certainly, Phillips would court a bigger name as the season wound down. Wouldn’t he? He promised a nationwide search. And according to ESPN, Phillips did meet with Lane Kiffin (who later accepted the Tennessee job) and Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster, considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the country.
“(Swinney) grew on people pretty quickly,” Gillespie said. “It wasn’t universal by that point. They were still going, `Who is this guy?’ But they looked a heckuva lot better at the end of that season.”
Swinney took control early, as if he didn’t plan to let go. He fired offensive coordinator Rob Spence and took over the play calling. He let students attend practice and encouraged them to line the parking lot of Memorial Stadium before games and made the players march through them, restoring a “Tiger Walk” tradition from years past.
In his first meeting with the players, he did so alone, without the assistant coaches. The term “All In,” which Swinney still uses today, started then. Because that day he told his players they could leave. But if they stayed, he needed everything they had. He had a chance to be their permanent coach, and he wanted to count on those that remained to help him reach his goal.
In his coaching debut, fans noticed when Swinney made his punter, who’d been jogging off the field, go back and sprint to the sidelines. This guy meant business.
And most importantly, he showed he could win. Clemson finished 4-1 down the stretch of the regular season and spanked rival South Carolina and its legendary coach, Steve Spurrier, 34-14.
So, do the math: Of the previous 29 interim head coaches in college football that fall season of 2008, none of them got the permanent job, according to SI. Well, big deal. On Dec. 1, 2008, Clemson named Swinney the permanent head coach.
Remember, it would take the right man and a lot of money? In the past 10 years, Clemson has possessed plenty of both. It’s made all the difference.
“Dabo is able to reach down and touch your soul,” Clemson Associate AD Bill D’Andrea told TigerIllustrated.com, “where Tommy (Bowden) was only able to touch the skin.”
Sounds of the enthusiastic Swinney joyfully screaming into the microphone of a sideline reporter after a Tiger victory have become a staple of ESPN’s college football coverage.
The right man, Swinney, has only added to his reputation as a master recruiter. Clemson has ranked in the top 15 in national recruiting seven times in the past eight years, according to Rivals.com, and currently is on pace for a Top-5 class for 2019.
So, yes, he was bringing in quality players well before the um, Taj Mahal of football complexes was built. But just take a look at the financial commitment Clemson’s administration has made. It comes in two forms — coaching salary and facilities.
The day West was fired in 1998, he had a base salary of $132,588. With media and apparel bonuses, it rose to more than $300,000 annually.
Bowden’s hiring came with $700,000 annually, over five years. He got an extension in 2000 and bump to $825,000 per year. His final extension, signed in 2004, put him over $1.3 million per year, according to Gannett News Service. By the time he departed, Clemson had to pay out $3.5 million in semi-annual installments through 2014 thanks to his last extension (up from a $500,000 buyout previously).
It wasn’t chump change. But it wasn’t the mega millions that the school has committed to Swinney in this era of good fortune. His current contract pays him an average of $6.75 million annually through 2024. He makes more than all 50 U.S. governors combined, according to The Greenville News.
Prior to the season, Clemson gave raises to the entire coaching staff. Talk about putting their money where their mouth is — defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ salary is worth $2 million this season, making him the second-highest paid assistant coach in the country behind LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda ($2.5 million), according to Forbes.
Current Clemson AD Dan Radakovich arrived in 2012. Five years later, on February 1, 2017, he oversaw the grand opening of the Allen N. Reeves Football Operations Complex, a grand building of excess and recruiting nirvana that features a golf simulator, bowling alley, barber shop, movie theater, sand volleyball court, players’ personal laundry room and more.
And, oh yes, the slide. Think a big ol’ silver slide on your kid’s playground, but make this a taller, indoor slide that transports 300-pound football players and 100-pound recruiting assistants alike from the second floor to the first floor of the building.
The thinking is five-star recruit Dandy Doug arrives and says, “You bet. Where do I sign up?” That is the return Clemson is looking for on its $55 million well spent.
Business Insider wrote that it “looks like a swanky playground for college students.”
Shoot, this entire dreamy era seems like a trip to the playground for Clemson and its fans. Swinney has a head coaching record of 112-30 at Clemson, including a record of 83-11 since 2012. His team missed the first College Football Playoff, but in the past three it’s become a regular.
—In 2016, Clemson beat Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl before losing to Alabama 45-40 in the national championship game.
—In 2017, Clemson beat Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl before beating Alabama 35-31 in the national championship game.
—In 2018, Clemson lost to Alabama 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl. Could there be another rematch with the Crimson Tide looming this season?
Many predict it. But skeptics don’t mind asking the tough questions. Like, hey, remember how bad it got 20 years ago? How can you possibly keep this going?
What does the future hold? Nothing is etched in stone, or “Howard’s Rock” in this case, and Alabama fans are fond of debating whether Mama will call Swinney home after Crimson Tide legend Nick Saban finally retires.
Swinney riled the locals during the offseason’s slow news cycle when he said, “You never say never,” to such an idea when asked on the Herbstreit and Fitzsimmons podcast. “Ten years from now Alabama may call me and want me to come to Alabama, and the Clemson people may hate me at that point.”
However, Clemson fans are fond of saying that Swinney would be crazy to leave a place where he’s beloved and successful to follow in some impossible Tuscaloosa footsteps.
Radakovich told The State that he hopes Clemson has demonstrated to Swinney that you can “get to the highest level here at Clemson, and he’s been able to do that.” The current state of cohesion, Radakovich said, between the president and board of trustees allows himself and Swinney to do their jobs, which is something you don’t find everywhere and is an important “X-factor,” he added.
If Alabama comes calling for Swinney, sportswriter and broadcaster Barrett Sallee said he’ll have a “rich man’s problem — figuratively and literally.”
So, stay tuned for that drama to play out. Maybe. Maybe one day it will be a drama as engrossing as that chilly November night in 1998. Can you believe 20 years have passed?
Might not seem that long to you. But it’s a lifetime ago for Clemson. H&A
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