(Not such) a long time ago, in a galaxy (not so) far away, there was a football coach named William Swinney.
People called him Dabo.
On the very first day of his very first head coaching job, Dabo promised he would not fail. Truthfully, a lot of people thought he would. Dabo set about turning Clemson into the preeminent college football program in the country with hard work, effort, determination and relentlessness in recruiting. But the way he did it is what made Clemson stand out.
Dabo danced in the locker room. He hugged reporters after big wins. He used his aw-shucks charm to show it was possible to win championships and have fun, throwing pizza parties for 30,000 people, gushing about players and games when they had to get off the “rest of y’all” bus and bring your own guts.
When Dabo led the Tigers to their first College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, the world saw what made him and his team so irresistibly likeable — the gutsy underdog coach leading the gutsy underdog team against two traditional behemoths, Oklahoma first, then Alabama.
Clemson fell short in the national title game, but its performance in nearly taking down Alabama only made America root for the Tigers even harder the following season. How could you not? When Clemson finally won the championship, Dabo raised the trophy triumphantly for underdogs everywhere.
But that is not where the story ends for Dabo or Clemson. You see, they kept winning. And winning, and winning. Twenty-nine wins in a row, to be exact. They morphed from “Little Ol’ Clemson” to “the team nobody wants in the playoff.” Rhetoric, criticism and anger directed at Clemson ratcheted up throughout 2019, forcing an unfathomable reckoning headed into Monday’s national championship game in New Orleans.
LSU, with a plucky, loveable head coach, is the team that has galvanized college football so forcefully, it is the one many want to send Clemson on its merry way.
People with no rooting interest for either team might end up pulling for the evil empire of conferences just to see Clemson lose.
“It’s like everybody hating on the Patriots,” Clemson safety K’Von Wallace said. “People are tired of seeing consistent winners, they always want to see new winners or somebody who makes a miraculous turnaround in their program. They don’t want the same ending of Clemson national championship, Clemson national championship.”
Mind you, nothing has tangibly changed about Swinney or the way he runs the program. Swinney still has his live-life-to-the-fullest persona, but he remains as driven as the day he was hired. The coaching staff has experienced little turnover. Players rarely get into trouble, although last season, Clemson saw three, including starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, suspended for the playoff after they tested positive for a banned substance. (Clemson never publicly identified how the substance got into their systems. All three players continue to maintain their innocence, and so does Swinney.) “The best is yet to come” continues as the enduring motto to start every season.
It is easy, then, to point to the winning streak as the main reason Clemson is viewed differently today compared to five years ago. But it’s not just that. Three key things changed outside Clemson to switch the narrative.
First, the ACC has not been nearly as competitive as a conference over the past two seasons, a major point of contention used against the Tigers. Never mind that Oklahoma has been just as dominant in the Big 12. On the heels of a narrow escape against North Carolina, a Clemson program that crushed Alabama for last year’s title, entered the year at No. 1 and didn’t lose a game was falling behind the likes of LSU and Ohio State in the polls and playoff rankings.
“That was kind of the tipping point probably where all of a sudden we drop, and then it just seemed like it didn’t matter what we did,” Swinney said of the win over UNC. “The story was more about who we play, trying to create how bad they are as opposed to who we are and who we’ve been as a program for a long time.”
“It’s like everybody hating on the Patriots. People are tired of seeing consistent winners. … They don’t want the same ending of Clemson national championship, Clemson national championship.”
Clemson safety K’Von Wallace
When the Tigers debuted at No. 5 in the first CFP rankings of 2019, that notion firmly took hold. Clemson never earned consideration for the No. 1 seed, only reinforcing that idea.
That leads to the second change. Swinney has famously ranted in the media throughout his 12-year tenure, never shy to give honest answers. Indeed, his wear-it-on-his-sleeve honesty endeared him to many. After a victory over South Carolina to close the regular season in late November, Swinney had enough of all the negative talk about his program.
Swinney told reporters, “Obviously, if we lose this game, they are going to kick us out. They don’t want us there anyway. We’d drop to 20. Georgia loses to this very same team, and it’s, ‘How do we keep Georgia in?’ We win, against the team that beat [Georgia], and it’s, ‘How do we get Clemson out?’ It’s the dadgummest thing.”
Later, he added, “We’ve got to go 30-0. We ain’t got no choice because we don’t play nobody.” That clip went viral, triggering another round of debates about Clemson and its schedule. Though he defended his players like any other coach, suddenly he went from fun-loving Dabo to spoiled Dabo whining about the media and playoff committee.
That leads to the third change. Clemson finished this season 13-0 to make its fifth consecutive playoff appearance, running into no trouble in the ACC championship game. Alabama, the college football equivalent of the evil empire, did not. With Alabama out, guess which team subs in best as the new evil empire?
Little ol’ Clemson.
“The past couple years it’s been us and Alabama for the national championship, so it’s been a battle of our two programs, and we’ve been at the top of the mountain for the past year so of course everyone wants to see you get knocked down,” right guard Gage Cervenka said. “They always want to see somebody else up there. You grow into that team people want to see lose, but that’s fine. I enjoy it. I love going into hostile environments and playing.
“It’s good pressure because we’re winning. It’s a blessing in a way because you’re doing well, people want to see you get knocked down. That means you’re up high, it means you’re doing something right.”
Clemson has now tied the ACC record for consecutive victories, matching Florida State in 2012-14. Not only that, Clemson has the best record (69-4) in college football since 2015. Alabama is second at 66-6. Those 69 wins represents the most over a five-year span in the AP poll era.
“We’re getting more bashed now because we’ve been here and we’re doing it more often,” said safety Tanner Muse, who has been at Clemson since its first playoff run in 2015. “In previous years they’re like, ‘Oh, Clemson’s here.’ They’re just happy for us, but they know we’re not going to do anything and then we surprise them. Then they’re like, ‘Well, they can’t do it again.’
“Everybody wants the underdog. I’m the same way when I watch movies, but there’s something to say for a very consistent program. You don’t see it very often. When you see it, you kind of resent it because a lot of people aren’t consistent in things they do in life, so they’re like, ‘I really want this team to win because we don’t see this team win enough.’ That’s how a lot of people are, but at the same time you’ve got to appreciate consistency and a team that does that.”
Swinney, always looking for new motivational material, has used the way people perceive Clemson to his advantage, both as the underdog upstart and the team everyone wants to see lose. All you have to do is switch a few words around: “Nobody believes in us!” to “Nobody wants us here!” Both work.
In a different twist from the semifinals against Ohio State, when Clemson ended up as the betting favorite, Swinney could play both “underdog” and “the world is against us” cards and be completely right. That works in his locker room. Players say they use it as fuel.
Outside his locker room, it is a different story. Describing his team as “little ol’ Clemson” does not work anymore. Not with two national championships in three seasons and the longest active playoff streak in the country. Not with 29 wins in a row. Or the most wins since 2015.
Not with the football empire a coach called Dabo continues to build.
“The more you win, the more criticism, all these eyes are on you so there’s more things people are looking at, and just trying to poke at you,” Cervenka said. “The higher up you are, the brighter the lights, so it can definitely get to some people but that’s what we’ve done very well as a team. We’ve set that aside and focused on preparing each week and playing our best ball and not worrying about what people are saying outside our room.
“A lot of these guys have never experienced this. You have to take it and use it as fuel and say, ‘All right, that’s fine, I’m going to prove you wrong,’ or to the people that are on our side, ‘Well, I’m going to prove you right.'”