CLEMSON, S.C. — It was about a year ago at this time that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney passed out shirts to every one of his players that read “Built To Last.”
And really, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Other than Swinney’s alma mater, Alabama, good luck finding a healthier or more vibrant college football program over much of the last decade than what Swinney has crafted at Clemson. In fact, Alabama and Clemson are the only two FBS schools over the last seven seasons to have won 10 or more games each year. The Tigers have played in the College Football Playoff each of the last three seasons, beating Alabama for the national title in 2016 after losing to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game the year before. Alabama won the rubber match last year in the CFP semifinals.
Against AP-ranked opponents, Clemson is 22-11 over the last seven seasons and 15-2 over the last three seasons. During the Tigers’ streak of seven straight 10-win seasons, they’ve beaten Auburn four times, Ohio State and Oklahoma twice, and Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Notre Dame, all while those teams were ranked in the top 10. Clemson is also 11-6 against the SEC over the last seven seasons.
“That’s the consistency we set out for back in 2009,” Swinney told ESPN this spring during a wide-ranging interview. “Our seniors [in 2017] won 40 games in three years. Unfortunately, Alabama won 41. This team, last year, that’s their legacy, that, ‘Hey, Clemson’s here to stay.’ We might have some years where we win the championship, some years where we get beat, but we’re going to be in it and be a team that’s going to be relevant and be a team that’s going to have a chance.
“Now, there are funny bounces and years where it doesn’t go right for you, but we’re not going to be a team that’s up and down. That’s not who we are.”
The Tigers return 17 starters in 2018, including their place-kicker and punter, so it stands to reason that the Tigers again will be in the national championship hunt, particularly with defensive line starters Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all spurning the NFL draft to return to school for another season.
So drawing the inevitable comparisons to Alabama, the question begs: Has Clemson reached the point at which it has become national championship or bust every year?
Swinney, entering his 10th full season as Clemson’s head coach, starts shaking his head “no” before the question is even finished being asked.
“We’re never going to be in that camp,” Swinney said. “Now, our fans are at a point where they certainly will be that way, but that’s a positive. I love the fact that we’ve built a program where our fans get amnesia quick. When I got the job in 2009, we hadn’t won 10 games since 1990. Now we’re going for eight in a row. We hadn’t won a conference championship since 1991. Now we’ve played for it five times, won six divisions and are going for a fourth ACC championship in a row.
“I’ve got a very good memory and a very good perspective on where we are as a program and how we got here. Sometimes fans … they want more and more and more, and they think you win a national championship every year. It doesn’t work that way.”
Sounds a lot like the mindset at Swinney’s alma mater. The Crimson Tide have won four of the last seven national championships under Nick Saban, and the prevailing sentiment is that Swinney is the odds-on favorite to replace Saban when (and if) he ever retires.
Of course, the 66-year-old Saban told ESPN recently that he wants to keep coaching for as long as he can continue to do it the way he wants to, and those close to Saban think he will coach easily into his 70s. Told that Saban doesn’t see his coaching pilot light burning out any time soon, Swinney beamed in his vintage vernacular.
“Good, that sounds great because I’m as happy as a pig in mud here,” he quipped.
And while most coaches are never going to say never, one of Swinney’s closest confidants and his former position coach at Alabama, Woody McCorvey, doesn’t see Swinney leaving Clemson even if “momma calls,” as Bear Bryant so famously said when explaining why he left Texas A&M to return to his alma mater.
“Dabo is Clemson. That’s who he is,” said McCorvey, who is now Swinney’s right-hand man as associate athletic director for football administration. “Dabo’s the perfect fit here. He can get on his moped and ride from the house to the office and then back to the house, and everybody just waves at him and he’s waving at everybody. Some places, you can’t do that. And then look at his kids. Clemson is all they know. The only thing they know about Alabama is that their daddy played there. They’ve grown up Clemson, and now, he’s got two sons on the team. This is their home.”
Despite his aw-shucks persona, Swinney is anything but naïve. He knows the Alabama chatter isn’t going away and understands why people continue to tab him as the heir apparent to Saban. He laughs heartily at the thought of the poor soul who has to follow Saban at Alabama, but is quick to offer his own unique perspective.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re behind Nick or not at Alabama,” Swinney said. “Listen, I spent 13 years there, so I get it. I know exactly what that mentality is and something I’ve tried to always fight here. You don’t see that anywhere in our building, that it’s national championship or bust. Our team goals are to win the opener, win the division, win the state championship, win the conference and win the closer.
“Now, hopefully, this will be a job that will be hard on the next guy because we’ve created a standard. That’s what you want. You want to take over a job that has a winning tradition, has high expectations and has everybody fully invested. To me, I’d rather have that than take over a program that everybody is fired for a reason. We have all that and then some right here at Clemson.”
There’s also something else about the Swinney-Clemson bond that can’t be ignored. When he got the job in 2009, it’s not like blueblood programs were lining up at his door to hire him as their next head coach. It was very much a leap of faith by then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips and the university administration, and Swinney remains eternally grateful for what he says was an opportunity of a lifetime.
He’s not ready to go where McCorvey did and proclaim that he is Clemson, but acknowledges there’s an emotional tie there that’s not easily broken.
“Nobody’s bigger than the program,” Swinney said. “There were a lot of great coaches here before me. But I think we’re woven together in this era. There were a lot of great things to build a program on here, things I could reference and point to and things I’m thankful that I’ve had. But I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve grown up together in the modern era. I really believe God brought me here for a reason and opened this door and put us on this path together and put the right people in my path and gave me the right AD, the right president, the right SID and all of the right people to get where we needed to be. We’ve had success. We’ve had failure, but all things work together.
“The past nine years as the full-time head coach, myself and Clemson, we’ve been woven together.”
Swinney’s focus from the outset was to build Clemson’s program from the inside out. And, yes, the Tigers have had outstanding skill players under Swinney — Deshaun Watson, Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams and DeAndre Hopkins, to name a few. But it’s even more telling that all four starting defensive linemen next season could be selected in the top two or three rounds of the NFL draft.
“That’s where the emphasis is always going to be here, the line of scrimmage,” Bryant said. “You better bring it every day on the practice field, or you’re going to get exposed. There’s no hiding here with all the freaky guys they bring in every year.”
And there’s seemingly nobody Swinney can’t connect with, particularly on the recruiting trail. Perhaps that best explains how, just in the last two recruiting classes, Clemson has been able to go into Ohio (offensive tackle Jackson Carman), Florida (defensive end Xavier Thomas), Georgia (quarterback Trevor Lawrence), Tennessee (receiver Tee Higgins), North Carolina (defensive end K.J. Henry), Alabama (receiver Justyn Ross) and Louisiana (running back Travis Etienne) to land some of the most coveted prospects in those states.
“That’s going to keep happening because coach Swinney makes it all about the players,” said Ferrell, who is from Richmond, Virginia. “He doesn’t put us up on a pedestal, but he lets us know that we’re the driving factor. It’s about him caring and wanting the best for us. So when we build a new football facility, he puts a nap room in or a slide, things that make it feel like home. You have that relationship with him that you know he sees things from our perspective. He’s a kid at heart.”
But a demanding kid and one who’s not willing to compromise when it comes to what he’s looking for in a player.
“Clemson’s not for everybody,” Swinney said. “There’s been an unselfishness in our program, a comradery in our program, and more importantly, there’s been for many years now the older guys taking the younger guys under their wing and they nurture them, and that goes back to C.J. Spiller to Andre Ellington to whomever. It goes on and on and on, and the guys have taken great pride in that.
“It’s just like Kelly [Bryant]. He’s got a very competitive situation at quarterback, but he takes those young guys under his wing. They all know they’ve got to go compete, that there is no lifetime contract, but they’re totally committed to the program. To me, that’s what makes our program special.”
And built to last.