Tom Priddy/Icon SMI
I confess -- I was once a Dabo Swinney doubter. Back in October, after Tommy Bowden stepped down as the head coach at Clemson, my editors dispatched me to South Carolina to write a column for the magazine on the state of the Tigers' program. On paper, things seemed bleak: recruits were taking back their commitments, the quarterback (and the quarterback's father) had been quoted in the press disparaging the coach and the university had been obligated to buy Bowden out for a hefty $3.5 million -- a figure sure to put a crimp in the school's ability to attract a big-name replacement. To be blunt about it, I expected morale to be low.
What I found instead when I arrived to watch the Tigers take on Georgia Tech was a campus that was improbably upbeat. To be sure, many fans were overjoyed to see the end of Clemson's Bowden decade, which had been marked by chronic inconsistency and perennial underachievement. But there was something more at work. I was almost 30 minutes late for my Saturday morning interview with athletic director Terry Don Phillips because I had been held up by the crowd gathered to witness the Tiger Walk, which featured Clemson's players striding into Memorial Stadium through a game-day throng of well-wishers. This, I assumed at the time, was a long-standing tradition. I was wrong. The walk was Swinney's idea. And it wasn't the only wrinkle the interim coach added to the week.
The man went out of his way to show more enthusiasm in one afternoon than the staid Bowden displayed in 10 years. Swinney didn't just touch Howard's Rock; he hugged and kissed it, then sprinted down The Hill and onto the field. He stormed up and down the sidelines, yelling encouragement to his players and hurling invective at officials, all while occasionally stopping to wave his arms in an effort to exhort the home crowd. In the process, he orchestrated one of the most galvanizing 21-17 losses it has ever been my honor to witness.
And I'll admit, I found it all a bit hokey -- like Swinney was trying too hard to audition for the vacant head coaching job. It didn't help that his antics stood no chance in the face of his team's mistakes (six turnovers) and inability to execute (Clemson converted just three of 12 third-down opportunities). For a team with a new attitude, the Tigers bore a striking resemblance to the underachieving outfit that cost Bowden his job.
I wish I'd stuck around, because Swinney put the following off-week to good use. Clemson came out of the bye and promptly beat Boston College on the road. And after a loss to Florida State, the Tigers finished their season with three straight victories, finishing 7-5 and in serious contention to go bowling (likely destinations at this point include the Gator and the Champs Sports bowls). There was more at work, obviously, than simple rah-rah hucksterism.
The Clemson defense had never really been a problem. When I saw Tigers live, they played fast, physical and disciplined football, holding the Yellow Jackets to 207 yards on the ground, about 75 under their rushing average for the season. Swinney's changes have been more visible on the offensive side of things. Part of this is due to the relative health of his roster, and part is due, I think, to the players simply rallying behind him.
Swinney and the Tigers have undoubtedly benefited from some consistency and health on the offensive line. In seven of their first nine games, the Tigers featured a different combo with their front five. But in the last three, the lineup was the same, and the rushing attack blossomed. What had been a listless ground game suddenly had plenty of list (a healthy C.J. Spiller certainly didn't hurt, either). Clemson rushed for 184 yards in its 31-14 beatdown of South Carolina last Saturday. The passing game also began to come around. Bowden had benched quarterback Cullen Harper, but under Swinney the senior blossomed into the top-rated passer in the ACC.
Why did this happen? How could a team that seemed to quit on Bowden rally around its former receivers coach? Attitude is part of it for sure -- Swinney made this team his in ways that Rich Rodriguez can only dream about at Michigan. The other part of the story is that the Tigers know Swinney well. He's one of Clemson's top recruiters, and has signed 38 players in the last five years. Not all of them are still around, to be sure, but there are enough to make a difference, enough to make a healthy portion of the roster feel personally invested in making sure that Swinney won the job.
And that, of course, is exactly what happened this week. I don't know if Dabo Swinney has what it takes to run a big-time college football program. There is a lot more to it than X's and O's (as we are currently seeing at Notre Dame). But Swinney is an excellent recruiter and an unsurpassed motivator. It's hard to tell what will happen from here on in, but folks in Clemson certainly have to like what they've seen so far.