CLEMSON, S.C. -- A sign featuring typography so dated it has come to looking nearly new again greets visitors to Clemson with a simple message: “In season, every season.” Football means everything here, with paw prints leading into hotel parking lots, Tiger slapped as a descriptor in front of local business names and the color orange so prominent the place feels like an elaborate Reese’s ad.
At the heart of the town sits Memorial Stadium. Scanning up inside the venue reveals the 1981 national championship banner, brought home by then-coach Danny Ford. It's awkwardly large, and its juxtaposition among the other banners feels strange. But what is stranger? The championship banner or the lack of other national title banners surrounding it?
Clemson boasts 14 ACC titles. Tommy Bowden, who coached the Tigers from 1999-2008, regularly had the team in contention, but seemed to always find new ways to fall short. Disappointment became so frequent the term “Clemsoning" was spawned by Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildenbrandt of The Solid Verbal podcast.
Bowden lasted six games into the 2008 campaign before resigning after a listless loss to Wake Forest dropped the Tigers to 3-3. The school promoted Dabo Swinney to interim head coach, and he ultimately did enough to keep the job. From there, he set out to enact change. “I don’t think Clemson was together,” Swinney said. “Clemson was fragmented for whatever reason. Clemson was good. Clemson was OK. But they weren’t nationally relevant. My goal when I got this job was to create an attitude of belief, to change Clemson from the inside. If I could do that, eventually we’d blossom on the outside. That was the message from day one.”
This fall, fresh off a 40-35 Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, Clemson is no longer fragmented. The team has posted three straight 10-win seasons. It won 11 games in consecutive years for the first time in school history.
Swinney aimed to establish consistency, and he has largely succeeded behind backing from the administration. Clemson paid offensive coordinator Chad Morris handsomely ($1.3 million, according to USA Today, the highest salary for an assistant) and lured defensive coordinator Brent Venables away from Oklahoma in 2012. The Tigers' recruiting has improved from year to year. Clemson was No. 37 in Rivals.com's '09 class rankings; it jumped to No. 13 in '14, bolstered by the arrival of blue-chip quarterback Deshaun Watson. The defense finally made strides, too, rating 12th in defensive S&P+ last season, above TCU and Florida.
The team loses known quantities this year, as quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant are now in the NFL. But Clemson also brings back a host of key contributors, headlined by All-America-caliber defensive end Vic Beasley, defensive lineman Grady Jarrett and linebacker Stephone Anthony. There is depth on the front seven in former four-star prospects Ebenezer Ogundeko, Scott Pagano and Shaq Lawson.
On offense, quarterback Cole Stoudt waited three years for his chance to start. He'll get his opportunity in 2014. Watson -- who Swinney said will "bring something different to the table” -- should be in the mix as well.
As Clemson has climbed through the ranks, it has done everything in its power to put the Clemsoning label to bed. In fact, Swinney even used the term as a motivating tactic a few seasons ago.
“My first year here it was really bad,” senior receiver Adam Humphries said. “I got introduced to that because we had not proven ourselves. It was one of the things we threw up on the wall in a team meeting. [Swinney] was like, ‘This is where it starts. We have to get rid of this name we’ve created for ourselves.’ My freshman year we hit it hard, and the past few seasons we’ve really knocked it off the board.”
But the Tigers are still not quite where they want to be. They’ve dropped five straight in their series with in-state rival South Carolina and are staring up at defending national champion Florida State -- which has been pegged as the overwhelming favorite in the ACC again -- in the Atlantic Division.
“We’re trying to change the image of Clemsoning,” Anthony said. “That had nothing to do with any of us. It was before we got here. We’re trying to change the mentality and get everybody on the same page. We want to be classified as one of those powerhouses in college football. We’re trying to set the standard.”
South Carolina State
at Florida State
at Boston College
at Wake Forest
at Georgia Tech
Swinney has all the regular paraphernalia in his office in Clemson’s football building, but tucked in the corner are a few poster boards. There is one, in particular, he likes to take out and show: A chart called the “Grid of Shame” that ran in the Wall Street Journal in 2013. The X-axis goes from “weakling” to “powerhouse” based on a program's on-field performance. The Y-axis spans from “embarrassing” to “admirable” as related to off-field elements such as APR, team violations and arrests. Near the top of the top right quadrant (the good one, for those who haven’t used a TI-83 calculator recently) is Clemson.
Swinney says he reads articles and books about leadership, and studies how successful businesses and programs operate. It’s easy to get lucky once. It’s much more difficult to perform at a constantly high level like Apple or Alabama. “That’s the difference in those great companies out there or those great organizations that have been so consistent,” Swinney said. “You have to have the key pieces in place. There has to be a vision or philosophy that’s reinforced in everything that you do decision-wise.”
The coach's work taking Clemson to where he believes it can go is far from over, and his methods are not without blowback; his injection of his Christian faith into some team activities has drawn the ire of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the Tigers are trying to put themselves in position to capitalize on that magic mix of fortune and faculty that prompts a special season, like the one Morris’ friend, Gus Malzahn, experienced at Auburn last year.
“Coach Swinney is building this program to be the best,” Jarrett said. “That’s not to be the best in the Atlantic Division or the ACC. He wants to be the best in the country. We’re trying to build a program here. The goal every year now is to win a national championship at Clemson. We recruit that way. We practice that way. We work in the offseason that way."
That standard will have to be set early in 2014. Clemson opens at Georgia in Week 1. It travels to Florida State on Sept. 20, and it hosts North Carolina a week later. “The bullets are real right out of the gate,” Swinney said.
Still, the Tigers are confident. Their formula is in place. Banners could soon follow.
"The time’s gonna come," Jarrett said. "I know when that time does come, coach Swinney will be at the head of the throne.”