CLEMSON, S.C.—Dabo Swinney stood at midfield at Clemson's storied Memorial Stadium holding a microphone in his right hand. On an unusually warm Sunday in December, more than 30,000 Tigers fan stared down from the stands at Swinney, who donned a purple quarter-zip sweater and jeans. And they munched on free pizza while they listened.
Twelve hours earlier the seventh-year head coach had clinched his second ACC Championship at Clemson with a 45–37 win over North Carolina in Charlotte, but now the home crowd hung on every word as Reverend Swinney preached from his gridiron pulpit. "It is Sunday," he said, his voice bellowing throughout the stadium, "so I'm gonna give you a little word."
Swinney began to recite one of his favorite Bible verses, Galatians 6:9: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Swinney's rowdy congregation cheered as he pointed to the field. Clemson players stood clapping in their orange sweatsuits. "This team has not grown weary," Swinney said. "They have stayed the course. They have overcome all kinds of obstacles. This is our season of harvest, but it's just getting going."
There's a reason why thousands of fans flocked to campus on Sunday afternoon to watch ESPN's selection show live on the Memorial Stadium big screen. All planned to witness their 13–0 Tigers cement the top seed in the College Football Playoff's final set of rankings, which would mean playing for a national title for the first time under Swinney.
But those fans also had another motive for attending. After Clemson debuted at No. 1 in the first playoff rankings on Nov. 3, Swinney famously said he'd " open up Death Valley and serve pizza to everybody" if his team landed in the top four on Dec. 6, when the final rankings were unveiled. Soon Swinney's pledge became a national story, and this weekend Clemson delivered on Swinney's promise. "There's gonna be four teams in this thing today," Swinney told the crowd on Sunday, " but ain't nobody gonna be doing what we're doing in Clemson, South Carolina."
Clemson pulled out all the stops to kick off its unique celebration. Gates opened at Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m. on Sunday—several hundred fans lined up long before then—before ESPN's selection show kicked off at noon. As the crowd filed into the stadium's south bleachers, a DJ spun music while Clemson's video board flashed highlights from the team's unbeaten season. And, of course, concession stands offered free slices of Papa John's pizza to fans in attendance.
Swinney knew his off-the-cuff pledge sparked a massive undertaking by Clemson. "Y'all know me," the coach said afterward. "I just kind of say sometimes what pops into my head, without really thinking. I was just simply trying to talk about the insignificance of the poll." But the school still solicited 10 regional Papa John's stores to provide than 3,000 pizzas for Clemson fans on Sunday. A plan hatched as nothing more than a motivation tool turned into a celebration for a playoff-bound program. "Only in Clemson do you have a day like today," Swinney said.
Fans trekked to campus in search of pizza last weekend, and they likely expected little drama from ESPN's playoff announcement. Before the unveiling of the four-team bracket, host Rece Davis sparked cheers from the crowd when he noted Clemson had remained No. 1 in each one of the committee's previous rankings. Later, that same crowd booed analyst Kirk Herbstreit after he asked whether No. 2 Alabama should jump No. 1 Clemson in the final bracket. But the stadium shook at 12:32 p.m. when the Tigers' name appeared in the top spot in the bracket. That officially put No. 1 Clemson into a Dec. 31 matchup with No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Most of the 30,000 in attendance had waited years to cheer for such a dominant Clemson team. Brian Higgins, a lifelong Tigers fan, drove 45 minutes from his home in Greenville, S.C., to Memorial Stadium on Sunday with his six-year-old son, Fisher. The Higgins clan wanted to support their unbeaten team while also snagging some pizza courtesy of the Dabo Discount.
"I just think back to around seven years ago, when Dabo first started," Higgins said. "It's taken him a while to get here, and people laughed at him early on. He's a wide receivers coach! But he's stayed the course, and it's amazing what he's done."
The celebration that reverberated inside Death Valley had the distinct feel of a championship parade, something unfamiliar to Clemson. After all, the program boasts just one national title (1981), and a series of notorious losses since then. But on Sunday fans embraced a Tigers' squad that will now vie for the national championship, something that seemed unlikely in August after losing nine defensive starters from the 2014 team. That's why Clemson players stuck around to thank fans on Sunday, signing autographs and snapping photos pictures with kids on the edge of the stands.
"It just shows you what the Clemson family is," star quarterback Deshaun Watson said. "These fans are the best in the nation. I really believe that."
Now Clemson's challenge is winning two more games. For the Tigers' part, confidence isn't an issue. "This team, we think that we can play with anybody," center Jay Guillermo said. "You bring the Atlanta Falcons in here, we think that we can beat them. It's just a mindset we have."
But Swinney, who emphasized on Sunday just how difficult it is to maintain an undefeated record, knows it takes more than swagger to win a national title. That's why Clemson enters uncharted waters over the season's next month: The program has become a perennial power under Swinney, but it has yet to achieve perfection.
On Sunday, Swinney made sure he took time to cherish what his program has already accomplished. He flashed a wide smile as Clemson's named appeared on the Memorial Stadium video board, nestled into the playoff bracket's No. 1 spot on national television. It wasn't the coach's ultimate goal, but that moment served as an important step in what could become a memorable season at Clemson. "To see it live like that, and to be able to celebrate it with 30,000 of your best friends," Swinney said, "it's pretty cool."