SANTA CLARA, California – “Y’all built it!” the woman shouted toward Deshaun Watson as he moved through the crowd, easily recognizable to those in orange and purple. “Y’all built it!” she said again, making sure that Watson, along with the other hundred people packed outside of Clemson’s locker room, heard the message. On the night when Clemson celebrated its second national championship in three years, a throng of Tigers fans embraced those who laid the foundation for this magical four-year run to the top of the college football mountain. Some, like Watson, were present in the postgame revelry of Clemson’s 44–16 win over Alabama, basking in a confetti-covered celebration for which they hold some responsibility.
But what is it they built? It’s not a dynasty, coach Dabo Swinney says, at least not yet. “We are a long way from a dynasty,” he said. Appropriately defining the Tigers’ run of 55 wins and four losses over four years is not easy; settling on that timeframe as the start of this golden period of Clemson football is difficult enough. Did it begin with Watson & Co.’s run to the title game in 2015 or their championship victory over Alabama in ’16? Does it stretch back to Swinney’s hiring of defensive coordinator Brent Venables in ’12 or the start of his offensive evolution under former coordinator Chad Morris in 2011?
What we do know is that Clemson’s commanding victory Monday night in northern California has as least legitimized the question: Has Swinney’s program reached the level Alabama has occupied alone under Nick Saban for nearly a decade? “I think we are,” Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow said inside a celebratory postgame locker room. The Tigers are just the 10th team in college football history to claim a second national title in a three-year stretch, they’re 2–2 in postseason games against the Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff era, winning the rubber match of three championship bouts. “We’re slowly getting there, and we proved it tonight that we’re the best team this year,” Renfrow said. “The team next year has their work cut out for them. I’m sure Alabama is not going to be too happy.”
Swinney expects this Bama-Clemson jousting to continue. After Monday’s game, he told Saban, “See you next year.” The championship stakes have turned this into one of college football’s most significant rivalries between two programs from different conferences. This decade’s Alabama-Clemson series is up there with Florida–Florida State (1990s), Miami-Nebraska (1980s and ’90s), Alabama–Notre Dame (1970s), Notre Dame–USC (1960s and ’70s) and Oklahoma–Notre Dame (1950s and ’60s). This one is on another level: Two teams have split the AP national titles in a four-year stretch for the first time since Army and Notre Dame in the 1940s, proof that Bama-Clemson is guaranteed to go down in the sport’s rich history of elite duels. In the four playoff games between the two teams, Clemson leads the aggregate scoring 125–116, thanks to Monday night’s 28-point win.
During the trophy presentation Monday night, ESPN’s Rece Davis asked Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins if the game’s result represented a changing of the guard. “That’s up to everybody else,” he said. “That’s up for y’all to decide.” Whether Clemson has really shifted the balance of power away from Alabama is not something that can be discerned in a 60-minute football game. Clemson coaches have come to that realization. It’s not something done in a night. “Alabama is the best program in college football, been the most consistent, got the most championships over the last several years,” says Tony Elliott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. “We’re hoping to build on the success we’ve had. Hopefully people will recognize that Clemson is building something special and we plan to be here for a while. If we can continue to win games like this, we’ll be in the conversation with Alabama.”
Swinney calls his program “great,” but not yet to the level of the Tide. Alabama is in the midst of one of college football’s most dominant decades. Saban’s run of five national championships in 10 years lands him among the game’s legendary coaches. Bear Bryant won six titles in a 19-season stretch; Woody Hayes had five championships in 17 years at Ohio State; Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy won four in five years; USC claimed four in 13 years under John McKay. “From a dynasty standpoint, Alabama is kind of in a category of their own,” Swinney said. This rivalry with the Tide runs deeper than their annual momentous meetings. Swinney is a Birmingham, Ala., native who played receiver for the Crimson Tide, worked as an assistant there for eight years and nearly joined Saban’s staff back in 2007. In fact, Swinney says his Alabama roots helped him land the permanent Clemson job during the interview process in 2008 when he was the interim head coach. He walked into a meeting of suit-wearing decision makers somewhat hopeless.
“I don’t know any of these people,” he recalled. “It was very stuffy and I thought ‘This is going to go well.’ One of the guys says ‘Coach, we want to be a program like Michigan, Florida, Georgia.’ I’m talking to myself, ‘Keep your mouth shut, get out of here and move on, but the Alabama in me wouldn’t allow that,” he continued. “I kind of cut the guy off and said, ‘I don’t mean this disrespectful, but that’s not my goal. My vision for Clemson is for all these other schools to be like Clemson. I want to be a model program. I want to do it in a way that loves our players, serves our players, equips our players. I want to have some fun doing it, and if it doesn’t work, I can go do something else.’” In the end, he got the job, and he’s built the program in the way he described it that day a decade ago. The method in which he’s erected this juggernaut is one of “love and fun,” his players say, a trickle-down from his bubbly personality. The stoic and serious Saban constructed the Tide in much different fashion. “It just shows that there’s lots of different ways to do things,” Swinney said.
Some around college football accuse Saban of bending rules, and his program is often referred to in coaching circles as the Evil Empire. “Coach Swinney has built it on fun, and obviously Coach Saban has built it on a process,” Renfrow said. “I’m just so proud of being at a place like Clemson, where I feel like we’ve done it the right way. If we’re supposed to have only five guys on the field as coaches, we’re making sure we have five. We’re not doing it the wrong way and we’re having fun doing it.” (You can be the judge on whether that was a subtle jab at Saban and his organization.) “This program is about love,” defensive back Trayvon Mullen described it. The differences carry over to X’s and O’s as well, says Woody McCorvey, a longtime college football assistant who has been Swinney’s director of operations since 2009. “Some of the philosophies might be the same but the methods are different,” McCorvey says. “The Alabama program, they believe in running the football. We believe in that, but we believe in doing it with more open sets. [Dabo] believes in throwing the football. His background is a receiver and receivers coach. Nick has a more hands-on approach on the defense. Dabo has a more hands-on approach with the offense.”
There are similarities, of course. Elliott says both men are incredible motivators, are detailed-oriented and “demand perfection.” Swinney says both he and Saban are “true to who we are,” committed to their own core values and have surrounded themselves with large support staffs, an infrastructure that helps develop players. “Their biggest difference,” Elliott says, “is their personality types.”
Swinney’s deep connections to Alabama have fueled the persistent theory that the 49-year-old is the 67-year-old Saban’s heir apparent. “Aaaah, I don’t even want to get into that,” says McCorvey, an Alabama native himself who shared time on the Crimson Tide staff in the 1990s with Swinney. “He’s been here a long time, as an assistant and a head coach, almost 17 years all together. His kids have graduated from the public school system here, and he’s got another in the ninth grade. He’s got a lot invested here. Clemson people have invested a lot in us over here with facilities and all that. He’s built this program the right way and we keep adding to it every year. He’d tell anybody, ‘You never say never,’ but this has been home to him for a long time.”
After the game, behind closed locker room doors, Swinney delivered a message to his team about “joy,” according to athletic director Dan Radakovich, who heard the speech firsthand. Joy was a season-long theme for the Tigers, a “mantra” that culminated in a championship, as Radakovich says. Several feet away stood Watson, having exited the on-field celebration to find that throng of Clemson fans awaiting players outside of the locker room. “Y’all built this!” the same woman yelled toward him a third time. The momentum Watson and his teammates began building years ago doesn’t feel like it’s fading anytime soon. Radakovich smiles when Watson is mentioned. “Lord willing,” he said, “we have one of these days a few years from now, and a bunch of guys in that locker room will be doing the same thing.”