Clemson's 10-Year Transformation
2020 marked the beginning of a new decade and time flies when you are having fun. Coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers were in a completely different place ten years ago than they are right now.
The Tigers' offense was lead by a two-sport star in Kyle Parker and a returning senior, legendary all-purpose player, CJ Spiller. The Tiger defense was anchored by safety Deandre McDaniel and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.
In Dabo Swinney’s first full season, the 2009 Clemson Tigers finished 24th in the AP Poll with a 9-5 overall record. However, even with returning senior CJ Spiller’s 233 yards and 4 touchdowns, the Tigers could not find a way to beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and win their first ACC championship.
The next year, the 2010 Tigers finished with a regular-season record of 6-6 and went 4-4 in conference play. The team struggled to win on the road as they went 1-4 with losses to Auburn, North Carolina, Boston College, and Florida State. Their lone road win was against a struggling 3-9 Wake Forest team.
To finish off the season the Tigers headed down interstate 85 to play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against South Florida. The same South Florida team that co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott is taking over as head coach next year. The bowl game was played on New Year’s Eve and Dabo Swinney’s team never held the lead, losing 31-26.
The Tigers had just finished Dabo Swinney’s first full recruiting cycle and it was full of under-the-radar, culture-changing players.
Combined with the 2009 class, Swinney had just brought in names such as Malliciah Goodman, Roderick McDowell, Brandon Thomas, Corico Wright, Spencer Shuey, Chandler Catanzaro, Martavis Bryant, Brashaun Breeland and Vic Beasley.
Those two recruiting classes produced solid foundational players who helped shape the future of the Clemson Tiger organization.
Since finishing the 2010 season with a 6-7 record, the Tigers have gone 111-26. Just a few of Dabo Swinney’s long list of accomplishments are winning two out of four national championship games, winning six ACC titles, seven Atlantic Division titles, and he has been awarded a total of 11 different Coach of the Year trophies for various organizations.
Dabo was asked to reflect on the last decade of Clemson football and give one word to describe it.
“The last decade,” questioned Swinney.“Transformative."
“From where we were in 2009, my first year, to where we are now, been in five straight playoffs, and we've won two out of the last four National Championships, and we've been in four National Championships," Swinney continued. "You know, I think we've got 69 wins in the last 5 years, which is the most ever in the history of college football over that span. So we've built a program of consistency, and that's really what it's about to me, and it's not just on the field. We've been top 10 academically nine of my 11 years and eight out of the last nine, us, Duke and Northwestern. So we've had a lot of consistency on the field and a lot of consistency off the field.”
There is no denying how far Swinney and the Tigers have come in the past decade.
However, the wins, championships, awards and even losses are not what’s most important to the head coach.
“We'll have more opportunities. These are tough moments. But when I hang my whistle up, it won't be about these moments,” said Swinney. “It's not going to be about the confetti flying and winning a National Championship or a very disappointing painful moment like this where you come up short.”
“It's really more about the relationships that you have. That's true joy, just getting a chance to just come to work every day with such great people. I've got a wonderful staff that is so loyal, so committed, and just a bunch of beautiful young men that lay it on the line.”
Swinney acknowledged that the recent National Championship loss to LSU wasn’t the outcome his team wanted. However, he has developed a culture of winning based on five specific goals: win the opener, win the division, win the state championship, win the conference, and win the closer.
“We won 29 games in a row, and sooner or later you're going to lose one. This certainly wasn't the one we wanted to lose, but I know how we'll respond,” said Swinney. “We'll get back to work. You can't win two until you win one, so we'll get back to work and see if we can come back and have a great year next year and really just try to achieve our goals.”
“We've got five simple goals and they don't change. This doesn't change our goals. The last goal we have is to win the closer, and we hit four out of our five. We didn't get that one done. But I'm just really proud of this group for how they competed and what they did on and off the field.”
The Tiger’s 2019 season has come to an end with one goal left unachieved but success in football and in life is not solely defined by wins or losses.
The seniors on this team leave behind a legacy as one of the most successful Tiger classes to ever play for the university.
“And then these seniors, I'm just so thankful,” said Swinney. “I mean, truly, just God's grace to allow me to watch them develop over the last four and five years, to be with guys like Tanner (Muse), just thankful for them. I'm thankful. No scoreboard changes that. We all hurt. We're all disappointed, but we're not defined by that.”
As the Tigers turn the page on the 2019 season, Clemson fans will now have to say farewell to the young men who have played their final game in an orange uniform.
What will the next chapter hold for Dabo Swinney and this new team of Clemson Tigers? In the words of Strength and Conditioning Coach Joey Batson, “They don’t put championship rings on smooth hands” and the Tigers are eager to get back to work.
“These guys, they competed with all they had,” said Swinney “So sometimes you come up short. Only one team can win, and the best team won tonight. That's just the bottom line. They were the better team tonight. There's nothing you can do but tip your hat and get back to work.”