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The Journey to Greatness: What Did Clemson Look Like Pre-Dabo Swinney?

Reflecting on the state of Clemson football prior to Swinney's tenure as head coach.

Under the leadership of head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has claimed a spot as an elite college football program. But it wasn’t long ago when an eight- or nine-win season could get the head coach a bonus and contract extension.

My, how times have changed in little ole Clemson

Dabo Swinney’s journey from Pelham,, to Clemson, S.C., is one of many “rags to riches” stories that make sports so special. He’s gone from a no-name wide receiver’s coach to the leader of one of the best programs in college football.

Clemson has twice climbed to the top of the college football mountain and seems to be in contention for the ultimate hardware each season. But it hasn’t always been so great to be a Clemson Tiger. 

Those sentiments rang especially true for fans of the orange and white in the years between Danny Ford — who brought the Tigers their first football national championship — and Dabo Swinney. Clemson had to endure some mediocre years under Ken Hatfield (1990-1993), Tommy West (1993-1998) and Tommy Bowden (1999-2008). To his credit, Hatfield (32-13-1 overall) did bring Clemson an ACC title in 1991. However, he was never able to fully win over the fans. 

West took over in 1993 with a Peach Bowl victory over Kentucky, becoming his first career win in Clemson. He received a warmer welcome as a head coach than Hatfield given his track record and history with the Tigers, having served as an assistant under Ford. 

Immediately prior to becoming the head coach in Clemson, West held the same position at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (1993) and served as defensive coordinator/linebacker coach at South Carolina (1991-1992) and running backs coach at Tennessee (1990). However, his 31-28 record opened the door for another Tommy to take over the throne.

Unfortunately, Bowden didn’t quite have the type of success as his father Bobby at fellow ACC foe, Florida State. The Bowden era in Clemson was full of highs and some notable lows. He guided the Tigers to thrilling wins such as the 47-44 overtime shootout at No. 9 Georgia Tech in 2001, to the improbable 26-10 win over No. 3 Florida State in 2003 and a road win at No. 11 Miami (2004).

The Bowden Bowl V triumph derailed Florida State’s national championship aspirations and helped spark a four-game winning streak to end the season. It almost certainly spared Bowden’s job after losing in Winston-Salem 45-17 the week prior. Unfortunately, there were head-scratching losses to Maryland (2003,2006,2008) and Duke, just one week following the '04 win at Miami. The inconsistency was off the charts and ultimately cost Bowden his job in Clemson.


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However, his teams made the postseason every year, except for 2004 when Clemson and South Carolina both self-withdrew following an ugly on-field brawl in the annual rivalry game.

Speaking of the Gamecocks, it would be remiss to not give Bowden credit for a stellar 7-2 record against South Carolina. While he couldn’t quite seem to get over the hill, he knew how to win the Palmetto Bowl. 

His time on the sidelines in Death Valley didn’t end as anyone would have hoped. The general consensus in 2008 was that it was time for a change in Tiger Town. That being said, the never-ending slander was perhaps a little unfair to the FSU coaching legend’s son. After all, Bowden is responsible for bringing Swinney to Clemson in the first place. 

Bowden even gave his athletic director Terry Don Phillips his vote of confidence in Swinney to take over in the interim upon his departure as head coach. 

It is fair to say Clemson rolled the dice, giving Swinney the interim position. But just days after an exciting 31-14 victory archrival South Carolina in a rain-soaked Death Valley, he found himself wearing an orange blazer as Clemson’s 25th head football coach during an introductory press conference in the West End Zone.

While Swinney, too, had a bit of a roller-coaster ride in his early years, he’s emerged as one of the hottest names in the coaching market, turning an average Clemson program to one of the best in the country.

Clemson has gone from the team that will inevitably lose a game it shouldn’t have to beating most anyone put in its path.

What a journey it has been not only for Swinney personally but for Clemson as a whole. 

With two national championships, six ACC championships, eight divisional titles and several personal accolades, including three Paul “Bear” Bryant awards (2015,2016,2018), two ACC coach of the year trophies (2015,2018) and AP College Football Coach of the Year winner (2015), it’s pretty clear Clemson’s gamble on a wide receiver’s coach has paid off.