Dabo Swinney, the young Clemson coach, was talking to a group of old players last Friday night at a reunion of the 1981 Tigers, the only Clemson team to win a national title. The players, most of them, had seen 50 come and go, and a few were wearing pleated Dockers with cellphones on their belts and championship rings on their thick fingers. Full onset middle age. Danny Ford, an even younger coach himself 30 years ago, sat on a sofa and listened as Swinney suddenly found himself talking about ... Steve Jobs.
This is an article from the Oct. 31, 2011 issue
"Steve Jobs?" Swinney asked the room. You could hear his mossy boyhood near Birmingham in the way he said the name. Dabo got his own moniker from an older brother who called the new kid in the house, christened Christopher, a variant of dat boy. "The Apple guy?" Yes, of course: Steve Jobs, the Apple guy. The whole room knew, but Swinney understands the wisdom in taking nothing for granted. "I heard a quote about him from President Obama. President Obama says, 'This was a man who was brave enough to think differently.'"
Ford, now 63, and his Clemson team were brave enough to think differently, Coach Dabo said, and they won the national title. The 41-year-old Swinney (pronounced SWEE-nee) was challenging himself and his team to do the same—and make the Tigers, who have not won even an ACC championship in 20 years, special again.
They have been thinking differently. The hallmark of Clemson football has always been stingy defenses. Now, the Tigers are looking to put way more points on the board, and after a 59--38 spanking of North Carolina last Saturday they are averaging 40.6, best in the conference, up 16.6 from last year. They have a new up-tempo offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, who takes his cues from the 32-minute full-court press high school basketball teams he used to coach. They have a new starting quarterback in sophomore Tajh Boyd, who offers at least the suggestion of Donovan McNabb. They have a new change-of-pace option in freshman back Mike Bellamy, and a new air option, in freshman receiver Sammy Watkins. Both run as if they were lifted off the track team. Keeping an almost fatherly eye on those youths, and teaching them some of the tricks of the college football trade, is Dwayne Allen, once the team's biggest brat (or worse) and now one of its sage leaders, and a highly effective tight end too.
Swinney and Morris loved what they saw of Bellamy and Watkins in preseason practice, and Swinney committed to his youth movement from the start of the season. Landon Walker, the starting right tackle whose father was on the 1981 squad, said he's never been on a team in which player assignments are so clear. On the sideline Swinney looks so animated, but his mantra, as Walker described it, is this: "Execute, execute, execute."
This is a team that doesn't panic. In the second week of the season the Tigers were playing Wofford. After two quarters they were tied 21--21. At home. Against an FCS team. In the second half Clemson figured a few things out and allowed its superior fitness, as much as anything, to take over, winning 35--27. The following week the Tigers, who entered the season unranked and picked to finish second in the Atlantic division, beat defending national champion Auburn 38--24. They are now 8--0 and ranked sixth in the country. Mojo has returned to Death Valley.
Swinney and his wife, Kathleen, and the oldest of their three sons, Will, scurried out of the 1981 reunion, and made a quick stop in Daddy's office before joining the team at a Friday-night movie, Dream House. In the office, among many posted credos, one stood out for its simple genius: THERE IS NOTHING LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE SCORE AT HALFTIME. Swinney, a wide receiver on Alabama's 1992 national championship team, believes that for football and even more so for life. In his own boyhood, he says, he lived through the havoc caused by his father's addiction to alcohol. He has also, he says, seen his father, Ervil, turn his life around 16 years ago and become sober.
After the movie Dabo and Will headed to the team hotel. Campus offers many distractions, while the Hilton Garden Inn off I-85 in Anderson, S.C., offers none. Two team buses, one for the offense and one for the defense, left for Memorial Stadium at 9:30 the following morning. Before boarding, each offensive player was given a sealed envelope with a handwritten pep note from his position coach. Morris started the practice this fall. He's the Bill James/Billy Beane of this Clemson team, thinking of new solutions to old problems, like how to score more points than your opponent. So far, so good. Last year, the Tigers were 6--7.
At the stadium the players changed into their uniforms while the muffled music of the Clemson marching band and the chants of fans oozed through the cinder-block walls of their locker room. With the band, the cheerleaders, the dance team and the majorettes, there are almost three uniformed supporters for every uniformed player, and that's not counting the dozens of male fans wearing nothing but purple and orange body paint north of their navels, with Tiger paws painted on their nipples. (For this and other liberties wars have been fought.) Among the female fans the look of the moment is a short orange skirt, bare legs and mid-calf, square-toed cowboy boots. Death Valley on game day is a spectacular place to be.
There were 79,000 people in the house on Saturday. The Clemson library, modern and often packed, practically shuts down on Saturdays when the Tigers are at home. The library owns a Bible that once belonged to one of Swinney's predecessors, John Heisman. In it, somebody wrote Heisman's 14 football do's and don'ts. The last of them:
Heisman, surely, would love the Tigers' record but would be surprised at how it has been achieved. Against North Carolina they scored 35 third-quarter points, tying a school record. Boyd threw five touchdowns in the game, tying another school record. Watkins, his long dreads flying, caught one of them and has already scored nine times this year. Allen snagged one scoring pass.
Last season Clemson averaged 66.6 snaps a game. This year, with the institution of a high-tempo, no-huddle offense, the team is averaging 78.3, and on Saturday the Tigers had 84. Morris, age 42, majored in math and minored in statistics at Texas A&M, and snaps per game is his OPS. His goal for every game, whether ahead or behind, is to reach 80. "When you're working fast like that, your defense is going to be on the field more, so they have to be in better shape, and the offense is so up-tempo, it has to be in better shape too," Morris said late on Saturday afternoon. The coach looked exhilarated, but exhausted. With Oklahoma and Wisconsin losing that night, Clemson jumped from seventh to fifth in the BCS standings.
Swinney, who hired Morris away from Tulsa, has an analytical side, like his offensive coordinator. He has a spiritual side, like the coach who hired him as an assistant at Clemson, Tommy Bowden. And he has a boyish side, like Ford had 30 years ago. The old guys from the 1981 team were saying last week that Ford was a players' coach and the young guys from the '11 team were saying the same thing about Dabo.
When the game was over, Swinney gathered the team around in a big circle in the locker room. Somebody put on the old KC and the Sunshine Band anthem, Boogie Shoes, and Swinney started dancing like a wild man, hips gyrating, arms slinking this way and that, eyes bulging, his light brown hair plastered against his forehead. His players were hooting and hollering and joining in. What a scene.
The music stopped, and Dabo praised this player and that one, both on offense and defense. He was briefly critical of the second-teamers who played most of the fourth quarter, when North Carolina outscored them 14--0. "You backups got to be ready to play," he said. "There should be no drop-off." And then he quickly said, "Enough of that."
He then spoke of the team's record and noted that the 1981 team was once 8--0, too. "You are on the verge of greatness, but you've got to kick the door down," he said.
Finally, Swinney asked his players and coaches to hold hands. "We thank the good Lord for the privilege of being on this team," he said. "Help us be a team and love each other." He prayed for the Tar Heels to travel home safely and for his players to make good Saturday night decisions. As he neared the end of his off-the-cuff invocation, he said, "I pray that people will know that we have Christ among us." Most every head was bent.
Before long, the locker room emptied. The last player to leave was Allen, the 6'4", 255-pound senior who is projected to be the one of the first tight ends taken in next year's NFL draft. As a freshman he butted heads with Swinney again and again. "I'd call him Dabo, just to get under his skin," Allen said. He fought with other players and told his coaches to f--- off. One day he refused to practice. Swinney, then in his first year at Clemson, was often furious at Allen but refused to give up on him. He knew Allen could help him win games and he could see—in the trauma of Allen's impoverished and hectic childhood in Fayetteville, N.C.—the trauma of his own.
And now Allen is a leader on the team, and not just because he has caught five touchdowns this season. "What I experienced under Coach Swinney," he said, "was a total transformation." Allen is not religious, and he doesn't take the coach's postgame prayers literally. He treats them as a communal message.
"What we have is the feeling of comfort where we are able to dance with each other," Allen said, adding that Swinney, on the dance floor, "reminds me of a squid." No matter. The dancing shows "the love we have for each other," and that has everything to do with why the team is 8--0, Allen said. "We're looking out for each other."
Swinney was saying exactly the same thing at the Friday night reunion. But he wasn't talking about his team. He was talking about the 1981 team. He said the reason those Tigers went undefeated was because they looked after one another. And, he noted, they have been looking after one another ever since. As Swinney spoke, he gave the winners from 30 years ago a careful look, slowed his delivery and said, "I understand the bond you have." Swinney had that bond at Alabama. He's been there. He gets it. And now he's trying to pass it on.