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Ten Years Ago Clemson Football Changed

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Ten years ago Clemson fans started their Monday morning with the stunning news that Tommy Bowden was actually gone. In his place, a young coach named Dabo Swinney. Not many knew about Coach Swinney, and even fewer could predict the success he would have. Today, on the anniversary of his hiring, our staff reminisces on where they were when they found out that Clemson had a new head coach.

Alex Craft: I remember 2008 vividly. I was a senior in high school, already a well-known Clemson fanboy in my Columbia-area high school, only a few months away from my Clemson acceptance. I witnessed the beatdown at the hands of Alabama and the collapse against Maryland firsthand, and knew that with the loss at Wake Forest, Tommy Bowden was all but fired unless he won the division.

2008 was a time before smartphones and widespread data plans; I was mired in my intellectual infancy and actually read the TigerNet message boards (never ever do this) for rumors and inside scoops. My parents’ house was only a mile or two from my school in Blythewood, and as a senior I had a free period before lunch, which I used to drive home and enjoy an extended lunch hour or two.

There was nothing substantial on the interwebs late that morning when I last gleaned headlines for news, just the same buzz and conjecture since the loss at Wake the week before. But within an hour of returning to school that afternoon, my mom sent a text informing me of Bowden’s removal and Swinney’s promotion to interim. To this day, she lords it over her “well-informed know it all son” that she knew of the biggest coaching news at Clemson in my lifetime before I did. I still cannot live it down; no matter what intel I provide when she asks even the most trivial of questions, she will slap back with “I KNEW ABOUT DABO BEFORE YOU!”

My reaction was one of confusion and mixed emotion. I had always believed in Bowden (intellectual infancy remember) and I bought into all the 2008 preseason hype. I believed my undergrad years were going to be a dominant time for a Clemson program on the cusp of its next step; fresh off its #2 ranked 2008 recruiting class and with an opening to exploit at the top of the division with Florida State declining in Bobby Bowden’s twilight.

But six games into the year and it was all gone. Bowden was out, the recruiting class began to deteriorate, and Clemson sat 3-3, already with 2 losses to middling programs in its own division. To cap it all off, a wide receiver coach with barely any experience was put in charge. In the back of my mind I wondered if Dabo was put there because he was expected to fail, leaving Clemson free to chase bigger names unbeholden to giving the interim guy a shot at the full time gig.

I knew little to nothing of Dabo at the time. I was rooting for him of course, and he won my (still) overly-sentimental heart when he shut up all the jokes in Columbia with his own beatdown on South Carolina to conclude the regular season. I can’t say I foresaw this level of sustained success, but I’d much rather have what we’ve enjoyed in my postgrad years than the “next step” I envisioned for my undergrad years with Bowden at the helm in the summer of 2008. Many of us here have been fortunate enough to meet Dabo on more than one occasion, and I can honestly say there is no one more genuine or enjoyable than this beautiful, lovable man.

Colby: I remember exactly where I was. It was my freshman year in high school, and I was pretty down on where the season had gone. The team had been ranked in the top ten, and we had plenty of talent all over the place and people were excited. Having lost 12-7 to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, we all wondered just how much farther this team could fall. My father had fallen off the Bowden bandwagon years ago (I fell off in 2007 after the special team’s meltdown against Virginia Tech and Eddie Royal in Death Valley). I was walking to lunch before were heading to English class. That’s when one of my friends ran up to me that afternoon and told me that Bowden had officially been fired. I could barely focus in school the rest of that day. It was all anyone could talk about, given that it happened in the middle of the season and mere days after that horrible loss against Wake Forest that had the team sitting at 3-3. It was a season and program-altering decision that I was super excited about. Honestly, I felt Clemson wouldn’t make the move after being pressured to give him that horrible contract extension when those rumors were fostered about him being in contact with another head coaching job.

I remember watching that press conference on the local NBC-news affiliate WYFF and seeing Dabo Swinney being named the interim coach. At that point, I’m thinking about everyone else in the country but Dabo that Clemson could hire. Having grown up most of my football life under Bowden, I’d never had the experience of a new head coach and the type of excitement/anticipation. Seeing how Bowden stuck up for Dabo and how he handled himself in that press conference, it was easy to see why he was such a well-regarded recruiter. Even his press conferences referencing “Dumb and Dumber” (So you’re saying there’s a chance?), there was no denying the guy had a certain style and energy that made him endearing to the media and probably his players. But was that head coaching material? I wasn’t so sure, but I couldn’t rule it out, especially as the team played with a renewed vigor under his guidance. At that point, it’s like, “Well, might as well enjoy whatever ride this season has left with this interim coach. Wonder if he’ll stick or if he’ll end up elsewhere.” Well, after taking us to a bowl game and soundly beating South Carolina, it’s a ride that hasn’t ended and taken us into the years of Clemson football that hadn’t been here since the 1980s. Here’s to more great moments and championships with Dabo Swinney. We’re all in it for the long haul. Happy anniversary, coach.

Ryan_Kantor: I was a student in 2008. I was sitting in Amanda Fine’s 9am marketing class without only about 10 minutes left when a student in the back of the auditorium stood up holding his Blackberry (with the little roller ball) in the air. Mrs. Fine stopped mid-sentence to see why he interrupted and he blurted out “Tommy Bowden just resigned!” After a roar of applause, Mrs. Fine responded with “class dismissed.” Students ran out of the room high fiving and ready for a new era. It wasn’t that Coach Bowden wasn’t good or was hated, he was solid and fairly well-respected, but a new era meant hope for more.

Dirk: I don’t have a specific memory of when Bowden was fired and Dabo took over, but I do remember the first time I saw him as head coach. I don’t remember if it was the punter or the kicker, but he came walking off the field rather lackadaisically. Dabo ran onto the field and got on his case with some vigor, clearly telling him to go back and hustle off the field. I remember thinking “This guy pays attention to the details. He’s going to be good.” As a coach, that little incident, that probably slipped by most casual observers, made quite an impression on me. Getting the little things right makes big things happen, and I think Dabo understands that.

C_Craft: I was in my first year working at Cane Bay High School when it went down after that Wake game. I felt like I was one of the later fans to get on the fire Bowden train but I was firmly on it after that inexcusable Maryland loss prior to the Wake game. I think my breaking point was Bowden insisting that Maryland was a good team and had scholarships too and other equivocation. I was shocked at first that Dabo got the interim tag over Vic Koenning who had head coaching experience. However, Dabo’s very first press conference after getting the interim tag had me sold completely. I’ve never been able to find a video of that one, just the one when he got the full time job, but it was epic and where the “All in” motto was born. One quote that stuck out was that it should be a “shock to the system” when Clemson loses a home game. It was none of that 50% of the teams lose every week garbage we’d been hearing. I felt Bowden was afraid of expectations but Swinney embraced them from the jump.

My AD at Cane Bay at that time was former Tiger OL Jeff Cruce who played on the 81 team. I asked him about it and he was skeptical and said it was an “emotional hire.” He actually was in favor of a guy like Muschamp at that time! All I said was Dabo said things in that first presser that I had been waiting over a decade to hear from a Clemson coach.

J_Priester: I was driving and listening on the radio when official word came through. I was happy that Bowden knew it was time and was going “peacefully.” Why not though, with all the money we still owed him. I was rather surprised that it was Dabo who was named the interim coach, seeing there were more experienced guys on staff they could’ve went with.

I liked Swinney from that opening presser and thought he did about as well as could be expected finishing the season. I have to say though that I wasn’t thrilled he was given the job permanently. I thought there were better options and was afraid we’d taken the route that would hurt the least financially. As usual, I should’ve listened to my dad. From the beginning he said “He’s the guy,” and as usual it turned out he was spot on. I’m not sure I have ever been so happy that I was so wrong.

John M: can’t tell you exactly where I was, I hadn’t yet invested myself in Clemson football yet, although I was a fan. I had seen with my own eyes Clemson get destroyed by Alabama, a sight only worsened by my return home, to Alabama, to face all my friends at school the following Monday. Bowden’s resignation and Dabo’s hiring came at a crazy point in my life, and when it happened I just kind of ignored it. I remember seeing the news, but I didn’t really have an opinion, which was rare for me. It didn’t even really register for me that Bowden had left until I saw Dabo yelling at a punter to run off the field versus Georgia Tech (My Dad yelling “now THAT is a football coach” at the TV when it happened forever etched itself in my memory). My Clemson fandom grew the next year and had wholly entrenched itself by the time I reached high school (yeah I was in middle school when it happened, feel old yet, Brian?) and one could easily gauge if Clemson won or lost based merely on how good my day at school was the following Monday. Had Dabo not been the one to take over, I doubt I care as much about Clemson; I definitely wouldn’t have gone to Clemson. The thing that made my final college decision was walking into my Spanish class senior year, the day after I had gotten my acceptance letter from Clemson, looking unsure about my future and everyone in the room telling me Clemson was the place for me. None of them had ever visited Clemson, all they knew of it beyond football was what I had enthusiastically told them, but every one of them was sure this was the place. I thank Dabo, though he did it somewhat indirectly, for that.