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A Moment in Clemson History: Cock-a-doodle-doo

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Watch as Dabo’s interim tag... disappears!

TCU v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

November 29th, 2008

It’s 2nd & 8, near midfield.

Your defense just intercepted South Carolina QB Chris Smelley for the second time on this cold, overcast November day. It’s 10-0 Clemson right now, about halfway through the second quarter. You run the play that your interim head coach, calling plays in place of the OC he fired, drew up to try and get to a 3rd and short, but now you’ve got two Gamecock pass rushers coming at you off the strongside unblocked. 2 days before, you, Cullen Harper, could’ve been eating turkey, warm by a fire somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains with not a problem in the world. Instead, right now, you’re coldly staring down the barrel of a blitz while Chris Smelley stares off into the distance thinking of the awful day he’s had.

The blitz is closing in, and you think you see a guy kind of open on the left side of the field.

BUT BEFORE we get to the main part, let’s take a move out of the SB Nation Youtube Playbook and rewind this moment a bit. Let’s take it back, all the way to the previous bowl season.

It’s December 2007, Clemson HC Tommy Bowden is fresh off of a pretty good 9-3 regular season that featured wins over FSU and South Carolina, losing only to Georgia Tech (in Atlanta), ACC Champion Virginia Tech, and Matt Ryan’s Boston College. Naturally, Bowden has leveraged that season into a position to possibly find a new job, and Arkansas had just let Houston “Heppin’” Nutt head to Ole Miss. They were enticing, and it honestly looked like Bowden was as good as gone.

But then, on December 4th, AD Terry Don Phillips came down from his perch to offer Bowden a 4-year extension that would make Bowden one of the highest paid coaches in the ACC.

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden didn’t have to leave for Arkansas to find the security he wanted.

Bowden agreed to a four-year extension Tuesday that, if he stays until the end, would keep him with the Tigers longer than any coach but the program’s celebrated patriarch, Frank Howard.

”I fully intended when I came here nine years ago to make this my last stop,” Bowden said.

Bowden’s new contract would take him through 2014 with only Howard’s 30-season tenure at Clemson (1940-69) longer.

And there you have it, Bowden signed on the dotted line and was now locked-in long-term following three straight 8+ win seasons, Tommy Bowden could get to work building his best team yet. A week later, Arkansas would hire Bobby Petrino in a not-at-all awkward way, and everyone’s happy.

The excitement amongst the Clemson fanbase following the 2007 season was nearing a relative peak, the high-flying offense that featured “Thunder and Lightning” (James Davis and C.J. Spiller, respectively) was returning nearly everyone that you could ask for. Cullen Harper had done well taking over the starting role QB following Will Proctor, and possession WR Aaron Kelly and speedster Jacoby Ford rounded out a balanced attack that would only get better with experience. To top it all off? Clemson had just signed the #1 recruit, DE Da’Quan Bowers and were well on their way to a pre-season #9 ranking going into a neutral site showdown with an Alabama team coached by some bloke named Nicholas. The excitement could not be contained.

Bowden was not done being annoying though. During the spring semester, there was a heartwarming story of a Clemson player, 19-year-old Ray Ray McElrathbey, taking custody of his 11-year-old brother from his deadbeat parents and getting assistance from the NCAA to take care of him. Well, around the end of the spring semester, ole Tommy decided to pull McElrathbey’s scholarship because “We’re pretty good at running back right now.” Not a great way to gain favor from a fanbase that knows you almost left them.

And not a great way to attract recruits either, as SI.com’s Andy Staples put it:

McElrathbey wasn’t the best player available, but Bowden made a massive miscalculation if he assumed his choice was strictly a football decision. The negative PR -- Bowden has been ripped throughout the nation, and high school coaches in McElrathbey’s home state of Georgia are questioning whether they should send players to Clemson -- far outweighed the consequences of keeping McElrathbey on an athletic scholarship.

But not to worry, Clemson had their sights trained on a huge year. They’d not won the ACC in 17 years, and many felt they had a team that could compete for the program’s first national title since 1981. Game 1 was a heavyweight fight, Alabama had just had a big recruiting class, and many felt that Nick Saban could build Bama up much as he did with LSU. Sure, he went 7-6 and lost to ULM in his first year, but he didn’t have any of his own players! The game was in the Georgia Dome, the place where Clemson had lost a heartbreaker in OT to Auburn in the Chick-fil-a Bowl the season before.

The first quarter was all Alabama. They started with two field goals, but it felt like the offense was just getting its bearings, they quickly added a TD, and it was 13-0 before you knew it. Clemson “fought back” with a field goal to cut it to 13-3, but Tommy Bowden had already gone into his deer-in-headlights mode. Alabama tacked on ten more points before the half and just like that the hopes of a national title run were in the garbage. C.J. Spiller returned the second half opening kickoff in a dazzling showcase of speed, but Clemson would not score again, losing 34-10.

At no point was the Alabama game in jeopardy, and immediately the fire had been lit under Bowden’s seat; fans didn’t know who they wanted, but it wasn’t Bowden. Clemson cruised past The Citadel, NC State, and SC State before losing 20-17 at home against a middling Maryland team and going to Wake Forest and scoring a grand total of 7 points in a loss with an offense that was supposed to lead the nation, and Harper was benched by Bowden.

From that point it was over, there was no saving the season; Bowden gave Terry Don Phillips his resignation and was out the door. WRs coach/Recruiting Coordinator Dabo Swinney was promoted to interim HC. He immediately fired much criticized OC Rob Spence (badass move), and took over play-calling along with interim-OC Billy Napier.

It seemed like Dabo came out of nowhere, and on first glance, that’s where I expected him to end up: nowhere. He’d been informed of his promotion during a meeting with his WR corps and had less than a week to prepare the team for a home game against a feisty Georgia Tech team. He was young and full of energy, but he wasn’t a head coach, not at this level at least. He’d never been a coordinator, and before Bowden hired him, he’d been selling real estate in Alabama.

Clemson lost to Georgia Tech, 21-17, but Dabo left a hell of an impression on the fan base when he yelled at a punter for not running off the field. Dabo wanted things done right and with energy; when things were going poorly he didn’t fold up and look lost, he tried to fix it. That alone endeared him to a fan base desperate for a vocal leader. Dabo would lead the team into Chestnut Hill the next week to a win in the inaugural O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy. By the time South Carolina rolled into town, Clemson was up to 6-4 on the year, and Dabo was doing well, but not like “maybe this guy could lead us to a 2nd national title” well.

Clemson’s QB in 2008 was senior Cullen Harper, out of Georgia. He took over as the starter following Clipboard Jesus’ ascension to the NFL and had a stellar 2007, throwing for 3000 yards, 65% completion, and 27 TDs to just 6 INTs. He shattered what seemed like every Clemson passing record on the way to all-ACC honors and looked like the next great Clemson QB.

With all that in mind it’s understandable why the hype for the offense was so high, the best running team in the ACC had found its quarterback and wasn’t one-dimensional any longer, but it wasn’t to be. Harper’s 2008 had been a nightmare, under Bowden he looked like a shell of himself and entered the South Carolina game with 10 TDs and 12 INTs on the year. He’d been benched by Bowden going into the Georgia Tech game and Dabo stuck with that decision (Harper played the majority of that game anyway, as his backup wasn’t much better), but once the BC game rolled around, he was back to being himself. In Harper’s own words:

Looking back I think I started to force things that weren’t there just trying to create some plays. For the first 6 games of the season we just couldn’t get much traction. Then we had the coaching change. I will always be extremely thankful for having the opportunity to play those last 7 games for Coach Swinney.

He’d been vital in Clemson’s run to get bowl eligible and Dabo can probably hang having a head coach position on Harper’s mid-season turnaround. At the time, there was some talk that Dabo could get the job, but a lot of it seemed to hinge on beating South Carolina. If he couldn’t do that, then it wasn’t even worth discussing, really.

So here we are, an interim coach hoping for a full-time gig, a fan base desperate for something to cheer for and a quarterback looking to leave his mark on a program, even if it isn’t the title they’d been hoping for. It’s 2nd & 8, near midfield, there’s a blitz off the right side, and you spy Jacoby Ford wide open. We’ve arrived, welcome to a moment in Clemson history: