On August 30, 2008, exactly ten years ago, Tommy Bowden’s tenure as the head football coach at Clemson University began to end.
The day was supposed to go differently. At 8 p.m., Bowden’s Clemson Tigers were scheduled to return to national prominence, after spending the better part of two decades wandering the college football wilderness. The site of the supposed return was the Georgia Dome, the venue for the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, where the #9 Tigers would face Nick Saban’s #24 Alabama Crimson Tide. The game would be televised on ABC. It would be the jewel of the opening weekend, the thought went. And Clemson’s offense would give that jewel its glitter.
Going into the season, Clemson boasted an impressive array of veteran stars on offense. Cullen Harper, the redshirt senior quarterback, was coming off a solid first year at the helm of the unit, in which he posted 27 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. Pundits hailed him as the man who made the Tigers tick; he was named preseason ACC Player of the Year, and more than a few people whispered about his Heisman hopes. He had his share of weapons, too. James Davis and C.J. Spiller joined Harper in a stacked backfield. The duo, known as Thunder and Lightning, had contributed over 4,000 yards from scrimmage over the previous two seasons, and looked to be the best running back tandem in the country. Harper also had a good stable of wide receivers at his disposal. This group included Aaron Kelly, a record-setting, 1,000 yard receiver; Jacoby Ford, perhaps the fastest player in college football; and Tyler Grisham, who provided a reliable pair of hands in the slot.
Clemson fans poured into Atlanta, clutching their stamped two-dollar bills, hoping to see that offense overpower the Crimson Tide in front of a national audience.
They didn’t see anything close to that.
Instead, they watched as Alabama’s offense bowled over a lackluster Clemson defense. They watched as that heralded Clemson offense sputtered. Harper posted 188 yards, a QBR of 18.4, and an interception. Davis and Spiller combined for a grand total of 20 rushing yards. Ford led the Tigers with a middling 53 receiving yards. The offensive line, the undeniable weak point of the unit, looked overwhelmed. The only touchdown came on a Spiller kick return at the start of the second half.
The Tigers lost 34-10.
Bowden’s seat heated up for the umpteenth time in his career. To the outside observer, the proceedings might have looked like business as usual. Clemson had fallen short of expectations once again. Presumably, they would survive, put something together, and fail again. Bowden would survive the heat until the next season, when the cycle would inevitably begin again, once more with feeling.
This time, though, the heat burned through the seat, and Bowden fell through. Following the loss in Atlanta, the team’s hierarchy crumbled. According to the likes of Harper and Spiller, Bowden lost the team and tried to yell his way back in charge. His efforts fell short. After an ugly Thursday night loss at Wake Forest brought the Tigers to 3-3, the coach walked into Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips’ office for a frank discussion. He came out with $3.5 million and no job.
Dabo Swinney, the man who would take Bowden’s place, was on the sideline in the Georgia Dome. At the time, he was just Bowden’s energetic wide receivers coach. You know the story already. It’s part of his mythos: the courtier made king. Or, try this: the junior salesman made CEO. Leave aside, for a moment, the lucrative salary of an assistant coach at a major program. Swinney’s ascent really was remarkable. Shocking, even. It never was a sure thing.
If you go back and look at the ABC broadcast from that night in Atlanta you’ll see him. Brent Musburger even makes note of him near the end of the first quarter, at the 2:46 mark. It’s a fraught moment. Clemson is down 13-0 and stumbling through the first half. Nelson Faerber, the wide receiver and future politician, has just jogged off the field after committing a substitution infraction. Bowden pops on screen before Swinney. The head man yanks Faerber by the jersey and delivers a few choice words, then wanders away, mumbling. The broadcast briefly cuts away to show the referee announcing the call. Then, the camera cuts back to the sideline. Swinney appears. He’s face-to-face with Faerber, screaming directly into the receiver’s helmet.
“So, that’s the associate head coach, works with the wide receivers, Dabo Swinney. That’s why he was so over the wideout,” Musburger says.
Swinney steps away and motions toward the field, before turning back to give Faerber, now helmetless, another earful.
Although the sequence only lasts for about 20 seconds, it’s an excellent encapsulation of the coach that Clemson fans would soon come to know. The passion is there. It’s obvious. You can see Swinney scream. At times, he’s drawn criticism for such behavior. If you watch the 2008 broadcast, though, you might catch something else, something other than the display of anger. Perhaps it’s a calculated movement, or perhaps it’s natural. You might miss it, if you’re watching the faces.
While haranguing Faerber, Swinney jabs a finger at his own chest.
He does so twice. It’s subtle, but it’s there, the index finger pointed inward. I don’t read lips, but I know what that body language means. With his finger, Swinney implies that the mistake is his to own, too. His job is on the line and, no matter how angry he might be at Faerber, he must let him know that he shares culpability, and that individual actions don’t occur in a vacuum. A player’s actions have consequences both in the moment and beyond the moment, and Swinney’s single pointed finger tells Faerber all he needs to know about exactly who deals with the fallout from his mistake. The movement establishes hierarchy, yes, but it also enables community.
Since taking over as head coach, Swinney has shaped the program around this idea of mutual accountability. In the process, he has built a powerhouse. The team has reached new heights and established new standards of performance. 10-win seasons are now the norm. ACC Championship appearances are expected. National championships are reasonable goals. National pundits now speak about Clemson in the same breath as the most prestigious programs in the college football world. And, according to Swinney, the best is yet to come.
Swinney’s promise of continued success will be put to the test during the 2018 season. The expectations for this year’s team are extremely high; anything short of a College Football Playoff appearance would probably be viewed as a disappointment. The Tigers are that talented.
Yet, this Saturday, when I catch a glimpse of Swinney on the sideline, I won’t think about the future of the program. I’ll think about the past. I’ll think about the loss that shaped a national power. For the first time in my life, I’ll silently thank Nick Saban for winning a football game.