I couldn’t go on this week without putting my thoughts in writing and putting it out there. I know I’m an old guy, especially in respect to the staff here at STS, and my father is a 1964 Clemson graduate, so I’ve been in this from birth. So, here are some things I’m taking from this unbelievable run of Clemson football.
There are many things that make Dabo Swinney a special, generational talent of a leader. One thing that has begun to stick out more and more to me is how he seems completely unafraid of failure. Swinney has experienced failures, but those have not shaken his faith in the least. This certainly permeates the players and staff and is no doubt a major reason Clemson has been largely nails in big games during his tenure. It may be the thing that separates him from Tommy Bowden the most, because Bowden, in my eyes, was afraid of failure. I even felt a sense of fear from Alabama as the idea of failure was presented to them on Monday night. Putting fear aside on any level, much less the level of big time championship football, is no easy task.
We are currently providing the U of SC (and yes I’m retiring USCjr in favor of their new official name because it is an even bigger burn considering a lot of their fans’ reactions to it, LMAO) with their absolute nightmare scenario. They wallow in their usual mediocrity, unable to even muster the effort to score against UVA, having a loss to The Citadel in their recent past, while Clemson sits atop the college football universe. Enduring their little five year glory run was rough for all those who suffered it, but there is no way it even begins to reach the level of suffering this Clemson run has given their fans. Todd Ellis’s laughable “cycling out” commentary was clearly symptomatic of the delusional hopes that Gamecocks will soon be able to challenge the Tigers. Even their “well, Alabama is better than them and, you know, SEC” party line got nuked in Santa Clara. This Clemson program casts a very long shadow now and the weight of that shadow is sending folks like Todd Ellis running to the hills. Most of the U of SC fans around my neighborhood have retreated into silence. Imagine these roles reversed, if that is even possible, then let out a hearty laugh. I think my favorite moment in this deal has been seeing one of my good friends, a loyal Gamecock graduate, watch his young son ask for (and get) Clemson gear for Christmas, then parade around the yard in it chanting C-L-E-M-S-O...N! The power of the paw runs deep, my friends.
I texted my best friend from childhood shortly after the game on Monday about how incredible this has been. We could not have dreamed this back in 1992 when we watched Clemson get pummeled by Maryland and felt fortunate to put together an incredible comeback just to beat UVA. That team lost to Wake Forest. That team lost to the Gamecocks...badly. I was in the stands of Death Valley in 1993, in the rain, with the upper decks nearly empty, as the Tigers lost to Wake Forest for the second straight year. That Wake team finished with 2 wins.
I was just out of college in 1998 as the Tigers went 3-8. The hope of anything good happening that year quickly evaporated when Virginia Tech physically abused the Tigers in Death Valley, handing Brandon Streeter perhaps the worst beating I’ve ever seen a Clemson quarterback take. The Clemson defense created 7 turnovers the next week at Virginia...and we still lost. Florida State was so far ahead of the program that we couldn’t see their taillights. Just trying to compete with Virginia and NCSU was a goal back then. The Palmetto Bowl caused true anxiety every year and often was the one hope of really salvaging something for the season. Bowl games were often embarrassments. We celebrated wildly as Tommy West was carried off the field because we managed to beat a Gamecock team with even fewer wins than our own.
The early promise of the Bowden regime took a very sour turn in 2001 as Clemson lost the ability to play defense. I was in College Park getting oranges thrown at me by Maryland fans. Clemson fans had to resort to breaking the fax machine of the Humanitarian Bowl just for the program to have a bowl game that year...in the snow...in Boise Idaho...against Louisiana Tech. I’ve left a Clemson game at the half just one time in my life, and it was that 2003 Wake Forest game in Winston-Salem. I was there when Duke hit that field goal to beat Clemson in Durham in 2004, the week after the Tigers had upset top ten Miami in the Orange Bowl Stadium. Nights like this past Monday night were so far in fantasy, I wouldn’t even allow myself to think about it back then.
As a kid growing up with William Perry posters and 1981 Orange Soda cans in my room, that 20 year walk in the desert between Ford and Swinney was extremely difficult. When Swinney made his first comments after getting the interim job in 2008, he said things I had been waiting all that time to hear. I’d heard about “bug-a-boos” and “we fought our guts out” and “these other teams give scholarships too.” Now I got to hear about “All in” and “Why not us?” Those words had to be put into action, but I was hooked. That first game with Tiger Walk in 2008 vs. GT was so ripe with emotion that I literally passed out in the car from exhaustion (rather than any drinking) before we could drive home.
Now my kids are getting to grow up knowing a level of excellence even my Ford-era childhood can’t match. They don’t know what it is to see another program, like an Oklahoma or Nebraska or Florida State or Miami or Penn State or Southern California, existing on a plane above our own. The dangers of a civil war between administration and athletics like the one which derailed the Ford program are non existent with a school president like Jim Clements running the show. There is a shelf life for this awesomeness, but I can’t imagine it being less than a decade or more beyond now.
God has truly smiled upon Clemson and all of us who have invested our time, money, and energy into supporting it. I am savoring every moment because I know what it is like to see it go away. I think of my Gamecock neighbors and how vast the ocean must seem between Columbia and Clemson right now. May we rejoice and be glad in it!