How did Clemson get so darn good in football anyway?
The residents of Death Valley in South Carolina have always had a representative program, all the way back to the days of Frank Howard, who coached the Tigers for three decades. They also had some good moments, including a national championship under Danny Ford in 1981 and his predecessor Charley Pell and successors Ken Hatfield and Tommy Bowden.
But they have never had a run like Dabo Swinney has after taking over the program from Bowden in 2009. Swinney has led Clemson to at least 10 wins for six straight seasons, with an all-time-best 14 victories the last two years when they lost and won the national championship game against Alabama. And it looks like a rubber match between the Tigers and Tide this season.
Despite the loss of quarterback Deshaun Watson, now tearing it up for the Houston Texans of the NFL, and other key veterans, Clemson has reloaded behind Watson’s replacement Kelly Bryant. The Tigers are toying with teams that were supposed to be a challenge, crushing Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road. They still must visit N.C. State and host Florida State, but look on the way to a fourth ACC title in seven years after going 20 seasons without winning one.
Swinney is like the Peter Pan of football coaches, with whimsical slogans and the biggest rah-rah approach you might ever see. His peers knew him as a grad assistant and wide receivers coach and some still cannot believe he got the head job at Clemson, let alone become perhaps the nation’s second best college coach behind Nick Saban.
Swinney has assembled a tremendous staff that puts great game plans together, while he leads the recruiting charge which thanks to turbulence in the South Carolina program has enabled Clemson to dominate the state’s high school prep ranks and recruit nationally to get outstanding players there too. Suddenly, Clemson has leap-frogged FSU as the ACC’s best program with a depth of talent that allows Swinney to move seasoned reserves and new young studs onto the depth chart.
Clemson has become, essentially, the Duke and Carolina hoops version of ACC football, playing for a spot in the final four every season and looking like a shoe-in to get there, and perhaps to that third straight title game against Alabama. Pretty amazing.