With the Tigers tantalizingly close to capturing their first National Championship since 1981, I wonder aloud, why does this mean so much for so many of us.
If you were a Clemson fan prior to 2011, you’re familiar with the deep seeded expectation of disappointment. In 2000, the Tigers reached #5 in the nation before hitting the toughest stretch of their schedule and losing three of four to end the year as Gator Bowl runner-ups. In 2006, an inexplicable home loss to Maryland handed the Atlantic Division to Wake Forest as the Tigers fell apart losing four of their last five games to end as Music City Bowl runner-ups. The very next year, 2007, Clemson had another opportunity to win the Atlantic Division and play for a championship, but a clutch throw by Boston College QB Matt Ryan ripped that away.
Following a coaching change in 2008 and an ACC Atlantic title in 2009, things seemed to be headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, 2010 was a soul sucking debacle that ended with a Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to USF.
Despite the struggles and despite the disappointment, Clemson football was always special because it brought together a community. Whether you were consoling a fellow fan after a heartbreaking loss or laying out unrealistic expectations for incoming players like Willy Korn, an instant connection happened. It’s a mutual pride in where so many of us matured from boys and girls to men and women. It’s a place where many of us met our eventual spouses. It’s a place that we yearn for as if it was perfect, because it was darn close. Every trip to watch the Tigers play brings back those memories and brings us back to the community of people we came to love all those years ago.
That’s what makes this next part so special.
Following that awful 2010 season that ended with a loss to USF, Clemson has enjoyed one of the best stretches of gridiron success in school history. Over the next six seasons, with arguably the two best signal callers to ever don the paw, the Tigers would start collecting marquee wins against the blue bloods of college football. First it was Auburn, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. Then came LSU in the Georgia Dome. The Tigers started 2013 by knocking off SEC record holding QB Aaron Murray and the Georgia Bulldogs. They didn’t stop there as an offensive explosion got the Tigers past Ohio State. Then it was Oklahoma. Next, they beat Notre Dame as a driving rain from a nearby hurricane beat down on Death Valley. Then they beat Oklahoma again!
With the national success came national attention, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s vision and “aw shucks” personality helped rebrand Clemson. National perception of Clemson moved from “a fairly talented team that never wins the big game” to the SEC killers, who win epic showdowns in front of their rabid fan base. The winning on the field shed the label of falling short in the big moments while Coach Swinney’s personality and priorities reinforced the values Clemson holds dear.
Even with all the focus on the field, Clemson constantly shows up on lists for top academic progress report (APR) scores. They show up at local elementary schools to surprise the students. They use bye weeks to build houses for the Habitat for Humanity. The star QB, Deshaun Watson, was even honored with Allstate AFCA Good Works Team for his work with Habitat for Humanity.
Sure, players make mistakes, commit crimes even, but those events are seldom and when they occur, the punishment is generally both fair and stiff. Most notably, it is prioritized above winning football games (e.g., suspension of key WR Deon Cain for the National Championship).
It’s hard to win. It’s harder to win on a big stage, and it’s even harder to do it consistently. The Tigers have done that and they’ve done without scandal or disgrace. They’ve done it while exuded many of the values the Clemsonian people hold dear.
As a result, the image of the entire university has improved. Average SAT scores have risen as students from across the country now see Clemson on TV and realize just how special of a place it is. New academic buildings are popping up all around campus as are new athletic facilities.
With the University and community already benefiting from seemingly all the positive outflows of college football, why does winning a National Championship matter so much?
People and organizations represent vastly different things to different people, but for those of us who love Clemson, there is some sort of intrinsic value we assign Clemson. It’s tied up in the brand Coach Swinney has created, and putting doing right above winning at all costs is a huge part of that.
Unlike other elite programs, the Tigers do not over-recruit and push student athletes off the football team to meet NCAA scholarship limits. As a result, Clemson often has smaller recruiting classes than their rivals.
When a player gets in trouble, Coach Swinney measures the punishment based on what they’ve done and what will best help them mature as men in the broader community. Clemson doesn’t hold team votes to determine if star players should play, nor do they base suspensions on the difficulty of the upcoming opponent. Clemson winning a national championship would prove that you can do things the right way and still win at the highest level.
Clemson has seen increased donations and bolstered facilities over the past decade, but their alumni base size and athletic department coffers are tiny compared to traditional powers like Ohio State and Florida. Clemson, a smaller school without the money or tradition of a program like Alabama, coming out on top would show it’s not all about tradition, school size, and money. David can beat Goliath, when they are patient with the building process, make the right investments, and do the right things.
Dabo Swinney was a questionable internal hire. He took over a program that couldn’t win its division and struggled to win mid-tier bowl games. With an aggressive adherence to his vision, he slowly changed Clemson football. First it was instilling mental toughness. Then it was developing physical toughness in the trenches. It was a slow process of instilling values like being totally committed (“All In”) and striving to be the best one can be (“Best is the Standard”). A Clemson title would show it’s not always about quick fixes and flashy hires. Sometimes process and patience, when that process is good, can pay-off in spades.
I think of all these things when I think of Clemson, but most of all I think of my lifelong friends with whom I share that Clemson connection. First is my bride to be. The thought of hugging her as we celebrate a national championship is nothing short of glorious. I think of my formerly-pessimistic friend who is given faith in something by a program that comes through and offers a happy escape when we need it most. It’s about my Clemson friends in graduate school (at UGA) banding together to wear orange on Fridays in Athens, because it is who we are. It’s about that friend at work who always invites me to his tailgate up in Clemson or the one who always asks about the game at the water cooler. Clemson is a community, and while it is based in the foothills of South Carolina, its people stretch from LA to Atlanta and across the globe.
Imagine that moment when the whole country sees little ‘ole Clemson playing for an National Championship. They’ll see a program that was built over time by adhering to a vision and sticking to core values. When they see them upend a blue blood with twice their enrollment and far more money, they’ll see why sports are so great.
Image by Ryan Kantor: Death Valley 10/1/2016 vs. Louisville