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If These Walls Could Talk: Clemson Tigers
Stories from the Clemson Tigers Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Sam Blackman, Tim Bourret
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Sam Blackman and Tim Bourret
All rights reserved.
The Swinney Era
An Unexpected Change
The Monday morning after Clemson lost a 12–7 heartbreaker at Wake Forest on October 8, 2008, Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips called head coach Tommy Bowden to his office.
Bowden had been Clemson's head coach since 1999 and brought the program to a new level with winning seasons and bowl games in eight of nine full seasons. He also had a 7–2 record against rival South Carolina. The only year that hadn't ended in a bowl game was 2004 when a 100-yard brawl with South Carolina with five minutes left in the game forced both schools' presidents to end each team's respective seasons without a postseason.
While Bowden's teams had finished in the top 25 four times, he had not won the Atlantic Division, never mind the ACC. With a top 10 preseason ranking in 2008, most expected the Tigers to at least win the division, and privately, Phillips expected it. On this October 13 morning, Clemson was 3–3 overall, 1–2 in the ACC.
When Phillips came to the office that day, he expected that Tommy Bowden would still be his coach at the end of the day. But he felt he owed it to Bowden to tell him where he stood. After nine years as head coach, he felt it was a realistic expectation to win the Atlantic Division, and that if this was not accomplished by season's end he would make a change.
Winning the Atlantic Division would be difficult, but not out of the question. After all, just five years earlier, Bowden had worked miracles over the last four games of the season to bring Clemson from a 5–4 record to a 9–4 mark. In those last four games Clemson had beaten No. 3 Florida State, the highest ranked team the Tigers had beaten in their history, and downed No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. It was the first time Clemson had beaten two top-six teams in a four-game period. Many members of the media felt if there had been an NCAA football tournament, Clemson would be the team you would not want to play.
So, when Phillips decided to have this talk with Bowden, he expected his response to be that he would do a midseason review of his offense (he had already announced the previous Friday he was going to make a change at quarterback from Cullen Harper to Willy Korn), and talk about what he had done in 2003.
But that was not Bowden's reaction.
With no previous heads-up that this meeting was coming, Bowden made a decision that would change the course of Clemson football for years to come. Obviously, Bowden had been thinking about the state of the program. After a strong finish to 2007 with a last-second win over South Carolina and the return of 14 starters for 2008, including "Thunder and Lightning" running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Clemson was a preseason top 10 team, and expectations were through the roof.
But the Tigers had been disappointing, with a season-opening 34–10 loss to Alabama, and conference losses to Maryland and Wake Forest. The only victories had come against The Citadel, South Carolina State, and N.C. State.
When Phillips said what he had to say, Bowden responded, "Well, why don't we just make a change now?"
Phillips' eyes opened as wide as baseballs. He was getting ready to prepare for a possible change at the top in December, but not today.
Bowden then explained that he believed assistant coach Dabo Swinney would make a great head coach and that, if he was given an opportunity as the interim coach, the rest of the season he could show he could do the job. But, if they waited until the end of the year, Swinney would not have a chance.
To the general public, such a suggestion seemed odd. While Swinney was in his sixth year on the Clemson staff as wide receivers coach, he had never been a coordinator. To most, following the path to head coach after being a coordinator was the normal route. But this was not some crazy idea to Phillips. Of the 85 scholarship players on the 2008 team, Swinney had personally recruited 38 of them. He had pulled off a miracle by convincing C.J. Spiller, a five-star running back whom everyone wanted, to leave the state of Florida and come to Clemson.
Whenever Phillips attended practice he found himself going to the wide receivers and watching Swinney interact with his players. He noticed a special bond between Swinney and those receivers, and many of the players at other positions. Phillips was also impressed with Swinney's work on the AARC committee, which worked with university administrators when it came to appeals for special exceptions admits. Swinney's work on that committee had a big impact on his approval as interim head coach because it gave him credibility with high-ranking university administrators when it came to the importance he placed on academics and his ability to work with the president's office and the admissions office.
After a second meeting between Phillips and Bowden at 10:30 am that October 13, Phillips went to the staff meeting room in the McFadden Building to tell the staff Coach Bowden would no longer be the head coach. He then told Swinney to come to his office in five minutes.
That request had to stun the staff, especially offensive coordinator Rob Spence and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Most of the time a coordinator is elevated to interim head coach, but when Phillips told Swinney to come to his office by himself, it was apparent who the new interim would be.
A stunned Swinney sat in Phillips' corner office in the Jervey Athletic Center and listened to what the veteran athletic director had to say.
The biggest thing Phillips told him was that he wanted Swinney to be in total charge. "I told him I didn't want him to be an interim coach, I wanted him to make decisions that were his and for the good of the program. I told him he had my backing in anything he wanted to do. From the beginning I wanted to give Dabo the opportunity. I told him he would be a candidate, he would not just be an interim. Make decisions like you are the full-time coach."
And that is what Swinney did. He left Phillips' office and immediately went to the office of offensive coordinator Rob Spence and told him he was not going to be retained effective immediately. The first thing Swinney wanted to do going forward was to get Spiller more involved in the offense. At that point in the season through six games, Spiller had touched the ball on offense just 57 times, an average of 9.5 times per game. The last six games of the year (ironically, Spiller did not player in Swinney's first game against Georgia Tech on October 18) with Swinney effectively calling the plays, Spiller handled the ball 92 times, 15.3 times per game.
Swinney moved Billy Napier from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach and was involved in the play-calling. Graduate assistant Jeff Scott moved to wide receivers coach. He is still on the staff today as wide receivers coach and co–offensive coordinator.
The five days from October 13 to 18, 2008, would be the most difficult of Dabo Swinney's career. He had to meet with the team and inform them of what had happened and try to earn the respect of those players and administrators.
He did that with a team only meeting late that afternoon. He told them, "None of you owe me anything. You came to this program to play for Tommy Bowden as head coach. If you want to leave you still have your scholarship until the end of the year. But if you come to practice today, I expect you to be all-in for the rest of the year. I am going to put everything I have into this job, and I expect you to do the same."
Bowden had announced the day after the Wake Forest game that Willy Korn would become the starting quarterback in place of Cullen Harper. The team had practiced on Sunday with Bowden in charge and Korn as the signal-caller. Swinney decided not to change back to Harper. He felt the team needed a lift on offense, and he agreed with the decision.
Swinney worked 20-hour days that first week as he brainstormed ways to bring Clemson Nation together. The fan base was obviously fractured. Swinney had a sixth sense about dealing with the media from day one and held press meetings each day after practice as a way to communicate with the fan base. One of the things he did was to institute a "Tiger Walk" at the end of the team's arrival at the stadium.
Previously, the team buses pulled up right in front of the west end zone of the stadium. But Swinney had the idea to let the team off at the entrance to the Lot 5 (west end zone) parking lot, and have the team, dressed in coats and ties, walk the 100 yards through the parking lot to the stadium. He encouraged all Tigers fans to line the parking lot route and encourage the team as they entered the stadium roughly two hours prior to kickoff. The Tiger Walk was exhilarating as Swinney proved to be the Pied Piper in just five days. Fans were in the stands 90 minutes before kickoff against Georgia Tech that October 18 day.
Not everything went according to plan. Just 10 minutes into the game, Korn suffered a shoulder injury as he was struck after throwing a pass. It was back to Harper, and he responded with a pair of touchdown passes. It was a thrilling game, but the Yellow Jackets came out on top 21–17 when a questionable holding call on Thomas Austin wiped out a long pass play to Jacoby Ford.
It didn't take Swinney long to win his first game, though. After an open date, the Tigers won at Boston College, 27–21. It was Clemson's first win over the Eagles since they joined the league.
It would be the first of many Swinney accomplishments that required extensive research by the Clemson Sports Information office.
16 Months with C.J. Spiller
In May of 2003, we received word that Banks McFadden would be attending a Saturday night Clemson vs. Duke baseball game at Kingsmore Stadium. Clemson's greatest athlete of the 20 century was 86 at the time, and the opportunities to recognize the only football- basketball All-American in school history were dwindling.
So a script was given to promotions director John Seketa, who had the announcement made during the fifth-inning break to drag the infield. Banks had trouble with his hip in his later years, so we went to his seat behind home plate just before the announcement to help him stand up. When the announcement was made, it did not take long for the more than 4,000 in attendance to stand up also. It was a great, long ovation, one that put a smile on his face, and on our faces as well. It would be the last time McFadden received a standing ovation at an athletic event at Clemson, as he would pass away just two years later. When we went home that night we reflected on McFadden's greatness. Few if any Clemson fans in the stadium that night had seen McFadden play, as he had played his last athletic event (a basketball game) for Clemson in 1940. That made the ovation even greater, because it was a testament to the unprecedented level of respect he held among Clemson people.
It made us wonder if we would ever see another Clemson athlete in our lifetime held in such reverence....
January 15, 2009
The number of phone calls we received at the sports information office concerning C.J. Spiller's decision to return to Clemson or go pro after his junior year had just one comparison at Clemson — Herschel Walker's decision out of high school as to whether he would go to Georgia or Clemson in 1980. Fortunately, C.J.'s decision had a deadline, January 15. That was the last day underclassmen had to apply for the NFL Draft.
Spiller had kept his decision very close to the vest, and nothing definitive had been stated by anyone close to him. Even his closest teammates, James Davis and Jacoby Ford, didn't know what he would do. We called a 3:00pm press conference at the McFadden Auditorium for Spiller to announce his decision on the 15th.
We arrived at Coach Swinney's office at McFadden about 15 minutes before the press conference and asked him point blank what he thought Spiller would do. He said Spiller had told him earlier in the day that he was coming back, but he wouldn't be totally sure until he announced.
A few minutes later Spiller came into the office, dressed in suit and tie. As he came, he looked like someone who was about to tell his dad something he didn't want to hear. We left Coach Swinney's office because we sensed they wanted to meet one-on-one. We waited in an adjoining room. We could not hear the discussion, but there was some serious conversation going on between Spiller and Swinney. At one point Spiller became emotional.
We went back into the McFadden Building to check on things, and the room was filling up with media and members of the team. That was another indication they didn't know either. By the time we went back to Coach Swinney's office, the meeting was finished. We asked C.J. if he was ready, and he said yes. He gave us no indication of what he was going to say. So, as we walked onto the stage in front of C.J., we had no idea what was about to take place.
Coach Swinney was in the back of the room with his kids, and we looked at him for an indication, a smile, a frown, something. But his face was blank. C.J. made few overall comments, then said, "I had to do what was best for me, things that made me happy."
That is usually the forerunner to "I am turning pro."
Instead, he reversed field like a classic C.J. Spiller kick return and said, "And for the year, 2009, I'll be here at Clemson University." The room erupted. Dabo had a big smile and was high-fiving his kids. You can look at the video on clemsontigers.com and see that Spiller kept a straight face, no smile, no feeling of relief. He told the media that his mother wanted him to turn pro and that he was projected to be a first-round draft choice by the NFL. Two more facts that would have pushed most players to the NFL. But Spiller said afterward, "There was a lot of crying [when he talked with his mom about staying], but I told her something didn't feel right about leaving. A lot of guys start things, but they don't finish. I didn't want to be labeled as one of those guys."
In talking with Coach Swinney since then, he really didn't know what Spiller was going to say. When he first went in, Spiller told him he thought he needed to turn pro for his family, and that is when he started to get emotional.
"I just told him he needed to do what was best for him," said Swinney. "He finally gathered himself and said, 'Okay, I am ready.' But he still didn't tell me. So when I went into that room, I really didn't know what he was going to say."
Looking back, his return was divine intervention.
July 21, 2009
Within an hour after the end of Spiller's press conference on January 15, Coach Swinney and members of the sports information office met to discuss a plan for a "Spiller for Heisman campaign." In 1984 we did a life-size poster of William Perry, and it was a big hit in promoting The Fridge for All-American and the Lombardi Award.
Now, 25 years later, we thought it would be an old-school way of promoting Spiller for the Heisman. We planned to do the usual Internet promotion that everyone else does today, but wanted something that would be different. There was one catch to this plan: NCAA rules had changed in the last 25 years. We could no longer sell the poster to the general public. We had to give it away if we were to produce it. In these economic times, spending $10,000 on the printing of the posters was not the right thing to do. So members of our promotions department secured two sponsors, BiLo and Tom Winkopp Real Estate, and they paid for the printing cost.
Given the amount of money we raised from the sponsors, we could print 5,000. We needed 1,000 for general promotion to the national media, and that left 4,000 to give away to the public. We left the giveaways up to the sponsors. Since they had paid for them, they should at least use them to drive people to their stores. We unveiled the poster on July 21, 2009, at Dabo Swinney's press conference and golf tournament at The Reserve. It was met with great fanfare locally, and College Football Live showed the poster on ESPN that day.
We ran into a public relations problem the day after the posters were distributed at BiLo stores throughout the upstate. Clemson fans in Columbia and Charleston didn't have access to them, and the posters were gone in a matter of hours. Of course, the furor over the poster did continue to publicize it and create more stories, which wasn't a bad thing.
Excerpted from If These Walls Could Talk: Clemson Tigers by Sam Blackman, Tim Bourret. Copyright © 2016 Sam Blackman and Tim Bourret. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Dabo Swinney,
1. The Swinney Era,
2. How It All Started,
3. Heisman at Clemson and Other Early Heroes,
4. IPTAY Saves the Day,
5. Clemson's Military Heritage,
6. The Bashful Baron of Barlow Bend,
7. The Fabulous '50s and '60s,
8. Return to National Prominence,
9. National Championship Season,
10. Clemson Legends,
11. Dominating the 1980s,
12. Clemson, a Special Place,