Dabo Swinney was telling a story. No stop-the-presses development there.
He was at the lectern last week inside the Clemson team meeting room, recalling not these best of football times but rather the losingest season he has had in his nearly eight seasons as the Tigers head coach.
That would be the 6-7 team of 2010, loser of five of those games by six points or less. The team, he said, that, “I’m probably the most proud of.
“I said that after that season, after everybody was ready to run me out of here.” That was the team, Swinney said, whose resilience and strength of will set the stage for everything to come.
The story picks up following one of the losses that wasn’t close – a 29-7 waxing by rival South Carolina. The characters in the tableau are the beaten coach, his distraught wife and then Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips.
“I remember coming down that hall right there behind me. My wife is meeting me right outside the door, she’s got tears in her eyes. She’s just going, ‘I’m sorry, babe.’ It obviously was a very disappointing day and it had been a disappointing season. She said, ‘Terry Don is in your office.’
“I walked from that glass door to my office thinking I’m about to get fired. I said to myself, ‘Well, I did the best I can do. I’m thankful for the opportunity. I took a deep breath.
“He didn’t even have the light on. The door was kind of cracked, it’s dark, Terry Don is sitting on the couch. I just sat down. Terry Don is not a man of many words. He just looked at me and said, ‘Dabo, let me tell you something. I know you’re disappointed. There is going to be a lot of criticism, of you and me. But I’m more confident right now at this moment that you are the right guy for this job than I was when I hired you. You do whatever you need to do, continue to do things the way you’ve been doing them and I believe with all my heart things are going to work out.’
“He got up, gave me a hug, and left.”
Interesting that here as Clemson is experiencing its finest two campaigns since the 1981 national championship that Swinney would spend so much time on the season that was by all measures his most trying. But, then, he is known to take a different tack now and then.
It is good in such verdant times to remember the difficulties that preceded them.
Because, just by the way that team carried on, Swinney said, “I knew right then we had a chance to do something special here. I watched those guys, how they responded. It was just incredible. I saw the culture starting to take root even if we weren’t getting the results.”
Just as it is instructional, here in the restless, win-now-or-else realm of college football, to be reminded that patience might still have a role in program building.
Since that moment, the Tigers have not won fewer than 10 games in a season.
The verb “Clemsoning” – meaning to lose games that one shouldn’t, at the worst of times – has been relegated to the wastebin where all dead languages are buried.
And thus, here was Clemson Saturday, marching into the national championship media day in Tampa, a crowd cheering, an overdone flourish of trumpets and timpani drums playing overhead. “Kind of felt like WWE walking in here,” Swinney said.
And because those in charge could accurately read the signs of one losing season, Swinney had a big platform to do something he is very good at – talk some more.
In closing, I’ll just get out of the way and let you read what he had to say about perhaps proving on Monday that national championships aren’t only the property of the Alabamas and the Ohio States and the Notre Dames of the world.
“Greatness is for all of us. It really is. I love that. The theme this year is chasing greatness, and greatness is for everybody.
“You don’t have to have some great pedigree of DNA or you don’t have to be a certain color. You’ve just got to be willing to work for it, man. You’ve got to have a belief and you’ve got to be committed to doing the little things. Everybody wants to be great. Not everybody is willing to do what it takes. I always tell (his team) that it’s the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
“I think it would hopefully inspire a lot of other programs. Certainly eight years ago, I don’t think anybody saw us as a national championship contender. We were a solid program but we weren’t a national championship contender.”