On Dabo Swinney’s first day of spring practice as Clemson’s head coach -- his first day as anyone’s head coach for that matter -- he brought two signs with him. One said, “Believe,” the other said, “It can be done.”
“For us, we thought that was a little weird, maybe a little unconventional at first,” said guard Thomas Austin. “But every day since then we’ve seen that sign. You start believing in yourself as a team. That’s one thing I respect about coach Swinney -- when we were 2-3, people were calling for his job, our coordinator’s, all that stuff, we didn’t pay attention to that. We banded together as a team. We could’ve done two things -- we could’ve given up, or we could continue to work hard. We continued to work hard. The players took ownership of what was going on.”
And that’s been the difference under Clemson’s first-year staff. From veterans on the team like C.J. Spiller to rookies like quarterback Kyle Parker, the players agree that there is a different mentality at Clemson than in years' past under former coach Tommy Bowden, and it has been the driving factor behind the Atlantic Division championship this year. After a disappointing 2-3 start, which included an inexplicable loss to a now 2-10 Maryland team, the Tigers were able to regroup and avoided the letdowns of the past that had plagued the program for years.
Following the loss to Maryland, Clemson reeled off six straight wins to earn a trip to Tampa this weekend, where it will face Georgia Tech for a chance at the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
After last weekend’s loss to rival South Carolina, the Tigers will have to finish the season in similar fashion to how they started it, though -- rebounding from a loss.
“Win or lose, the following week he's going to continue to preach to them about believing and never giving up,” Spiller said, “and that's the thing that I love about him.”
Clemson has now lost two straight regular-season games to Georgia Tech under Swinney. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a lack of confidence heading into Saturday’s title game.
“He got us more focused,” safety DeAndre McDaniel said of Swinney. “He got us bonding better as a team. I mean, we're practicing faster, a lot harder, and he's just a great coach. He speaks to us positively, and he's just keeping our head where we're supposed to be at. I don't think too many coaches is better than him at that.”
It’s a glowing endorsement for a man who had never been a coordinator before, let alone a head coach. The former receivers coach had just five days last year to regroup the team after Bowden’s midseason departure and prepare for a 5-1 Georgia Tech team. Clemson lost 21-17 to the Jackets in that game, but Swinney finished with a 4-3 record as interim head coach.
“The biggest thing is a lot of people relate to him,” said Parker. “He does a good job of making the players feel like he really cares about them, and in return we care about him. The biggest thing is he makes everyone feel included, and we’ll go out and play for him, and that shows on the field.”
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Swinney has had a trickle-down effect.
“The biggest thing that stands out to me, if you really look in his background, the guy has overcome a lot,” Napier said. “His attitude and his approach day in and day out is a very positive guy who has had to be very resilient in the past. So his leadership qualities and his ability to never give up and constantly believe that good things are coming -- I think it’s rubbed off on this team. Their play reflects his attitude.”
And that has been Swinney’s goal since the first day of spring practice.
“You know, I'm thankful for these players because somewhere along the line they've bought in, and they did believe,” Swinney said. “And when we were a 2-3 football team looking at a six-game stretch where we had to win to have a chance to win our division, I'm thankful that they chose to keep believing and not listen to so many other things.”
Swinney, though, got them to listen to him.