PHOENIX -- #ALLIN
This is a world that has become overrun with hashtags. In the formative days of social media, clever #-led catchphrases were spontaneous, organic. But like everything else, they've become corporatized and politicized. So like everything else, hashtags have seen their once-mighty impact watered down.
Not in Clemson, South Carolina. Not these days.
It's a hashtag, and it's on T-shirts, hats and even the title of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's charitable foundation. It has become the rally cry for a fan base that has long been as frustrated as it has been fervent. But it's a mindset that has motivated those orange-clad believers for generations.
"If you think 'All In' is just a hashtag, then you're a little late to the game," Swinney explained Saturday at media day, holding court with reporters prior to his team's appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) against Alabama. "'All In' was here long before anyone knew what a hashtag was. And those people over there, they were 'all in' long before I ever used those words. Long before I ever got to Clemson."
Swinney made his point with a point, extending his index finger toward the other side of the Phoenix Convention Center exhibition floor, where risers lined the makeshift football field where media day took place. Dozens of Clemson fans were sitting and watching as if was the game itself. Some wore radio earpieces, tuned in to Swinney's microphone, and when he mentioned them, they instinctively threw their hands skyward.
Sharon Dickerson is all in.
She was one of those fans who reacted to the coach's comment, sitting with her husband, daughter and a grandchild. "We drove straight here from Spartanburg [South Carolina]. Drove through the night, got in this morning and came straight here," she said. "My daughter just had her 34th birthday. She was born the week after Clemson won the championship in 1981. She missed it by five days. Her daddy is still mad at me for not going into labor during the game. When they won last week [in the College Football Playoff semifinal] he said to me, well, she ain't going to miss this one. We probably can't really afford it, but we came anyway."
Brad Scott is all in.
He once did the unthinkable, a former South Carolina head coach taking a position coach's job at archrival Clemson. He eventually was promoted to offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He's retired (sort of) now, having moved into a role as assistant athletic director in 2011. But if you're ever looking for him, he's still always with the team, usually hanging with his son, current co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.
The elder Scott has been on big-time college sidelines since 1983 and at Clemson since '99. He has watched the program fade, improve, fade again and then launch into this current remarkable five-year stretch of double-digit-win seasons.
He was in the room the very moment "All In" was born.
It was Oct. 13, 2008, a Monday, at 4 p.m., to be exact. That morning, longtime head coach Tommy Bowden was dismissed and his wide receivers coach was informed that he was now the interim head coach with a legit chance to earn the job full-time. Swinney, only 38, met with the team and staff. He said, "The next six weeks are going to be really tough, but I'm all in," and he added that only those in the room who were also "all in" should bother showing up for practice two hours later.
Everyone showed up.
"There's a tone that's set and it starts at the top and it says, you're either in the family or you're not," Scott, 61, explained as he sat among fellow veteran members of the staff, such as Dan Brooks (31 years in coaching, seven at Clemson), Danny Pearman (24 years in coaching and a Clemson alumnus), Robbie Caldwell (27 years in coaching, five at Clemson) and football administrator Woody McCorvey, wrapping up his 14th season with the Tigers. "And there are places where 'family' gets thrown around, but it's not genuine. With Coach Swinney it is. You see how loose these guys are? It's because they aren't worried."
Scott motioned to a pack of Tigers laughing it up as they snapped a selfie. "They don't worry because they have each other's backs, whether it's at practice or in a game or in class or out in the real world. That's family, right?"
Eric Mac Lain is all in. And he has no time for anyone who isn't.
On Saturday, the fifth-year grad student, offensive guard and unofficial team spokesman (Twitter handle @mr_clemson) was one of the four superstars chosen to join Swinney at their own podiums while the rest of the roster sat at tables. He sports a now-legendary beard and a "Proverbs 27:17" tattoo wrapped around his billboard-sized left arm. That's the verse that says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."
"We have a lot of fun," he said. "But when we step over that white line onto the field, game or practice, it's time to go to work. That's serious. We go back to our idiot act as soon as we step back over that line off the field."
Then the All-ACC lineman clarified the difference between an "idiot act" and being a straight-up idiot. Growing weird facial hair and jumping into freezing January pond water, as some Tigers did last week after wrapping up their final at-home practice, that's fun. Putting the goals of the entire team in jeopardy is not.
"We had three guys sent home last week from the Orange Bowl," Mac Lain said, referring to wide receiver Deon Cain, kicker Ammon Lakip and tight end Jay Jay McCullough, who were suspended for violating team rules. "That's the morals of this team. Coach could have kept those guys here. But that's not how we do it. He didn't want us to win these games and have those guys on the roster."
So, Mr. Clemson, is the team on board with that? "Yes."
Jay Guillermo is all in.
The junior center had to step away from football last spring to battle depression. He went back home to Shelby, North Carolina, in an undiagnosed funk. Eventually he learned to relieve internal frustrations that he once ill-advisedly aired out on Twitter, thoughts that he classifies as suicidal, by chopping down trees. When he returned to the team over the summer, treated both mentally and physically, he was welcomed with open arms. He also made the All-ACC Team.
On Monday, he snatched a microphone from a local TV reporter and started conducting his own interviews, chats that always started with, "What's it feel like to be the second-most-handsome offensive lineman at Clemson?" As soon as the laughter died down, he would hug his interviewee and tell him that he loved him. Every single time.
Donna Key is all in.
She's the owner of Village Alterations in Pendleton, South Carolina, about five miles from Memorial Stadium. Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the Clemson equipment crew brought Key the team's 133 jerseys for Monday night's game. She and two fellow seamstresses stayed up all night sewing on intricate College Football Playoff "2016" and ACC conference logo patches. They had them all done by the next morning.
Bill Tremble is all in.
On Wednesday morning, he and his family stood on the Sulphur Springs Road overpass in Greenville, South Carolina, alongside what he estimated at "probably 40 other folks," where they helped hang a makeshift bedsheet "ALL IN" banner. That same scene was repeated at nearly every I-85 bridge between campus and the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, all 50 miles of it, as the five buses rolled north. That journey started with an on-campus sendoff from thousands of fans and the Clemson band.
"It's like that all the time around here," said co-defensive coordinator Marion Hobby, a veteran of five college staffs and in the fourth year of his second stint at Clemson. "I remember years we'd played against NC State and we got home at 3 o'clock in the morning and there were a couple of hundred people waiting, cheering and singing. I was like, so this is how it is at Clemson. What are they gonna be like if we ever play for a national championship? These people might lose their minds. And they have."
That's what happens when you haven't won a national championship since 1981. Forget winning the big game -- they haven't even played for a national championship since that night against Nebraska. They hadn't even won as much as a conference title in two decades, until Swinney's team won the ACC in 2011.
Because of that, Danny Ford is all in. Well, sort of.
"I have two rings, one from Alabama and one from Clemson, and I'm proud of both," explains the man who coached that '81 Clemson team, but played at Alabama and was an assistant under Bear Bryant during the Crimson Tide's championship season in 1973. "But I hope Alabama doesn't mind if I pull for Clemson a little bit more than Alabama, because of the big number of rings that they've got and the number of rings we don't have."
The patrons of the Sloan Street Tap Room offer up no such apologies. They're all in.
It's a dive bar, located just off campus and mashed in between a flower shop, a tanning parlor and a Lutheran church. While the Esso Club and Tiger Town Tavern are always packed, Sloan Street is all about its small band of regulars who prefer cold PBRs to craft IPAs. The walls are covered in bumper stickers, including more than a few touting the '81 championship. The sign promises only "sandwiches."
The owner of the place is former Clemson player Jimmy Howard, son of Frank ... as in coach Frank Howard ... as in the Bear Bryant of Clemson ... as in the man whose name adorns The Rock at the top of The Hill at the stadium Clemson fans like to remind LSU fans is the Death Valley.
"I was beginning to think we might not win another national championship in my lifetime and I told somebody just the other day, if we do win it, I hope I don't drop dead the next," says Howard, 71.
"But damn if that wouldn't be all in, wouldn't it?"