There’s no shortage of excuses as to why Clemson remains on the periphery of the nation’s power elite. Some would argue that its home state doesn’t produce an abundance of top prospects (although 38 in-state players signed with BCS schools this year, including the nation’s top prospect, Jadeveon Clowney). Its campus is small and in a relatively rural area (just like national champion Auburn’s). Its facilities — until recently — were below par (if you can call a stadium with unmatched atmosphere and 80,000-plus passionate fans below par). Its conference competition has increased (but it’s still the ACC, hardly the gold standard of BCS conferences).
But there is one overarching explanation why Clemson, despite highly regarded recruiting classes, remains on the periphery:
It has underachieved.
“I would have to say I agree with that,” Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips says. “If you’re bringing in the type of recruiting classes we have and filling needs at every position, and you’re not at the top, you have to step back and ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’”
Every time the Tigers touch Howard’s Rock and take to the Memorial Stadium field, they do so in front of 81,500 orange-clad zealots who help transform the bucolic town of Clemson, S.C., into one of the state’s largest cities. The scene has all the trappings of big-time college football, and the Tigers aspire to all that that designation brings. But over the past 20 years, despite the strong recruiting classes Phillips mentions and plenty of preseason optimism from fans and pollsters alike, Clemson often comes up agonizingly short.
It’s one of college football’s biggest head-scratchers. Since 1992, when Florida State joined the ACC, the Tigers have not won a league title. They played for the crown in 2009 but lost a heartbreaker to Georgia Tech. During that time Clemson has not played in a BCS bowl game — even when the major bowls weren’t governed by the infuriating system. When the Tigers are expected to be powerful at a season’s outset, as they were in 2008 when preseason pollsters picked them ninth, they struggle. When there are few preseason expectations, like the following year, when Clemson couldn’t crack the first top 25, the team has success. If the defense is great, the offense struggles. If there are toss-up games for the taking, Clemson has trouble.
“We want to be as good as we possibly can be and a consistent contender for the ACC title,” Phillips says. “If we do that, we’ll win a few. We’ve had some pretty good teams, but then we would slip back. We’d go up and slip back. It’s something we’ve got to get corrected.”
Over the past decade, Clemson has usually been among the top four ACC teams in recruiting and is often among the top 25 nationally, including second overall by ESPN.com in 2008. The Tigers have had 29 players drafted by NFL teams in the past 10 years, including four first-rounders.
Phillips has turned to Dabo Swinney to turn talent into results. In fact, he has just about risked his job on the former Tiger wide receivers coach. “I feel very strongly about Dabo and have great confidence in him,” Phillips says. When Clemson ousted Tommy Bowden from the head coaching spot after six games of the 2008 season, it elevated Swinney to the top position, despite his having never been a coordinator at the collegiate level. If Swinney doesn’t succeed, both men could be gone from the campus on the shores of Lake Hartwell. At a time when the shelf life of coaches is shorter than ever, 2010 looms as a big year, since last season’s 6–7 record did little to inspire confidence in the coach — or Phillips, especially after the 2009 trip to the ACC title game.
“We came right out of the gate and had a pretty special senior group,” Swinney says, referring to 2009. “We hadn’t won the (Atlantic) division title before, so that was special. Last year, our record was not very good, but the fundamentals and foundation are in place. There is toughness, and the players didn’t quit.
“They showed up every week and played hard. They had character. We’ve got these things in place. The guys know how to practice, and we played well enough on defense last year to win. We didn’t play well enough on offense.”
As is usually the case with the Tigers, it’s always something.
Tommy West may be a Georgia boy, but he understands South Carolina quite well — especially when it comes to football recruiting. West spent five seasons (1994-98) as Clemson’s head coach, compiling a 31–28 record and leading the Tigers to three bowl games, all losses. (West also directed the Tigers to victory in the ’93 Peach Bowl.)
During his tenure, Florida State established its dominance over the ACC, beginning a stretch during which it would win or share 12 of 14 conference titles from 1992-2005 and ending Clemson’s status as the league’s sole “football school.” West also had to contend with the rise of North Carolina under Mack Brown, who effectively locked down the talent in his home state, robbing Clemson of a fertile recruiting area.
That left West to tangle each year with South Carolina — and several SEC interlopers — for the “12-15” big-time in-state prospects. Trouble was, no matter how well West and his staff did their jobs, it was practically impossible to grab the bulk of the players on a regular basis, because people who grow up in South Carolina either root for the Tigers or the Gamecocks. When it comes time for them to make their collegiate decisions, those allegiances remain strong. So, if there are 15 top players, you can generally figure that Clemson and Carolina will split 12, and three will go elsewhere.
“It doesn’t matter if South Carolina is having a good year or Clemson has a good year or who wins the game between the two teams,” West says. “Most people who grow up in the state cheer for one school or the other.”
Compounding matters is that coaches can’t request an even distribution of talent over all the position groups. “You have two major schools competing for these guys, and four of them may be wideouts, when you need offensive and defensive linemen,” Swinney says. And unlike schools in Florida, Texas or California, Clemson can’t rely on homegrown standouts. “The difference is population,” Swinney says. “Those states have a staggeringly larger pool to choose from.” So, Clemson’s coaches — and USC’s — must cast a wider net. When Brown was winning 10 games a year at North Carolina, it was hard to head north. Georgia and Georgia Tech hold considerable sway to the south. If Tennessee stumbles, there is potential there, and Virginia is susceptible, especially since the Cavaliers haven’t been too potent. But success in those states isn’t guaranteed, particularly since the Vols don’t stumble too often, and ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech is tough to beat in the Old Dominion State.
“It does present some difficulty, but it’s doable,” Bowden says. “Clemson is not afforded the luxuries of other schools like North Carolina that have a lot of prospects in state.”
When Clemson does convince players from other states to visit, it runs into another problem. Though the campus and town are classic examples of a collegiate setting, we’re not talking about a metropolis here; Clemson has a population
of about 12,000. “When I was here, there were literally five stop lights in town,” West says. “You bring a kid from Tampa here on a weekend, and there’s not a lot to do. It’s a great place to raise kids, but not a great place to recruit to.”
Predictably, Swinney and Phillips consider the small-town atmosphere a plus for Clemson, although the coach does allow that, “Some guys, you can look at them and see you don’t have a chance. They’re looking for a different environment.”
There is another situation that adds to Clemson’s recruiting challenges: The school does not feature much diversity. The student body is about seven percent African-American, and less than five percent of the faculty is black. The town of Clemson is 11.4 percent African-American, and the numbers don’t get better in the surrounding areas. Unlike other southern football powers that have Historically Black Colleges nearby, Clemson struggles to offer black athletes a thriving cultural experience.
Still, Clemson has been getting its share of talent, as the rankings indicate. But going from a team on the outskirts of the top 25 to a BCS bowl requires more than just solid recruiting classes. And getting to the top of the list on a regular basis means a school must have the facilities necessary to impress prospects. For a while, Clemson was getting “outwowed,” to use a Swinney term. No more. With the 2009 opening of the “WestZone” center at one end of Memorial Stadium (opposite page), the Tigers made their statement in the arms race with an impressive structure that houses offices, a locker room, weight room, lounge and hospitality area. In other words, Clemson had joined the 21st century. “We’ve got the wow factor, so we can get down to business,” Swinney says.
For many Clemson fans, that “business” entails replicating the program’s high-water mark, its 1981 national title. Under Danny Ford, the Tigers finished 12–0 and shocked college football’s establishment, including mighty Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. But that championship was accomplished under some shady circumstances. Clemson ended up on probation less than a year later for substantial recruiting shenanigans, but that didn’t matter to many supporters. When Ken Hatfield took over for Ford in 1990 with a mandate to clean up a program that was put on probation again in ’90 and subsequently compiled a 32–13–1 record, few were satisfied. A popular line about the program during his tenure was “(Legendary coach Frank) Howard built it. Ford tilled it. Hatfield killed it.”
The depth of Clemson supporters’ allegiance is evident every home Saturday, when Memorial Stadium is jammed full. The IPTAY (“I Pay Ten A Year) club features thousands of members who make modest donations — often more than they can afford — to keep the athletic program afloat. In some ways, it’s a small-business vibe, but BCS college football is absolutely a big-money affair, and many of those fans donating $100 a year expect a substantial return on their investment — a trip to the summit, even if the first journey there was accomplished in a questionable manner.
“I don’t think there’s anything bad from the championship,” Swinney says. “It raises expectations, although higher expectations can be unrealistic year-to-year.”
That’s especially true in an ACC that has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. Florida State remains a concern, although the Seminoles slid during Bobby Bowden’s last years, but Virginia Tech is a bigger problem, since the Hokies have won the league title four of the last seven years. Playing perennial bowl participant Boston College every year isn’t easy, either. And then there are Miami, North Carolina, NC State and Georgia Tech, all of whom make regular bowl appearances. Once known for its basketball, the ACC is getting stronger. We’re not talking SEC, but it’s not the old days of Clemson and eight hoop programs.
It all adds up to a tough road for a program with some built-in disadvantages and more competition than its fans might want to appreciate. But on those football Saturdays, when 81,500 people crowd into the middle of campus, and the sun shines, anything seems possible.
“I think we have some special characteristics to this university,” Phillips says.
All that’s missing is a championship.