CLEMSON, S.C. – The chant thundered down from Memorial Stadium’s upper reaches, penetrating a nasty, cloudy, rainy November afternoon with their fervor.
“Da-BO Swin-NEY! Da-BO Swin-NEY!”
November 29, 2008 was a special day for Dabo Swinney. His Clemson football team whipped South Carolina 31-14, clinching bowl eligibility and Swinney’s elevation from interim to full-time head coach.
Swinney has accomplished plenty since then. His Clemson teams have won 46 games. They’ve won or shared three ACC Atlantic Division titles. His 2011 team won the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
But it has been exactly five years since Clemson has beaten South Carolina.
As No. 6 Clemson (10-1) prepares for Saturday’s 7 p.m. visit to No. 10 South Carolina (9-2), that has many Tiger fans restless. A Gamecock win Saturday night would mark South Carolina’s longest win streak in the rivalry's 104-game history.
Swinney is building an impressive legacy as Clemson’s leader, but it won’t be complete without success against South Carolina.
To him, however, his legacy transcends a rivalry game.
“What I want my legacy to be at Clemson is that I did the best I could, left the program better than I found it,” he said. “Made a difference in people’s lives and did it the right way. What people judge me on for a game doesn’t bother me at all. I’m proud of my legacy. There are many things that I’m proud of, but things that have me disappointed, too.”
Swinney’s predecessor, Tommy Bowden, lasted 10-plus seasons as Clemson head coach without an ACC title or ACC Atlantic Division title. His teams never won 10 games in a single season or made a BCS bowl game. They consistently came up short in games that could clinch an ACC title, like 2007’s 20-17 loss to Boston College.
Leading 17-13 with less than two minutes to play, Clemson needed to stop Matt Ryan and the Eagles to clinch the Atlantic title. But Ryan found a wide-open Rich Gunnell for a 43-yard touchdown, and a late Clemson field goal came up short. Bowden resigned under pressure 10 months later.
For all of his faults, Bowden had one redeeming feature: He knew how to beat South Carolina. Clemson was 7-2 against the Gamecocks on Bowden’s watch, including a 63-17 stomping in 2003.
Bowden was 4-1 against South Carolina in Columbia, and joked that he loved hearing the ear-splitting rooster crow played in Williams-Brice Stadium “because when I hear that chicken call, it means we’re going to win.”
Swinney has never won in Williams-Brice, losing 34-17 in 2009 and 34-13 in 2011. In fact, last season’s 27-17 loss was the first time he has come within 10 points of the Gamecocks since becoming the full-time head coach.
However, when asked if losing to the South Carolina was “painful,” he used perspective.
“Painful in a relative term from a football sense, yes,” he said. “But I don’t draw joy in my life from a football game. Joy comes from faith, family and looking in the mirror and knowing you did the best you can do, living life the way I know I can live it. A lot of people have real pain. It’s perspective.
“Is it painful, in that I feel like I’ve let everyone down? Sure. Everyone wants to win. That’s the way it is. I’ve been part of rivalries forever. You live with it for 365 days. But I have perspective, and that keeps me grounded and focused on the bigger picture.”
Some further perspective: The South Carolina that Swinney is facing is much better than the South Carolina that Bowden dominated.
In Bowden’s nine meetings against South Carolina, the Gamecocks were ranked twice: No. 25 in 2000 and No. 22 in 2001.
By comparison, the Gamecocks were ranked No. 18 in 2010, No.14 in 2011 and No. 13 last fall. They finished each of the last two seasons in the Top 10 nationally.
Saturday is the first top-10 meeting in the rivalry’s history.
“We’ve not lost to Eastaboga Community College,” Swinney said. “They’re a good team. They’ve beaten a lot of people better than us.
“They’ve become nationally relevant, and they’ve earned that. They’ve beaten Florida and Alabama, won 11 games back-to-back seasons, done a lot of good things. So have we. It’s brought much more of a national flavor to this game. It’s big-time implications, national and BCS. I think that’s great. It’s great for our state and great for our rivalry.”
That said, Swinney refuses to make excuses for Clemson’s performance against its rival.
“They’ve outplayed us, outcoached us,” he said. “We’ve got to play to our full potential. That’s what we’ve not done and we’ve got to get that done.
“We need to win the dang game. Bottom line. We want to finish and get our 11th win and end this particular streak. It’s huge for everybody. Everybody wants to win badly. But wanting it ain’t going to get it done. We’ve got to execute, play physical, smart, sound in special teams and win the turnover margin.”
Clemson has won 10 games for three consecutive years, the first time the program has accomplished that feat since 1987-90. A win Saturday would bring the first back-to-back 11-win seasons in program history. The Tigers are on the cusp of their second BCS bowl bid in the last three seasons.
The program is nationally relevant again. But to cement his legacy, like it or not, Swinney needs success against South Carolina.
“I live with it year-round,” he said. “I’ve got to do a great job, a better job than what we’ve done in the past. We’ve got to play better. Nobody wants it more than me, I promise you.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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