One Heartbeat: All in for the New Clemson Era

David BallingerContributor IOctober 16, 2008



What a week it has been.


Who could have imagined we’d be at halftime in season 10 of the Tommy Bowden era, and now suddenly, it’s the Dabo Swinney era?


Who could have imagined our team captain and senior QB would be riding the pine in the most dishonorable fashion possible, in advance of our most important ACC game, only to commit an act equally as dishonorable days later that seems to justify his demotion?


Who could have imagined a season so full of promise would collapse like dominoes, only to seemingly resurrect itself in a span of 40 minutes?


Who could have imagined James Davis in tears, not shed in the thrill of victory, but over the loss of Bowden, his father figure?


Who could have imagined we’d lose to Maryland and Wake Forest, in the most apathetic manner possible, only to be brimming with hope facing a revamped Georgia Tech squad knocking on the door of the Top 25?


Not me, certainly.


So much has changed this week that, quite frankly, it’s hard for me to absorb it all. There is no question we’ll be feeling the aftershocks for some time to come.


All I know is, 2008 is suddenly alive again with hope and energy.


Monday morning, Coach Dabo clocked into work as our wide receivers coach, intent on spending his day dissecting the Yellow Jackets’ blitz package. Monday evening, he was suited in dress clothes, facing a beehive of buzzing reporters, as the interim head coach of the Clemson Tigers.


His 40-minute press conference re-energized me. I came away very impressed with what Dabo had to say, and suddenly, I am looking forward to Saturday in the House of Howard again—something I have not felt since the Alabama debacle.


Let me start by saying a few words about Tommy Bowden. I know, I know, he’s the past, Dabo’s the future (for now), and we should drop him like a bad habit. But I think we owe it to the man to acknowledge the good things he’s done for our school. I think it would be grossly unfair and inaccurate to characterize him purely for what he failed to accomplish.


I thank Tommy for restoring credibility to the Clemson program. That goes beyond what we did on the gridiron. He ran the program with class, integrity, and honor. He played by the rules. He didn’t take shortcuts to success, and he represented Clemson with the air of dignity. The NCAA never had a reason to eyeball the Tigers in his 10 years at the helm.


I thank Tommy for his commitment to quality education. On his watch, the team’s GPA rose steadily when it had been in the pits prior. Players were held accountable for missing classes, summer and fall.


On his watch, Clemson graduates landed good jobs and steady income beyond simply playing football. Those playing in the NFL are better for their time under Tommy because he also taught them how to be successful in the game of life.


I thank Tommy for the thrilling victories during his time. I’ll never forget our 33-14 win against Virginia, his first win as our head coach, when the team finally began to gel. I’ll never forget the 86,000 strong packed into Death Valley for Bowden Bowl I. Granted, we didn’t prevail that night, but we did eventually slay our personal Goliath in Florida State.


I’ll never forget the heart-stopping 44-41 victory against Georgia Tech in which Woody Dantzler called his own number and punched in the winning touchdown. I’ll never forget the “Finish of ’03,” which included 63-17 over South Carolina and 27-14 in the Peach Bowl over a Tennessee team that thumbed its nose at us.


I’ll never forget the capstone to a four-game winning streak in 2004 in which we came back to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl. I’ll never forget the rally spearheaded by Gaines Adams to defeat Wake Forest 27-17 in Groves Stadium. Or ESPN College GameDay watching James Davis and C.J. Spiller run all over Georgia Tech to the tune of 31-7.


It’s true—we never quite got over the hump under Coach Bowden. As Terry Don Phillips said, there comes a time when competition outweighs all the other good things that you have accomplished. We didn’t beat enough of the competition. We never brought home the ACC title, even though we had plenty of chances. I’m not looking past that.


But we’d be foolish to assume Dabo Swinney is inheriting a barren cupboard or a lacking program. We have talent. We have facilities. We have stability, ethics, and class—many of which were achieved on Tommy’s watch. He deserves credit for that, if nothing else.


So thank you, Tommy, for representing Clemson University well in your tenure. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.


The same goes for Rob Spence. Both of them are strong, dedicated, and well-respected men, and I have every confidence that they will land on their feet, whether it’s coaching elsewhere or something else. Their days are not over post-Clemson. They will be fine.


Once again, thank you, Tommy Bowden. For everything.


Now we move to the Dabo Swinney era of Clemson football.


It may only last seven weeks. It may last longer. But what an era it promises to be.


I listened to all 40 minutes of Dabo’s first presser Tuesday night, and I could feel a grin spread across my face as he spoke. The man was crackling with confidence and energy.


Let’s not forget—early in the morning, he was still prepared to coach our wide receivers. He had very little time to process the termination of his boss, coupled with his promotion to interim boss, and added to that, he had to fire a friend and co-worker in Spence. Add it all up, and you could forgive a little weariness, a sense of feeling overwhelmed.


But I saw none of that in Dabo’s face. He was fired up, energized, and ready to take the reins.


What got me most was how upfront and genuine Dabo came across. I heard little to none of the typical “coach-speak” we usually get at these things. He exuded a sense of trust, a feeling of authority that belied his 38 years and lack of head coaching experience.


I knew he could do the job if he had to, but he blew even me away with how polished he was. It wasn’t phony or forced either. He was upfront, but ambitious—confident, but not cocky.


That’s a very, very tough balance to achieve and requires a certain comfort level in being yourself.


I do know what I’m talking about: Being a teacher and having taken some public speaking classes in college, it’s not an easy thing to project confidence while not sounding arrogant.

You want to sound like you know what you’re doing, but at the same time not come across as aloof or towering to the effect that you alienate your audiences.


Considering all he had to go through on Monday, Dabo did a fantastic job on that front.


Now it’s way too early to hitch our wagons to Dabo’s star, and I won’t do that quite yet. We haven’t seen the man coach a game. He talks a great game, but can he back it up and steer us back on the right track? I don’t know.


I love what I’ve heard so far from practice camp. From the sound of it, the man is doing all the little things right: unifying the fans and shifting the team’s attitude in a positive direction. Dabo may not survive past December, but he is determined to make his mark while he’s here.


I love his leadership. We need it.


It’s too early to say whether Clemson can rebound and save 2008. We’ve been humbled and knocked down several pegs. It will take time for the aftershocks of the past week to settle.


Plus, we are battling injuries. The offensive line is still a walking M.A.S.H. unit. C.J. Spiller is out for Saturday. Tyler Grisham may be as well. We have yet to see Willy Korn take meaningful snaps in a game that matters. Will he be up to the task?


It is unrealistic to expect the offense to shift course in the span of four days and go back to good ol’ smashmouth football. Philosophies don’t change overnight. The best we can expect is a few new wrinkles here and there. That’s usually all an interim coach has time to teach on short notice.


I don’t expect the downfield pass to open up because Korn lines up under center. Or the gaps to suddenly appear for James Davis or Jamie Harper. Or for Korn to single-handedly save us with his feet.


This is still the same team that got ripped apart by Alabama, strategically outplayed by Maryland, and clobbered up front by Wake.


Execution and focus will be the keys on Saturday as the Fighting Tigers try to reawaken their “fight” against Georgia Tech and Ellis Johnson’s option attack. I’m not even going to post my usual score prediction because I honestly have no idea what to expect—and for some reason, that doesn’t bother me one bit.


But I’m excited. Totally freakin’ excited.


So be safe, enjoy the game, and cheer your lungs out! GO TIGERS!!!


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