Believe: Dabo Swinney's First Word at Clemson and the Key to the Tigers' Rise

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJanuary 6, 2017

Dabo Swinney smiles after Clemson's 31-0 win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Dabo Swinney smiles after Clemson's 31-0 win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

That simple sign was hung on the wall the very first day, steadily and forcefully guiding them through years of failed yesterdays that don't mean a damn thing about today.


Dabo Swinney made sure it was on the wall in 2008, hanging in the team meeting room where no one could avoid it the first time he addressed the Clemson football team as head coach.

Tommy Bowden had just resigned after a 3-3 start. Swinney, who had been coaching receivers, was named interim coach and Clemson once again was where it had been for nearly three decades, since the last time it was on top of the college football world: lost and defeated.

"Believe," Swinney says now, "is a powerful thing."

Powerful enough to lift a wayward program to unthinkable heights. Powerful enough to change everything.

Nine years ago, the idea of Clemson playing in the national championship game was utterly laughable. The Tigers hadn't won 10 games in a season in 18 years, hadn't won the ACC in 17, hadn't finished a season ranked higher than 20th since the turn of the century.

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On Monday, that same program will play in its second straight national championship game against college football king Alabama and try again to recapture the glory of the 1981 national title season while underscoring the beast of a program Swinney has built.

Make no mistake, Clemson has become a blue blood of the sport, a program others emulate. A move to the elite that is as rare as it is difficult. Others have put together legitimate runs since 2000—Oregon, Baylor and Michigan State come to mind—only to slide back to the pack.

Sweeney talks with head linesman Mike Pavese during Clemson's win over Georgia Tech in September.
Sweeney talks with head linesman Mike Pavese during Clemson's win over Georgia Tech in September.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Just how far has Clemson come under Swinney? In the last six seasons, only Alabama (76) has won more games than the Tigers (69).

But winning it all—and beating Alabama in the biggest game of all—means more than a championship. It would validate Believe.

Five months ago, Swinney stood tall in the same meeting room in front of this year's Clemson team and told them he believed they would play for another national title.

He knew Clemson hadn't won back-to-back ACC championship in 28 years, knew they were replacing seven starters on defense and knew the difficulty of navigating a tough schedule as the hunted, not the hunter. "Why should any of that matter?" he asked.

"By the time he was done talking, there wasn't a person in that room who didn't believe we'd get back" to the national championship game, said Clemson All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson.

This is the way it works in the world of William Christopher "Dabo" Swinney. Life's problems come at you, and you've got one of two options: accept it, or suck it up and change it. No matter the obstacles.

Like his alcoholic father who eventually left his wife and kids to fend for themselves. Like his dirt-poor family who nearly lost it all, were evicted from their apartment and had to live in roadside motels and on the floor of a family friend's home.

Like a young man who, after walking on to play football at Alabama, wound up sharing his room in a shared apartment with his homeless mother because she had no place to go and he sure as heck wasn't going to allow that. Yep, Dabo even shared his bed with his momma.

Like the coach who preaches to his staff and players the value of the servant-leader. The famous 1970 essay by Robert Greenleaf outlined the important characteristics of servant-leaders, of those who serve others first to form natural, instinctive leadership abilities: listening, understanding, acceptance and empathy, awareness and perception and self-healing.

Or what looks like the step-by-step process that brought Clemson to the elite of the game.

"Sometimes prosperity is not the best teacher, adversity is," said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. "We've all learned—all of us—that you have to humble yourself and go to work."

Swinney's rags-to-riches story has been told so many times, it has almost become folktale. From earning a scholarship at Alabama, to getting fired from his first job at Alabama and leaving coaching for two years, to working in healthcare administration, to getting hired by Bowden at Clemson, to sitting in the office of then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips one fateful fall morning in 2008.

"I told him, 'Don't act like an interim coach, be the head coach,'" Phillips said. "'Fix it.'"

The problem was, the magical ride of 1981—when Clemson experienced all it could be in big-time college athletics—did more harm than good. It did more than simply raise expectations; it gave voice to various factions within the powerful IPTAY booster club who believed, beyond the shadow of Howard's Rock, that they knew how to make it happen again.

They knew Danny Ford would eventually flame out. Knew Ken Hatfield was a bad fit and Tommy West was in over his head and Tommy Bowden, sure as all get-out, wasn't like his daddy.

How in the world would this kid, this 30-something who had never been a coordinator and who was out of a job a handful of years ago, be any different?

"Dabo doesn't run from problems, he attacks them," said longtime Clemson strength and conditioning coach Joey Batson, who has been part of the program in various capacities for 20 years. "I've never seen anything like it."

Swinney congratulates Nick Saban after Alabama's win in last year's championship game.
Swinney congratulates Nick Saban after Alabama's win in last year's championship game.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Swinney is a little more colorful than Nick Saban, but his plan isn't really much different than Saban's famed "process" at Alabama. It begins with recruiting the interior lines and revolves around competition and accountability, and the knowledge that if you are successful in the classroom, nine times out of 10 you're going to be successful on the field.

On that first day he met the team as the interim coach, the day he first stood under that Believe sign, Swinney listed all the problems Clemson had and all the goals the program hadn't reached. When there's a sense of entitlement within the program despite not having won a championship in what seemed like forever, when you're losing the state's top players to your rival (South Carolina) on a regular basis, that's when you look inward.

Swinney told them those problems and perceptions were walls around the program, and until they changed from the inside, they weren't growing over that wall to the outside.

"The biggest change in our program was creating the attitude of belief," Swinney told Bleacher Report. "I got the job, and it was like, 'Well, let's see if this ol' boy will do all right. We'll pay him a couple hundred thousand dollars and give him no buyout and see if he can make it. Then we have success, so then we'll give him a new contract, and—oh, what do you need? OK, we'll do that indoor facility now.' Then have a few more years of success, and all of a sudden, you create a belief on the outside too. It has been a lot of fun to see it grow."

Newly hired assistant coach Swinney talks to Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden before the 2003 spring game.
Newly hired assistant coach Swinney talks to Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden before the 2003 spring game.Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press

That growth is real and tangible, a seedling that quickly morphed into a recruiting monster that translated into an upgrade in facilities and wins on the field. Three years ago, Clemson opened a state-of-the-art $10 million indoor practice facility, and by the end of the month, a first-of-its-kind, $55 million football palace (they call it facility) will be opened.

But a successful plan and inspiration and motivation can only take you so far. Any coach at any level will tell you players win games. At some point, the shell game of hiding personnel weaknesses is exposed and you either can't score enough points or you give up 70 in the Orange Bowl. Or both.

So you change assistant coaches and coordinators and you recruit harder and you win more and the next thing you know, you have a once-in-a-lifetime talent at the most important position on the field—and everything begins to fall into place. When Watson arrived at Clemson in 2014, the idea of winning big got very real, very quick.

Suddenly, Clemson was more than a program that was recruiting with the nation's elite and winning recruiting battles (and games) against the big, bad SEC. Clemson was no longer the butt of those lame "Clemson-ing" jokes of playing down to competition or losing games in self-destructive ways.

Clemson was the program built to win it all.

"When we were at Georgia, we played them in (Watson's) first game," said Miami coach Mark Richt. "He didn't throw but a handful of passes, had a few runs. (But) I remember telling our defensive coaches afterward, 'This is going to be a game-changer. Not just for Clemson, for everyone.'"

Derrick Henry runs 50 yards for the first of his three touchdowns in Alabama's 45-40 win over Clemson in last year's championship game.
Derrick Henry runs 50 yards for the first of his three touchdowns in Alabama's 45-40 win over Clemson in last year's championship game.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A year later, Watson led Clemson to the national title game, where college football's best coach (Saban) called for a dangerous onside kick early in the fourth quarter, which was successful. Why? Because he didn't think his prized defense, the foundation of Alabama winning three of the last five national titles, could stop Watson and the Clemson offense.

If ever there were a question of Clemson reaching the college football elite, of the Tigers program reaching a level it couldn't dream of prior to Swinney, it ended on a night when Clemson did enough to win the national championship but lost it with a few critical mistakes.

"To get as close as we were last year makes it hurt even more knowing how far we have come as a program," said Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware. "It's going to make it that much sweeter if we can take that last step."

Last month, after Clemson had earned its way into the College Football Playoff and before the Tigers routed Ohio State in the semifinals, Swinney was talking about that new $55 million Clemson football facility that will officially open two weeks after Monday's game.

The 140,000-square-foot building includes a 20,000-foot weight room, a barbershop and a bowling alley, for starters. There's a 24-seat HD theater, a golf simulator and a nap room that includes eight bunk beds and three massage chairs.

There's also that familiar sign in the team meeting room.

"The front door to our program," Swinney said of the facility.

And the result of believing.