Training the Tigers: Celebrating Dabo’s Dynasty and Ten Years of Clemson Football

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
Congratulations, Tigers! 2018 marked another championship year for Clemson football, and head coach Dabo Swinney’s second national title. In commemoration of this year’s national championship, we’re releasing Dabo’s Dynasty: Clemson’s Rise to College Football Supremacy by sportswriter Larry Williams. Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Dabo’s Dynasty, and a few of the many vivid photos from the book!

In March 2003, Bill D’Andrea got a call from Danny Pearman. The two had been together at Clemson in the 1980s when D’Andrea was a coach and Pearman a player. Now Pearman was an assistant at Virginia Tech, and he was calling D’Andrea to tell him about a new guy who was interviewing for a job coaching the Tigers’ receivers.
That was the first time D’Andrea, then Clemson’s senior associate athletics director, heard the name Dabo Swinney. On that interview, first year athletics director Terry Don Phillips wanted D’Andrea to spend a few minutes chatting with Swinney. Pearman, who was with Swinney at Alabama for eight years when Swinney was a player and then a coach, told D’Andrea about Swinney and his family. He said he was there when Swinney’s first son, Will, was born.
And as you’d expect, it didn’t take long in that initial meeting for D’Andrea to observe that there was just something different about this thirty-three-year old guy who was getting back into coaching. “Dabo just had an engaging personality,” D’Andrea said. “He was giving up a pretty lucrative job in real estate development. He knew he wanted to coach. It was his calling. It was a brief interview, kind of chatting back and forth about who knew who. Terry Don, for some special reason, had his eye on Dabo ever since he came here.” 

The confetti drops on Clemson after its 30-3 spanking of Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.These little snapshots, which didn’t seem all that important at the time, have such gravity now as we think back to all the things that had to fall into place for this incredible, irresistible story to happen. Why yes, it’s been ten seasons. A decade of Dabo that began on an October day when Tommy Bowden decided he didn’t want to continue coaching, knowing he’d have to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division to keep his job. And sixteen years since Swinney, who’d spent almost two years selling commercial real estate after Mike DuBose’s staff was fired at Alabama, came to Clemson when Bowden made what seemed a bizarre hire of a receivers coach.

D’Andrea was Phillips’s right-hand man on coaching searches, a sounding board and confidant when important decisions were being made. He was the man who put that orange jacket onto Swinney’s shoulders in December 2008 when the interim tag was stripped from Swinney’s title, two days after the Tigers beat up Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks in what has to go down among the most important victories in school history.

Fan morale was in the ditch in October 2008. A 12–7 loss at Wake Forest on a Thursday night dropped the Tigers’ record to 3-3. A season opening curb-stomping at the hands of Alabama and a home loss to Maryland made a mockery of the Top 10 ranking Clemson carried into the season. This program, which had won a national title in 1981 and collected a long list of big-name wins under Charley Pell and Danny Ford in the late 1970s and 1980s, had been wandering around in the wilderness for almost two decades. And now people were fed up with Bowden, who was supposed to break through in his tenth season but ended up breaking down instead. Over Bowden’s tenure, the Tigers could beat almost anyone but also lose to almost anyone—sometimes in back-to-back games.

Less than a year later: “Here we were, hiring a coach that wasn’t even a coordinator,” D’Andrea said. “There were a lot of people in IPTAY that had e-mailed me saying they were leaving because we were making a bad decision. He didn’t have the experience.”

Hunter Renfrow with one of the biggest plays of the season, a leaping grab of a Chase Brice throw to convert a third down and set up a field goal in the third quarter against Syracuse.Even on an interim basis, when he was guaranteed nothing beyond the final six games of the regular season, Swinney made a priority of connecting with fans in ways that Bowden had not. The first Tiger Walk, which has become ingrained as a celebrated pregame ritual, was before Swinney’s first game against Georgia Tech. He invited students to come watch practice and even allowed some to participate. When fans wrote to him offering their support, somehow he found the time to write back thanking them. He told them how much he loved the passion of Clemson fans, told them it was a privilege to lead the program. He told them better days were ahead for the Tigers.

Clemson seemed a galaxy away from 1981. Even ten-win seasons and ACC titles seemed like fantasy as Virginia Tech dominated the ACC, and the Tigers watched Boston College and Wake Forest parade to the conference championship game as the Atlantic Division representatives. But Swinney knew how to speak the fans’ language, knew how to connect, from the very beginning.

“Dabo was inclusive,” D’Andrea said. “He brought the institution together. He invited faculty to practice. He brought the band out there. He just did things that—some people might view it as a marketing opportunity, but those were things we needed at that time. There were a lot of people who were disappointed.”

Players touch Howard’s Rock before playing host to Duke.In a short time, Swinney connected with supporters in a way that Bowden never did in nine-plus seasons. Clemson fans want someone they can reach out and touch and relate to. Bowden, who upon his hire at Clemson was hailed as the second coming of his father, the folksy, charismatic Florida State legend Bobby Bowden, just wasn’t that type of guy. He never seemed to let his guard down. His successor never seemed to have his up.

In January 2006, D’Andrea was on the university plane with Swinney and running backs coach Burton Burns. Southern Cal was a giant in those days, and Reggie Bush was a force-of-nature running back for the Trojans. “Y’all need to go get a tailback like Reggie Bush,” D’Andrea told Swinney and Burns. Their reply: “Oh, we’ve got one.”

That was the first time D’Andrea heard the name C.J. Spiller. Swinney was solely responsible for selling Spiller on the notion of simply going to Clemson for a visit, let alone signing with the Tigers. Without Spiller, maybe Bowden is gone sooner. Without Spiller, where is Swinney in October 2008? Where is Clemson now? The what-ifs sort of take your breath away, don’t they?

D’Andrea remembers hopping on the team buses for a road trip during Swinney’s audition. One of Swinney’s new rules was everyone had to dress to the nines when the team traveled. No more warm-ups or sweatpants or whatever else the team was wearing before he took over. Swinney was going to go out doing it his way, and a big part of that was first-class representation of the football program. Phillips and D’Andrea were sitting near the front of the first bus when the head coach walked up the stairs. He was followed by his wife, Kathleen, and their three boys. Phillips leaned over to D’Andrea and said, “Look at that beautiful family.”

Look at this beautiful decade. A decade of Dabo. Ten seasons that culminated with a confirmation of Dabo’s Dynasty.

D’Andrea: “There was just something that gravitated Terry Don to Dabo, whether it was divine intervention or what.”