To best understand Clemson’s status these days among the college football elite, consider that the Tigers have won 44 of their last 48 games entering Saturday’s showdown against N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium. They also are seeking their fifth shared or outright ACC Atlantic Division championship in the past seven seasons, and fourth league title in the same period.
Over the past three seasons, Clemson is 35-3 with a national runner-up finish and last season’s national championship. To be sure, Clemson is exactly where Dabo Swinney envisioned his program would be when he took the head coaching reins midway through the 2008 season.
On his first day as head coach, Swinney met with the Clemson Board of Trustees.
“I want Clemson to become a model program,” Swinney recalls telling the board. “I don’t want to be like anybody else. I want to be Clemson, and maybe one day we’ll look up and other teams might want to be like Clemson.”
Never miss a local story.
That day has arrived, thanks in large part to a four-part plan orchestrated by Swinney with the support – both financial and pragmatic – of the Clemson athletics department and the university’s administration.
Clemson has undergone a facilities transformation in football that leaves the program as the envy of teams across the country. A $15.3 million West End Zone project was completed in 2011 that essentially bowled in one end of Memorial Stadium. A $10 million, 80,000-square foot indoor practice facility opened in 2011 as well.
Finally, a $55 million football operations’ complex, not coincidentally, opened its doors on National Signing Day last February. The facility includes all the bells and whistles – and more – to help entice recruits and make current players believe they are essentially living in the Clemson football family home. Among the building’s amenities are a slide from the second to the first floor, a whiffle ball field, a couple of bowling lanes, a barber shop, hydrotherapy rooms, a 175-seat auditorium, and weight and fitness training centers.
As the Tigers continued their winning ways – with a 7-1 record, they are well on their way to a seventh consecutive season of 10 or more victories – Clemson’s brand expanded nationally.
As a result, every top-level recruit in the country now knows of Clemson’s name and where it is located. This year’s roster lists players from 16 states, including 18 from nearby Georgia where the Tigers continue to woo players away from the home state Bulldogs.
A year ago, Clemson identified Hunter Johnson as the best quarterback prospect in the country and went to Brownsburg, Ind., to get him. For next season, the Tigers already have commitments from the No. 1-ranked player in the country by Rivals.com, quarterback Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville, Ga., and Rivals’ No. 5-ranked prospect, defensive end Xavier Thomas of Bradenton, Fla.
To make certain these prospects receive the best teaching in the country, Swinney has expanded his coaching staff to likely one of the largest in the country, and certainly one of the highest paid.
In his first full season as head coach, Clemson listed 10 other coaches/administrators for football in addition to the NCAA-allowed nine full-time assistants. Today, Clemson counts 19 others on the staff, including one listed as director of football coaching technology and another as special teams analyst/research development.
In 2010, Clemson’s assistant coaches earned $3.75 million. That figure climbed to $5.4 million in 2016, the second highest in the country. A season ago, defensive coordinator Brent Venables earned the nation’s second highest salary for an assistant coach at $1.558 million, and Clemson’s co-offensive coordinators, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, were paid $643,750 each.
Swinney’s $6.75 million salary this season is second nationally to Nick Saban’s $11.1 million at Alabama. Swinney is signed through the 2024 season.
That allows him plenty of time to continue preaching and practicing his “All In” philosophy to winning. When he spoke Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Swinney pointed to the team goals listed on one wall. They are simple: Win the opening game, the Atlantic Division, the state championship, the ACC title and the last game of the season.
“You don’t see ‘win a national championship’ up there,” he said. “It’s nowhere. It’s never been a goal. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to be the best we can be. When you talk about being the best, now it’s in comparison to somebody else. That’s not what we are. We want to be our best. So now it’s being the best version of you.”
Swinney can point to the fact that 157 of 162 senior lettermen in his nine seasons have earned their degrees as a way of showing that commitment extends beyond the playing field at Clemson.
“That’s what ‘All In’ is about. It’s a commitment to be the best you can be on and off the field in everything you do, and collectively, if we’re committed to that, then that’s what we’re going to get,” Swinney said. “You can live with any results that you get if you have a group of people who are truly committed to being their best. Again, not the best. When you’re trying to be the best, then that’s in comparison to other people. That’s not what we want to do.”
Instead, others around the country are now comparing themselves to Clemson football.