MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- If Dabo Swinney were to be promoted from wide receivers coach to interim coach to full-time head coach in the span of one disappointing season today, it's hard to imagine the reaction being anything but overwhelmingly negative.
Clemson opened the 2008 season ranked No. 9 in the AP poll. It was coming off a 9-4 season, with an experienced roster returning, headlined by the running back duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller. It was seeking to end years of frustration.
It ended the season with a 7-6 record, hiring a new coach that few people had heard of just a few months earlier. Tommy Bowden was fired after six games and replaced with a position coach who had no experience as a head coach or even coordinator. In the eyes of former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips, Swinney -- who did have a strong reputation as a recruiter -- was the right man to resurrect Clemson football and turn the Tigers into a national power again, a risk that even Swinney was unsure about when it first happened.
Seven years later, Clemson's promotion of Swinney has proved to be one of the best coaching moves of the 21st century. Every coaching decision is a roll of the dice, but few have paid off more than Phillips' faith in the unknown.
"My message to the team, the very first team meeting I had when I became the full-time head coach, I kind of listed all the problems as far as from the outside -- hadn't done this, hadn't done that, hadn't done this -- and it was like a mountain," Swinney said. "And it's still my message to this day: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If we're going to change all that, we're not going to change it from the outside in. It's got to change from the inside out."
When Bowden hired Swinney in 2003, and when Swinney became head coach in 2008, Clemson was a chronic underachiever, a sleeping giant that could not figure out how to snap out of its long hibernation. The Tigers had won a surprise national championship in 1981 under coach Danny Ford, but they perennially hit a wall for most of two decades, after the Ford era fell apart and then Florida State joined the ACC in 1992 and proceeded to dominate the conference for years.
Prior to 2011, Clemson's last ACC championship had come in 1991, the season before Florida State made its conference debut. Clemson began the next season ranked 13th, but it lost 24-20 in Week 2 to the Seminoles and ultimately fell to 5-6 overall. FSU won at least a share of 12 of the next 14 ACC titles, while Clemson floated in and out of relevance, occasionally popping into the back end of the top 25 but never achieving anything more.
"Everybody had their opinions on why Clemson wasn't where it needed to be," Swinney said. "Some people wanted to go this way, others wanted to go that way. And that was a benefit to me because I was able to kind of learn Clemson through five and a half years, kind of observe. I felt like we had great potential from the moment I got there. Like, man, we've got a passionate fan base. We've got this incredible tradition here. This is an unbelievable place to go to school. I think it goes all the way back maybe to the '80s or whatever and Coach Ford.
"But they just had some problems, and it was just kind of split. They had not had the success that they wanted to have, and for whatever reason, it just hadn't come together yet. And that was my No. 1 job was to try to bring it all together, from the former players to the administration to the fan base. Together everyone accomplishes more, right?"
Swinney has gradually built Clemson in his image, with his ultra-positive, enthusiastic personality bleeding into the program as a whole. His role in Clemson's rise has been first and foremost as a unifier, someone who picked a direction for Clemson to go in and followed that path with a clear vision that was lacking as the Tigers bounced around from Ken Hatfield to Tommy West to Bowden in the years following Ford.
After a few bumps to begin Swinney's career as head coach, Clemson has won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons. It will finish in the top 15 four straight seasons after not doing so once over the previous 20 years. He has won a pair of ACC titles, and he has guided an undefeated regular season. Deservedly, he's claimed numerous coach of the year honors this season.
Entering Thursday's playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl against No. 4 Oklahoma, Clemson -- the 13-0 ACC champion -- is at the top of the polls for only the second time in school history, and it hopes to win two more games to finish at the top, too.
"It would mean a lot because we've been knocking on the door for a long time here at Clemson, and I don't think as far as brand-wise everybody respects the brand, the Clemson brand," cornerback Mackensie Alexander said. "So that's going to be big for us to come out here and get this 'W' and win the title because it would help our brand more. Because everybody doesn't really respect Clemson."
On one hand, Clemson is getting respect, as the team ranked No. 1 in the country, at the top of the second-ever playoff bracket. A common theme of playoff media days is that every team likes to claim it is being disrespected, even when it isn't. Clemson is no exception.
But Clemson is an underdog against No. 4 Oklahoma, and it has spent years trying to shake off the perception that it is an underachiever prone to falling flat at the most inopportune times. Numerous stories have been written about the end of "Clemsoning" this year, and it's true that the term has long been played out. Clemson is no longer Charlie Brown tumbling to the ground repeatedly after trying to kick a football. It is quickly becoming a sustainable national power, a team with a lethal combination of talent, preparation and confidence, with the resources to back it all up.
In 2011, Clemson won the ACC for the first time in 20 years, only to get blown out 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. After that debacle, Swinney poached Brent Venables from Oklahoma to be his defensive coordinator, and the defense has developed into one of the nation's most dependable units since he arrived.
In four years with Venables on staff, Clemson is 45-7 overall -- with bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma -- and he has proved to be a perfect match for Swinney, who has acted as the ultimate face-of-the-program, CEO-type head coach.
"He's a perpetuator of the positive," Venables said. "He's very passionate about young people, passionate about the game, passionate about his job, passionate about representing the university. So I'm a believer in all of those things. I love to recruit. He loves to recruit. He's a great salesman. He's a great leader. … He believes in you, makes you believe in yourself, and that's an attractive quality."
For years, Clemson occupied a spot in the college football landscape similar to Michigan State, which never stops talking about the chip on its shoulder. These are the teams with established, enthusiastic fan bases and occasional winning in their past, but they're always playing second fiddle, struggling to string together any positive momentum as nearby rivals bully them. Michigan State has finally pulled out of that funk under Mark Dantonio, on its way to its third straight top-five finish.
Swinney brings a different personality to the table than Dantonio, the Nick Saban disciple, but he's pulling off a similar feat, partially by making an impression on recruits and coaches with his honest, genuine approach, something that Venables said played a big role in his decision to accept the job on his staff.
"Know who you are," Swinney said. "Be consistent. Speak the truth, and you don't have to worry about what you say. I don't know how to be anything other than me."
Swinney's confidence in himself and his vision for the program have done exactly what he intended when he was named the head coach. Both Swinney and Venables spoke of having leadership that strives for the same goals. Whereas Clemson previously suffered from various leaders having different agendas, Swinney has patiently patched together a competitive program in which every faction of the Clemson football community has bought in.
Clemson's inclusion in the College Football Playoff and the Memorial Stadium pizza party are proof.
"I'm on the 36th floor [at the team hotel] and you know what I do?" Swinney said. "I get on the elevator and go boop and the doors open up and I'm on the 36th floor. Well, it doesn't work that way in football, and it doesn't work that way with building a program. You've got to take the steps. Some of them are harder than others, and the higher you climb, the tougher it gets. So I wanted to build a foundation and a culture that can not only sustain success but handle adversity."
Only this season has Clemson gotten over the hump to be a legitimate national championship threat, but much of Swinney's mission has already been accomplished. There is a much healthier respect for Clemson now. The foundation is built. While there will be plenty of talent to replace again next year, core players like Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, Mitch Hyatt and Christian Wilkins will all return in 2016. There is little reason to believe this newfound powerful version of Clemson is going away.
Clemson may lose to Oklahoma, or it may lose to Alabama or Michigan State in the national championship game. Given how far the Tigers have come in a perfect season, either would undoubtedly be a disappointing result. But the bar has been raised, and the gamble has paid off.
The question is no longer why Clemson is failing. The question is now how high Clemson can climb.