TAMPA, Fla. -- Dabo Swinney waited before he celebrated. Before he could be interviewed, before he could hoist the College Football Playoff national championship trophy with his team on the stage at Raymond James Stadium, all he wanted to do was find Nick Saban.
Swinney looked right and left, held his arm up in the air, searching for his coaching adversary, one he respected so much. He was swarmed by media and Clemson supporters in the middle of the field, but he wanted to shake hands with the man who denied him the national title last year and nearly denied him one again.
"I kept trying to find him, and we finally got each other, and he was great," Swinney said. "I mean, what are you going to say? His team played their hearts out. I mean, it was an unbelievable game, both teams, just two heavyweight champions."
Clemson had already arrived long before Monday night's 35-31 comeback win over Alabama, capped by a last-second touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow. But now its national position is assured: It is a force to be reckoned with, a champion that took punches from Alabama, got up off the mat and fought back to beat the reigning champs, one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport.
"At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight," Swinney said, before delivering a brief rant directed at Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd in particular. "We wanted to play Alabama because now y'all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y'all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud, ask Alabama if we're a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don't know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we're a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we're a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we're a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn't do his homework. I hope y'all print that."
Swinney has long talked about unlocking the potential of Clemson, and despite initial skepticism, he has done exactly that.
Never a coordinator, Swinney was promoted from wide receivers coach to interim coach to permanent head coach in 2008. After a couple years of mixed results, he found a groove, surrounded himself with talented assistants, began having recruiting success and established himself as a master motivator and energizer for the Tigers program, which had struggled to escape the shadow of Florida State once the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992.
Over the past few years, Swinney has established Clemson as an equal of Florida State and now, for the 2016 season, at least, an equal of his alma mater Alabama, too.
"There was no upset tonight," Swinney said. "That's the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win the game tonight I don't want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don't win the dadgum game. I don't want to hear one word about it. This is an expectation, the last thing I told them. We expected to win the game. We expected to win it last year. When we take the field, we expect to win because we work our tails off, and we got a committed group of people, staff, players, everybody."
Swinney then pointed out what Clemson had done to get into this position: Last year, it went 14-0 in the regular season and lost by just five behind a transcendent performance from Watson. This year, Clemson beat Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama -- the teams that had combined to win the previous seven national championships.
It was capped on Monday with the fourth-quarter rallies to dethrone the Crimson Tide, the kings of the sport, the winners of four of those past seven national titles, searching for a 15-0 season.
Even in defeat, Clemson played like Alabama's equal last year in Arizona. On Monday, Clemson looked superior in the rematch, overcoming initial struggles to take down Goliath, proving to be a worthy adversary for the Crimson Tide two years in a row.
"Somebody asked me the other day what my favorite sequel was, and I said, 'Rocky,'" Swinney said. "First one was kind of a draw, the draw goes to the champ, but the second one, you know, they were both kind of right at the last second, Rocky gets up, and that's kind of how it was tonight."
Almost any other team would have been knocked out by Alabama long before that fourth quarter. Nobody had defeated Alabama since Sept. 19, 2015, but nobody has played against like Alabama quite like Deshaun Watson, and nobody has coached against Alabama quite like Dabo Swinney, who has forcefully pursued and now secured respect for the once looked-down-upon Tigers.
"Eight years ago our goal was to work our tails off and eventually get Clemson back on top, and tonight that's a reality," Swinney said. "It truly is. The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight. We saw the top of it last year -- didn't get quite there. Tonight we took that next step. It was really the only thing we hadn't done in the last eight years, and we got it done."
Clemson has proven that any past perceptions of its program as an underachiever are ancient history. The Tigers, under Swinney, are national champions and a national power, one that flat-out refused to be denied that status, one that refused to be treated as anything less than equals with Saban and Alabama.
On Monday night, Swinney's Tigers weren't equals. They were superior.