By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — Watching the game back at Clemson, Xavier Brewer could only scream at the television as he watched his Clemson teammates put on one of the worse performances in recent memory during a 12-7 loss at Wake Forest on Oct. 9, 2008.
“It was really frustrating,” said Brewer, who was being redshirted that season. “They had a good team that year, but I feel like we had a better team and we just did not play up to our abilities.”
That seemed to be the theme in 2008 for the Clemson Tigers. Ranked No. 9 by the Associated Press heading into the season, Clemson never lived up to its expectations as it was humbled by a very good Alabama squad to start the season, while being humiliated at home to an average Maryland team after leading 17-6 at halftime.
“It was very disappointing,” said center Dalton Freeman, who was also being redshirted that year. “Dad and I sat around and talked about it. We knew things were not looking good, but we had no idea at that time on what was about to happen.”
Freeman may not have known what was going to happen, but rumors were circulating everywhere around campus. In the week leading up to that Thursday night game in Winston-Salem, N.C., rumors were circulating that head coach Tommy Bowden was gone if the Tigers stumbled at Wake Forest. It had even gotten back to the players that a change was imminent.
“We were all talking about it,” Brewer said. “We knew it was about that time for a change to come.”
But it was the Tigers performance at Wake Forest that finally ended Bowden’s 10-year rule over the Clemson football program. The Tigers took a 7-3 lead with seven seconds to play in the third quarter on a 10-yard Cullen Harper to Jacoby Ford touchdown. But Riley Skinner led the Demon Deacons on two fourth quarter scoring drives, including the winning touchdown pass with 5:28 left to pull off the upset.
Clemson, who was supposed to have had one of the more explosive offenses in the country that year, managed just 198 total yards and only 10 first downs. The most surprising thing, despite having two of the most dynamic running back combinations in the country in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, the Tigers totaled only 21 yards rushing.
“That was a nightmare,” said Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s wide receivers coach at the time. “We just could not do anything right. Oh my goodness, it was a long, long night and a long trip back.”
It was a night that forever changed Dabo Swinney’s life, and reflecting back on it now, it is apparent how it changed the fortunes of the Clemson football program. This will be No. 13 Clemson’s first visit to Wake Forest on a Thursday night since that night four years ago.
“At the time, it was a tough deal,” Swinney said. “That game was a culmination of how we had played up to that point. We just had not played well. That night was the epitome of that. We could not get anything going. We played pretty well on defense, but we just could not do anything offensively.”
That next night, Swinney and then tight ends coach Billy Napier were greeted to an uncomfortable welcome as they came back to the area to watch a young man who was a recruiting prospect at the time. After that they went back home and spent the weekend with their families unknowing of anything that was about to happen that next Monday.
“There was no indication of anything at all,” Swinney said. “We had a staff meeting that morning and had devotion, and ironically, it was my time to do the devotion. Then we were actually doing blitz pickup when Andy Johnston walked in and said, ‘Coach Bowden wants to see you guys.’ That was around 10 in the morning.
“That was just a bizarre day.”
And it was about to get weirder. In the meeting, Bowden told the coaches he was stepping down as head coach effective immediately and then left the room. In came Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips, who told the group he was sorry for what was happening, but it was time to move forward and he pointed to Swinney and said, “Dabo, you are now the head coach. You call all the shots and see me in my office in five minutes.”
“You can imagine the emotion in the room,” Swinney recalled. “It was a lot of emotion with guys saying this and that, calling wives and slamming notebooks. It was a raw moment, and then it got quiet. I had no clue what to say. I said, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know what to say. Let me go get with him and we will get back together when I find out what the deal is.’”
After his meeting with Phillips, Swinney met with then offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who despite knowing how hard he worked for Clemson and how much respect he had for him as a coach, he knew he had to let him go so they could try different things on offense with the personnel they had.
From there, Swinney met with the rest of his staff and rearranged things, while quickly putting a plan together before meeting with his team.
“A lot happened that week,” Swinney said. “We were just trying to survive, but our main focus was the players. We were trying to get the players together because we were not together. We knew the only chance we had was to get those guys having fun, buying into some things from a team standpoint and just come together.”
It did not take long for Swinney to get the players to buy in.
“It happened the first time Coach Swinney stood in front of us,” Freeman said. “He really captured the attention of the room and told us he was going to be a players’ coach and do everything in his power to put us in the best situation he could for us to win.
“We bought in and we believed in what he was trying to tell us. We knew we had the talent. It was not a matter of us having the talent, but it was a matter for us putting our best foot forward and he was able to let us do that.”
Though Clemson lost to Georgia Tech that following Saturday, Swinney rallied his team and led the Tigers to four victories in their last five games to qualify for the Gator Bowl that year. At the end of the year, Swinney had the interim tag removed from in front of head coach and has since taken Clemson to the ACC Championship Game twice and won it all last year.
“He just opened up everybody’s eyes and rallied us all together,” Brewer said.
This year, Swinney still has his player believing, as the Tigers are right back in the hunt for another ACC Championship thanks to a 6-1 start overall and a 3-1 record in the ACC Atlantic Division.
“That momentum from that 2008 team still carries on to this day,” Brewer said. “If they would have decided then that the season is over and that there was no reason to keep playing, than there is no telling where this program might be now.
“We are thankful to those guys for being the leaders they were and having that type of character. That comes back to having faith and believing. Coach Swinney believed in us then. He has believed in himself his whole life and that rubs off on us. It’s always in the back of your head. He is a success story and it’s a blessing to have a guy like that as your head coach.”