Let’s take a trip back in time for a minute, to a rather inconvenient point in history.
The year is 2008. Clemson is a happy place. Its coach has just spurned Arkansas and signed a lucrative long-term contract extension. Many key players are back after a close-but-not-quite 2007 season, and expectations are high given the team’s place in the top ten.
Even more exciting is the prospect of a national television game against an unranked but growing Alabama program looking to establish itself on the national scene in Nick Saban’s second season. The Crimson Tide just brought in a stud receiver named Julio Jones, but many of the other pieces were either young, unproven, or inconsistent.
It seemed like the perfect storm for creating a catapult that would elevate Clemson’s program into the national landscape to stay. Instead, it became the beginning of the end for a perennial underachieving regime.
To say Tommy Bowden should have won more at Clemson is largely a matter of opinion. When you consider how much more Dabo Swinney has at his disposal than Bowden did, the argument gains traction on both sides.
But two months after that stunning defeat at the hands of the eventual national champions, Bowden was out of a job and Swinney was named the captain of the ship in the interim.
Bowden supporters and detractors alike admitted the need for a change. Sometimes two parties just need a separation to move forward, his supporters might argue. Others may have said there were glaring holes in his track record that he would never be able to fill.
Either way, few were surprised at the parting of ways. It’s probably safe to assume a consensus of Clemson fans felt Bowden had had long enough to turn things around.
Other than his penchant for randomly saving his job by following an embarrassing loss with an impressive win, Bowden’s strength as a coach at Clemson was beating South Carolina.
Now fast forward to today. Swinney has become what Bowden was not—a program-builder with a firm grip on a top 15 ranking and a consistent competitor for division and conference titles. He has Clemson fans thinking as ambitiously as they have in a quarter-century on a regular basis.
Swinney has won two division titles (I don’t count times the team tied for first but lost tiebreakers) and a conference crown. He is probably on his way to a second BCS bowl in three seasons. Swinney’s teams have won ten or more games three straight times. Recruiting is trending upward.
Yet in the wake of Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, many fans were ready to cash all that in and start over again—another 10-2 season washed away by an inability to beat a rival seated squarely in the top ten on the road.
So let me get this straight: Clemson fired a coach (or he resigned, whichever version floats your boat) for an inability to elevate the program nationally, and now people want to get rid of the coach that actually did it? It doesn’t make a bit of sense.
There are some who would trade 10-2 and a loss to South Carolina (AKA “The Swinney Years”) for 8-4 and a win over South Carolina (AKA “The Bowden Years”). I find this to be absolutely, unequivocally, totally, and completely ridiculous.
Clemson fans that whined for a couple of decades about not being nationally relevant are now dissatisfied with national relevance. The same people who set up the standard below which Bowden fell have criticized Swinney for not reaching the standard in an acceptable fashion.
I want to be perfectly clear: Clemson should never settle for losing to South Carolina year after year. It’s important to beat your rival every once in a while. But it also shouldn’t be the single factor that negates all of the good things Swinney has done over the past five-plus seasons.
Simply put, 8-4 is never better than 10-2—no matter who you beat to get there. There is still value in reaching double digits in wins, regardless on where the slip-ups happen along the way.
I’m reminded of the biblical example of the Israelites wandering around in the desert. As they searched for the Promised Land, the people grumbled and complained to Moses about their predicament as a nation. They commented, on multiple occasions, about how they wished Moses had left them in captivity in Egypt—where they were abused, tortured, and worked half to death. The people were described as “stiff-necked”.
Wanting to beat South Carolina is fine, but making it a defining requirement for employment when the Gamecocks are performing at peak capacity after a century of football is a bit ridiculous. This rivalry will turn as Clemson’s program continues to grow and mature.
Swinney might find that a stiff-necked people awaits him as he entertains the IPTAY circuit this offseason. Sadly, I think Moses might agree.