Swinney explains how the Tigers responded from that 2012 Orange Bowl loss set the stage for its current run
As Dabo Swinney watched from the sideline during the worst bowl defeat by any team in the history of college football, he never wavered from his plan and how he was going to turn Clemson back into a national champion.
In 2011, Swinney’s Tigers did some things no other team did in the previous 20 years at Clemson. They won the program’s first ACC Championship since 1991 and became the first Clemson team, and just the eighth overall, to win at least 10 games in a season since 1990.
But even with all that success, the season ended on a sour note. The Tigers lost four of their last six games to close the year, including an embarrassing 70-33 defeat to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
After the game, a lot of fans and the media bashed the Clemson program. They made fun of it and made it a joke. But Swinney said they never listened to all the outside noise. Instead, they kept their head down and continued to work.
“It was just one game,” he said. “If you let one game define you or one bad moment define you or destroy you … it is really how you respond to things in life. Bad things happen. Sometimes things just don’t go the way you plan them. I’m sure everything has gone according to your plan in life … like everything.
“It is how you respond. You get better. You grow. We had a lot to learn. We had a culture and a program where we were in the infancy stages of trying to get better.”
Swinney said after the Orange Bowl loss, he stuck to the plan and so did his players. They allowed things to develop and they continued to get better. They did not sit around and worry about what other people were saying. They moved on. They got past it.
They moved on to have an even better season the following year, winning 11 games and beating LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. They followed that up with another 11-win season in 2013, including a victory over Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl.
“Every great anything in life, whether it is a company, a football program or an individual, they all have one thing in common and that is resilience and perseverance,” Swinney said. “I can promise you, they have all failed. They have all failed big time. But it is the resilience, it’s the perseverance, it’s the will to keep moving forward, it’s the willingness to learn and develop and let those things develop you. I never wavered ever. Ever! We just went back to work. What’s next? How do we get better?
“That’s what was so great about the 2012 team. We won 11 games. We took the next step. We beat LSU. That experience helped us. It is not crazy to say. That is the reality. I do not think we are here today without that moment to be honest with you. It is all a part of your journey and that was just a part of our journey.”
Clemson is still in the midst of its journey as the Tigers, with a win over The Citadel on Saturday, can record their seventh consecutive 10-win season. Prior to the 2011 season, the Clemson program had just seven 10-win seasons combined.
The Tigers (9-1) also find themselves in a very familiar spot. They have already won their third straight ACC Atlantic Division title and because they’re No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff Committee Rankings, they’re in position once again to make the CFP for a third straight year.
“This year, I don’t know how it is going to end. I hope we win another national championship,” Swinney said. “Wouldn’t that be awesome? We would be in three national championships in a row and win two of them, how awesome is that? Why not?
“That is how I think. That is how I dream. If we are going to dream, let’s be extravagant about it. You don’t low ball it. You never know, we might just do it. But if we don’t, we will pick ourselves back up, go back to work and try to get better, and go do it again. That is how I go about everything. I always have. I have never been any different. I have had a lot of failure. I have had a lot of criticism and a lot of … those things have never changed how I think.”
Swinney says he tells his players all the time that there is only one thing they can control. They can’t control what they look like. They can’t control where they are born or who their family is or what house they grew up in. They don’t control any of that.
“But you control how you think,” he said. “You control your attitude. You control your mindset. You control your drive, your courage, your heart, you control those things. Don’t let other people or other things take that away from you. If you can maintain that, then sooner or later, you will breakthrough in whatever it is you are doing.
“(The 2012 Orange Bowl) has been a long time … it has been seven years ago and we have won a lot of ball games, but it is also a good reminder, and you listen to all of those talk shows and you look at all the internet reports and read all the clippings, you know it is just a reminder that you can’t let those things paralyze you. You have to be able to stay focused. Put your blinders on, and go about your business.”
With a win on Saturday, Clemson can improve to 80-14 overall since the start of the 2011 season, Alabama is the only other program with at least 80 wins in the last seven seasons.
“We have had unbelievable success,” Swinney said. “There is really only one other team that’s been consistent and that is Alabama. We have won a bunch of games the last seven years, and Alabama has won a few more. So now it is a different deal. Even when you have had great success the criticism is still going to be there. Just like when you don’t have a lot of success, it is just the way it is.
“You give somebody a pot of gold and they are going to ask, ‘Where is my silver?’ If you give them a pot of silver, then it’s ‘where is the gold?’ That is just life. That is just how it is. You just embrace that. You don’t worry about those things. You just stay focused and you have a set of core values that you believe in and you let that be your compass in everything that you do. And if you are not successful, you can look in the mirror and know you did the very best you can and at the end of the day that is what it comes back to – the man in the mirror and how you think.”
Swinney believes Clemson is where it is today because of how the players and the coaches responded and handled the 2012 Orange Bowl loss. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they went and looked at what happened and figured out how they can learn from it and get better.
That team and that game set the stage for all the success, including last year’s national championship run, the program has had since.
“That is why we are here. We have had a bunch of young people that have come through here and they have bought into that,” Swinney said. “They have been able to do a lot of things that a lot of people did not think we could do.
“That is what is fun about this team. They just think they are supposed to win. That is a great quality to have. And when we don’t win, nobody is panicking or pointing fingers. Just congratulate the other team and move on from there.”