In 2008, the Clemson football program thought it had finally arrived. After nearly two decades of playing second fiddle to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tigers were once again the favorite to win the ACC.
The Tigers returned a ton of star players from an offense that set many team records in 2007. They were the preseason No. 9 ranked team by both the Associated Press and the USA TODAY Coaches Poll.
But, it quickly became obvious Clemson was not where it needed to be when it played Alabama in the season-opener in Atlanta. Nick Saban’s second Alabama team mentally and physically dominated the Tigers, 34-10, in the Georgia Dome.
Once a promising season, it spun out of control. After getting off to a 3-3 start, Clemson and then head coach Tommy Bowden agreed to go their separate ways and a young assistant coach, who had never been a coordinator, stepped in as the interim coach and the rest is history.
Dabo Swinney knew what he had to do in order to take the Clemson program back to the elite status it had enjoyed for so many years in the late 1970s and ‘80s. He had to make them a tougher team.
“When I got the job in ’09, that was one of the first things I said, ‘We have to become a tougher team. You are not going to win in this game if you don’t have toughness to you, mental and physical toughness,” said Swinney, who is now entering his 10th full season as head coach.
It was a slow process, but now, nine years later, Clemson is one of the premier programs in the country. It has become one of the toughest programs in the country, beating the big boys like LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and, yes, even Alabama.
“We kind of set out and we got a little bit better in 2011 and won the league,” Swinney said. “In 2012, the LSU game was the epitome of that, the mental toughness and the physical toughness. We have just kind of continued to improve.”
Only Alabama has won more games since 2011 than Clemson. The Tigers are 82-15 since then. They have played in two national championship games, won one national championship, advanced to the College Football Playoff three times, has won four ACC Championships, beat Ohio State two times in the Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, knocked off Oklahoma twice in the Russell Athletic Bowl and Orange Bowl and has recorded seven straight 10-win seasons.
The key to it all … building a cultural of winning through mental and physical toughness.
“You recruit that some,” Swinney said. “I think that is part of your recruiting, but it is also just your program. It is your strength and conditioning, it is your off-season. It is how you practice. It is everything. Everything goes into the type of toughness you have to have mentally and physically to win at the highest level.”