Clemson’s greatest running back of all-time takes us back to what it was like through a player’s eyes on the anniversary of when Swinney won the 2008 team over and subsequently became the greatest coach in the program’s history
There was not much noise. Everyone was quiet and lost in their thoughts, including running back C.J. Spiller.
Just a few hours earlier, back in Winston-Salem, N.C., he and his Clemson teammates suffered one of their most embarrassing losses of their college careers. Wake Forest, who was undermanned and nowhere near as talented as a Tigers’ team that started the season ranked No. 9 in the country and the media’s pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time in 17 years, beat the them 12-7 on Thursday night at Groves Stadium.
“For me it sucked because I got hurt during that game,” Spiller recalled. “So, I was beating myself up about that situation, and then you lose on top of that and the way that we lost. Everything that could possibly go wrong in that game, it went wrong.”
The Tigers rolled into Clemson in the early morning hours of October 10, 2008. What was once thought to be a promising season, they now were 3-3 and 1-2 in the ACC. What happened in the days to come, no one on the team saw coming.
“I think our mindset was, ‘What could we do to turn this season around and get it back on track,’” Spiller said.
Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips and the Clemson administration had the same mindset, except they wanted to do it with a different guy in charge. After being embarrassed by Alabama on national television in the season opener, plus blowing a 17-point lead at home to Maryland in a 20-17 loss the Saturday before going to Winston-Salem, rumors had already started to circulate about Tommy Bowden’s demise as head coach.
As for the team, no one was talking about it and for Spiller he had no idea the rumors were going around.
“I think if guys would have known that, it kind of would have put more pressure on us,” Spiller said. “I have said this many times, I don’t think we had the teams built for how to handle success and how to handle disappointment.
“I don’t think no one in the locker room knew what was about to happen.”
The Tigers had the weekend off and returned to practice Sunday evening. After practice was over, Bowden told the media Willy Korn was the team’s new starting quarterback for the upcoming game against Georgia Tech, hoping it was a move that could jump start his team and perhaps save his job.
At the time, Bowden had no idea this was the last time he would speak to the media as Clemson’s head coach.
Phillips arrived on campus a little bit earlier than he normally did on October 13, 2008. He knew Bowden was an earlier riser and was always in his office at the McFadden Building before 7 a.m. Phillips felt it was best he spoke with Bowden before everyone else in the athletic department rolled into work.
He was very upfront with his football coach, telling him unless they found a way to turn things around and win the ACC’s Atlantic Division they would replace him at season’s end. Phillips then walked back across the breeze way to his office in the Jervey Athletic Center. What happened next caught him and everyone else off guard.
After some time had passed, Bowden walked into Phillips’ office and offered him a deal. He would step away as head coach immediately as long as Phillips agreed to make Dabo Swinney the interim head coach.
Bowden, as he still does, thought the world of his young wide receivers coach. He knew Swinney was head coaching material and he wanted to see him have a shot. Phillips felt the same way, as Swinney caught his attention a long time before by the way he carried himself, coached his players, recruited and was so loved and respected by so many of the players on the team.
Spiller does not remember exactly where he was at that Monday morning, 10 years ago today to be exact, when he found out Bowden had resigned and Swinney, the guy responsible for him being at Clemson, was named the interim.
He knows he was either in class or over at Vickery Hall, the old academic service building, when he started receiving text messages from friends, family and teammates about the news.
“Of course, we were in there with other students and they were on the internet and stuff like that and we were like, ‘Man! What just happened,’” Spiller said.
As he headed to the team meeting that afternoon, Spiller had 100 thoughts going through his mind. There was the disappointed of the season to think about, his head coach was no longer there, and they had to play Georgia Tech in five days. Plus, he knew he was likely not going to play due to a hamstring injury he suffered at Wake Forest.
Spiller remembers vividly what happened next. In the team meeting, Swinney asked all the coaches to leave the room, so he could talk to the team by himself. What happened in the next 30 or so minutes is when the foundation of the Clemson culture everyone knows today was first laid down.
Swinney was upfront with the players. He told them what Phillips had relayed to him. He said he was not just the interim coach, who would just manage the program until someone else came along, but he was the head coach and if they were able to turn the season around, then he would have an opportunity to interview for the job and could possibly get it.
At that moment, Swinney told them if anyone wanted to leave, he understood, and they could keep their scholarship and when the new coach was named they could come back to the team. However, if they decided to step foot on the practice field that night then they had to be “All In” and was going to do everything they could to help turn things around.
There was no in between. They had to either have both feet in or both feet out. The choice was theirs and no one was going to think differently about them either way.
“The room was very quiet,” Spiller recalled. “You could hear a pin drop in there. Guys were still trying to process what happened with Coach Bowden. Everybody knew Coach Swinney and what type of person he is and what type of coach he is, just from looking at how he coached his guys.
“Now he is the leader of the team and he was very up front with us. I think that is why everyone showed up to that Monday night practice. When he told us, ‘Your scholarship will be honored if you don’t want to be here, but if you come to practice tonight, just know that you have to be all in and we have nothing to lose.’”
Swinney immediately began to put his stamp on the program. Knowing he needed to bring the fan base and the team back together, he incorporated Tiger Walk for the very first time that following Saturday. Instead of the team being dropped off right in front of the locker room like they have done forever, he instead had them dropped off at Perimeter Road, right in front of Lot 5 and had them walk through a sea of Clemson fans who he knew would love and support them know matter what.
“It was crazy,” Spiller remembers about the first Tiger Walk. “It was nuts to see so many people show up. It was a twelve o’clock game, if I am not mistaken, and to see so many fans show up for that was awesome. No one knew what to expect. The fans did not know. The players, we didn’t know.
“Coach said we are going to do this Tiger Walk and he knew the fans would show up and greet us as we walked into the stadium. As we pulled up and saw so many fans before the game cheering for us, it gave us energy. It gave us some life.”
Though they played tough and gave it their all, in spite of all that had transpired just five days before, Clemson lost that first game under Swinney, 21-17, to Georgia Tech. However, Spiller could see things had changed and that they believed they could turn the season around.
They had an open date the following week prior to playing at Boston College. They all knew this was the game that was going to make or break their season. A win at BC would give them the opportunity they needed to become bowl eligible.
“We wanted to get to a bowl game and we wanted to give the seniors the opportunity to play just one last game,” Spiller said. “We knew we had to start stacking some wins together. Boston College was the next opponent and we knew it was going to a tough game.”
Since it joined the ACC in 2005, Boston College had not lost to Clemson, winning three straight thrillers over the Tigers. The 2008 game was no different.
Clemson jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead behind the running of Spiller and his backfield teammate James Davis. Cullen Harper had won back the starting quarterback job and the offense was finally clicking again.
However, Spiller, who had 242 total yards, had to leave the game in the third quarter with a head injury following a 40-yard catch-and-run and BC came roaring back. The Eagles scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-17 lead with 8:43 to play in the game.
But Spiller cleared the medical staff from Clemson and returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to set up what turned out to the game-winner, a 3-yard Harper to Aaron Kelly touchdown pass that was first ruled out of bounds but was overturned by replay officials.
The Tigers went on to win the game, 27-21. It was Swinney’s first as a head coach.
“We had been through so much so to finally get that win, there was just so much emotion,” Spiller said. “You would have thought we won the national championship. Everyone was just so excited. There were guys jumping up and down, guys crying and hugging each other because we knew we finally got that monkey off our back.”
It had been almost five weeks since Clemson last won a game, and now with new life breathed back into the program they believed in Swinney and they knew things were on the up.
After playing Florida State tough down in Tallahassee the following week, the Tigers returned home and routed Duke, 31-7, before beating Virginia, 13-3, the following week in Charlottesville, Va. That set up a showdown with archrival South Carolina at Death Valley in the regular-season finale.
At 6-5, because it beat FCS foe South Carolina State earlier in the year, Clemson had to beat the Gamecocks to become bowl eligible. However, going to a bowl game and having bragging rights was not the only thing up in the air.
Swinney learned earlier in the week if he beat Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks in the finale, the Clemson job was his.
“We did not know that as players,” Spiller said. “I don’t think it would have changed the way that we would have played, though. We knew the magnitude of the game. But, it would have added some extra juice to it.
“We kind of hand a sense in the locker room that if we win this one, there might be a possibility of Coach getting this job, but he never came out and said it. He has never been about that. He always wants us to play our best football. He understands the magnitude of this game. He wanted to make sure our fans had the opportunity to have bragging rights and that is how we looked at it. We also wanted to do it for our seniors because this was their last game in Death Valley.”
The Gamecocks never had a chance. Playing for the seniors, the fans and ultimately Swinney, Clemson jumped out to a 24-0 lead thanks to two Davis’ touchdowns and Jacoby Ford’s 50-yard touchdown reception from Cullen Harper on a trick play called “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”
As the final minutes and seconds started to wind down in Clemson’s 31-14 victory, the 82,000 fans packed into Memorial Stadium began to chant “DABO SWINNEY! DABO SWINNEY!” over and over again.
“We knew then he got the job,” Spiller said. “Once you win the fans over, it is like a done deal here. Once we got those chants going and we carried him off the field, we knew he got the job.”
Swinney was officially named the head coach two days later.
“I just remember sitting there in that press conference knowing we have the right person to lead our program,” Spiller said. “I know it was going to take time to get the right pieces that he needed. It was the first time he was the head coach, so he was figuring out the ins and outs of what that all meant, but I knew he was the right person.”
And now, 10 years and a national championship later, everyone else does too.
–Photo courtesy USA TODAY Sports