When Dabo Swinney first became the head coach at Clemson 11 years ago, it was common for other teams and coaches to try and use Clemson’s small-town atmosphere against it.
Rival coaches would ask potential prospects why they would even consider Clemson because it’s a small town and a small school that will never be able to compete on the big stage when it comes down to it. It’s a perception Swinney and his program did not try to overcome, but instead embraced it as part of changing the culture at Clemson.
“It’s something I used to talk to the team about all the time 11 years ago when I got the job,” Swinney said recently. “I’d say, ‘We’re Little ole Clemson, but we’ve got everything we need to compete at the highest level. We’re going to build a big program,’ and we’ve been able to do that.”
Swinney quietly used Clemson’s small-town appeal to recruit to players that fit his culture and fit the “Little ole Clemson” mantra. During his time, he has built Clemson into one of college football’s elite programs, winning two national championships, while winning at least 10 games every season since 2011.
The Tigers have beat the so-called “Blue Bloods” of college football—Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame—multiple times during that stretch and has been to the College Football Playoff in each of the last five years.
Even though Clemson has reached the summit of the College Football Mountain on multiple occasions, Swinney doesn’t let his current players forget where they came from. Despite being one of college football’s elite programs, to him and his players, they will continue to be “Little ole Clemson.”
“I’ve been saying that for a long time because we are Little ole Clemson,” Swinney said. “If you’ve been to Clemson, we’ve only got about 14,000 people in our population there, and — I don’t know — about 20,000 students, maybe?
“So, it’s probably the biggest stadium per capita in the country for the city that it’s in. It’s just Little ole Clemson. It’s just a small town, a small college atmosphere but yet you’ve got this 80-plus-thousand seat stadium and 150,000 people roll into the town on the weekends. It’s incredible.”
But when everyone leaves by Sunday afternoon, Clemson transforms back to that sleepy little town in the northwest corner of South Carolina.
“Monday through Friday, we kind of have our own world,” Swinney said smiling.
In Clemson, there is just one of everything and two of a very few things. There’s a Starbucks, a Chick-fil-A, a Walmart and a Publix.
“So, there’s just a simplicity there that’s unique. I think there’s a quality of life in Clemson that’s really special. So, we’re just ‘Little ole Clemson.’ We’ve been that way for a long time.”
And they like it just fine.
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