Swinney and the Tigers put drama in the past, begin the climb back up that mountain
|Saturday, December 11, 2021, 8:00 AM- -|
The opening scene of the movie Chisum with John Wayne shows him sitting on his horse atop a hill, overlooking his kingdom, as one of his friends rides up to get him for the trip into town. What follows is a dialogue about change, and it ran through my mind Friday evening.
The friend asks Wayne, as Chisum, if he’s thinking about the beginning. Chisum answers by saying, “And before.”
The friend then lists all of the changes he’s seeing and says, “Too many changes.” Chisum answers, “Things usually change for the better.”
There is little need at this point to go through all of the changes we’ve seen in Clemson this week. You know who’s gone and who is left. That is a lot of change. Unexpected change. Uncomfortable change.
Several media members were at the Oconee Airport when head coach Dabo Swinney and offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell stepped off a plane following a lengthy recruiting trip. Swinney has been on the road or in the air all week, traveling to points across the map supporting CJ Spiller’s Hall of Fame induction and doing his best to hold the 2022 recruiting class together.
He stepped into his brown truck, knowing everyone was there in case Tony Elliott showed up, and rolled down his window to ask if Clemson had hit the big-time in such a way that the paparazzi now followed him around. When pressed for a comment about the changes going on, Swinney broke into a bright smile and said, “This is a lot of fun!”
Swinney is not quite Chisum sitting atop the hill, looking over his empire, but he knows what’s happened and he knows what’s at stake. This season, from the start of camp, has been a fight. Injuries. Transfers. More losses than we’ve seen in years.
I am a baseball guy and I love stats. I think that if a player is a career .250 hitter and he hits .300 in June, you better believe he will come back down to earth. There will be a market correction at some point. The stats tell you exactly who you are. In this case, the stats caught up with Clemson. The Tigers have been fortunate in that major injuries haven’t derailed seasons. They’ve been fortunate to keep players for four years and graduate those players. They’ve been fortunate in that coaches have stayed put and there has been very little turnover. And instead of anything happening a little at a time, it all came crashing down at once. The market corrected in a major way.
But the stats also say that Swinney is a winner. That if anyone can turn this around, he can. And that takes me back to another conversation, one that I never thought I would post because it wasn’t in an interview session. But it fits here, and I don’t think he would mind.
Following one interview session, in just a moment of conversation, I mentioned the trials of the season and wondered if maybe, just maybe, a season like this was good for everyone. Everyone had gotten spoiled – even us in the media – and 45-point wins all of a sudden weren’t good enough. The mountaintop, as Swinney often says, had been attained. And staying on top of the mountain was proving difficult.
Swinney told me that it would make the climb back up the mountain, reaching that distant crest, even more special. Hopefully everyone would appreciate it more. And just like everyone had fun in 2013, and 2014, and 2015 and the climb to the mountaintop, this climb would make for new thrills. That man never sees the glass empty. He also never sees it half full. That glass is always full. Once things get settled and he has his coaches in place – whether he goes inside or outside the facility for hires – the climb back up the mountain begins again.
In 2014, we stood outside the stadium in Orlando talking to two new coordinators in Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. Deshaun Watson was on the shelf after surgery and many wondered whether the program was indeed headed in the right direction. That season started with a loss to Georgia. That season included a win over SC State. That season saw the Tigers score 16 in a win over Syracuse (17 this season). It saw a 17-13 win over Boston College (19-13 this season). It saw Chad Morris leave for SMU just when it looked like things were starting to roll.
And the Tigers went out and destroyed Oklahoma – a program right in the middle of this year’s drama – and used that as a springboard to the 2015 College Football Playoff run. Not everything is the same, I get that. But Clemson has been in this spot before (although admittedly not quite as drastic), and things changed for the better.
The climb begins now for Swinney, and it will be fun to see what happens. To see whether he pushes the right buttons or there is a continued downturn. And for Swinney, that is where the fun starts.