Are we having fun yet? You bet we are

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Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is all smiles after beating Bama
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is all smiles after beating Bama

Are we having fun yet?

That is not a real question. Of course, we are.

Taking a few days off over the last week allowed me the chance to sit back and reflect on the previous year and look ahead to next season. I am not ready for the upcoming season to start – the previous season went late, and spring practice started early, and it makes for a long ten months. For me, the season begins in July with the ACC Kickoff and Dabo Swinney’s media golf outing and only ends in early May once the Prowl and Growl events and South Carolina Hall of Fame inductions are over.

Nikki decided to give me a treat for my birthday and take me back to Estes Park, Colorado, which is almost like a home-away-from-home for us. The time away allowed time to think and reflect and appreciate how things are right now.

When I worked for the Greenville News, I didn’t know if I would get the chance to cover big-time college football. That was for the people who covered Ohio St. and Southern Cal and Texas and some of the other programs which have been consistently at the top. I went to work at TigerNet in October of 2008 – my first real day was Dabo’s first day as interim head coach – and it’s been a rollercoaster since that day.

I didn’t even think about covering National Championship games – my goal was to somehow make it to a BCS game with the Tigers and enjoy the trip. I also wanted to cover one of the quarterbacks that make college football special. You know the guys that appear on the cover of national magazines? That kind of guy. I should have dreamed bigger.

Covering the ACC Championship Game in 2009 was fun, and 2010 had its moments, including one of the best games I’ve ever seen in person when Auburn edged Clemson in overtime. There were so many close calls that season – at UNC, at FSU, and at Boston College. I can remember Swinney after each of those games promising to get things fixed, promising to fix the offense and promising to fix whatever ills were affecting the program.

Then came the bowl game in Charlotte that nobody went to see, a dismal 31-26 loss to South Florida that left many wondering about Swinney’s future. Quarterback Tajh Boyd stood in the hallway after the game – he relieved Kyle Parker after Parker left with an injury – and broke down into tears. Before the cameras began to roll, Boyd told us he was worried about Swinney, wondering if he would keep his job after a 6-7 season. Once the cameras started to roll. Boyd’s tears dried up, and he promised it would be a long time before the Tigers had another losing record.

Riding the arm and personality of Boyd and several of the Dandy Dozen, the Tigers made that BCS Bowl in 2011 and won another ACC Championship. It was during that season that Nikki and I stood outside the practice field after a practice – there were just a few of us that showed up back in those days and that night it was just Swinney and me and Nikki. We talked about the team, about his dream and his vision, and I mentioned something that I had wanted to tell him.

I’ve written this before, but sometimes it’s good to remember those days before he was a $9.3 million coach and before the Tigers were considered the best program in the nation. I told him that I was on the field in 2008 when Clemson played Alabama in the Georgia Dome, and I was shocked that night when I saw how that Alabama team looked and how Clemson looked. Physically, it wasn’t close, and the results that night bear that out.

In 2011, the Tigers were beginning to look more like a contender. Not like that Alabama team, but getting there. I mentioned that to Swinney, who smiled and said, “Look, if teams are going to get us, they better get us now, because they aren’t going to get us later. They better get us now.”

Like so much that’s happened during his tenure, those words turned out to be prophetic. Before the 2016 National Championship Game in Tampa, I stood on the sidelines (in the same stadium where Clemson saw heartbreak against Georgia Tech in 2009) with an Alabama coach. We were watching both teams warm up, and he said to me, “We have a saying here at Alabama that the only team that looks like us is LSU. We can’t say that anymore. Clemson looks more like us than LSU.”

Sometimes, it’s good to relax and clear the mind and think back on how Clemson got to this point. One thing is for sure; it’s been one heck of a ride.

On the last day of our trip, Nikki and I walked into a store in Estes Park, and there was a sign for sale that said, “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

She thought she was funny when she said, “See, that’s a sign that this run isn’t over.” I dutifully laughed but took a quick picture and texted it over to Coach Swinney. It didn’t take long for a response to come back with a Tiger and a smiley face.

Are we having fun yet? You bet we are.

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