It started in 2009, Dabo Swinney said. His first full year as Clemson’s coach, and his first chance to instill what he thought could yield an elite football program. He highlighted, to his players and staff, the importance of the “why.”
“It’s being really driven by the why of our program,” he said. “Why I coach, why we do what we do. Not just what we do, how we do it — but why. And really, everybody believing in that part of it.”
He also wanted to focus on culture. To be very intentional when it came to who joined his program, and who didn’t. When it came to recruiting and hiring, he said he chose people first — not just players or coaches.
“There’s no perfect people,” he said, “but I think the good Lord has given me good instincts.”
Nine years later, as Swinney spoke in the final hours of the 2018 ACC Kickoff, it was clear that his actions in that first season — to highlight the “why,” to build a culture — had paid dividends.
Clemson has become the ACC’s most dominant team over the last three years. The Tigers are 40-4 in that time frame, and 22-2 in conference. They have won three consecutive ACC Championship Games and played in the last three College Football Playoffs.
The crowning achievement, of course, came in the 2016 title game, when Clemson got its revenge on Alabama for the year prior and won its second national championship. All in all, it’s a remarkable stretch of longevity as one of the elite teams in college football.
“From day one, we’ve always been program-oriented,” Swinney said, “with the goal being developing a consistent winner — to one day be a team that, year in and year out, you just know you’ve got a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”
For an example of that program-oriented mindset, all you needed to do was take a look at the two players sitting nearby Swinney on a pair of stools — Mitch Hyatt and Clelin Ferrell.
Both players were a part of the 2015 recruiting class. Hyatt, a five-star offensive tackle, has been an All-ACC selection each of his first three seasons and has started 42 of 43 games. Ferrell, a four-star defensive end, had 15.5 sacks and 29 starts in two seasons, after redshirting his first.
Both won a national championship. Both were named All-Americans in 2017 by multiple publications. Both could have left for the NFL draft. But instead, the senior and the redshirt junior were sitting beside their coach, ready for another season because, even with all of that success, they wanted more.
“I feel like I’ve got some unfinished business,” Hyatt said. “I want to finish school — and how the season ended last year is just something I didn’t want to end it on, either.”
The Tigers lost, 24-6, to eventual champion Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in January. It prompted a slew of draft-eligible Tigers to return. On offense, it was Hyatt, starting center Justin Falcinelli and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
On defense, it was Ferrell, along with fellow star defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant. In 2018, they’ll join rising junior Dexter Lawrence to form one of the best lines in the country.
“We really made it an individual type thing,” Ferrell said. “None of it was a group effort. I told the group chat first, ‘Hey, y’all, I know what I want to do.’ … it was a blessing in disguise.’”
Clemson finished fourth in total defense last season (276.7 yards allowed per game) and second in scoring (13.6 points allowed per game). With four potential first-round picks on its line, the team has another chance to match — or better — those numbers.
It will give some breathing room to an offense still looking for its quarterback, as senior Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence battle for the starting spot. And with veteran returners on both sides of the ball, Swinney sees more than just returning talent.
“Yes, it means we have great players, but more importantly, that’s who’s mentoring your young players,” he said. “That’s the leadership that’s in your locker room. That’s the guys that are running the skills and drills. That’s the guys that are in the locker room setting the standard for really talented young people.”
Clemson, in one of the best stretches in team history, if not the best, will be the favorite to win the ACC once again. Its players are well aware of this. They understand the high expectations, a result of their success, and the culture Swinney instilled to encourage such success.
They just want the 2018 season to come around so they can prove it.
“We’re ready to just go out there and play and perform because that’s what it’s all about,” Ferrell said. “I mean, people just keep asking us how good can we really be? I mean, I don’t know.
“We’re very talented, but I hope I get asked this question at the end of the season. That would be a better time to answer it.”
Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler