'Let's be legendary': Clemson's unique mix of fun, focus finally leads to national title

Clemson players celebrate after toppling Alabama in instant classic

This story appears in the January 16, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

After putting Clemson in position to win the championship that had eluded the school since 1981, Deshaun Watson sat on a black folding chair near the Tigers’ bench and watched the victory come apart. The junior quarterback and two-time Heisman Trophy finalist stared at a big screen and gnawed his mouthpiece as Alabama, the unbeaten and unyielding goliath, began stampeding downfield. Moments earlier, with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter, Watson had driven the Tigers to their first lead of a national title game, in which they’d mostly been smothered. He muttered as the Crimson Tide converted a fourth down. His knees bounced as Alabama moved into scoring range. When the touchdown came and it appeared that the same team would vaporize his title aspirations for a second straight year, Watson stood up, stone-faced, and checked the Raymond James Stadium clock.

There were two minutes and seven seconds left. Watson smiled. In last year’s Clemson-Alabama epic, a 45–40 Tide win, he felt he simply ran out of time. Now Alabama had given him a little too much. “Let’s be legendary,” Watson told his teammates in the huddle, before producing a moment that defied a better description.

When Watson tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left, when the quarterback spread his arms wide and raced to midfield after sealing Clemson’s 35–31 victory and the second national title in program history, he had completed both a January classic and a mission eight years in the making. Fun finally won. It wore down a stomping giant on a cool night in Florida, quarter by quarter, drive by drive, play by play. And afterward, it sang and gyrated for the world to see.

Related: Orange Crush: Clemson's Renfrow runs rub route with destiny to win national title

Two days earlier Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had been asked what such a breakthrough would mean. He talked about giving people hope and proving that greatness is for everybody. As Swinney wrapped up his winding response, he cited a question asked around his football offices in the years since he took over in 2008. The query evoked—perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not—the pachyderm mascot of a certain program that for years had dominated the college football landscape and once again stood in the way of the Tigers’ ascension.

How do you eat an elephant? Swinney asked the assembled media day horde.

“One bite at a time,” he said. “One bite at a time.”

John Bazemore/AP

*****

At the intersection of Perimeter Drive and Jervey Meadows, a whiteboard nailed to a pair of tall wood beams reads, Clemson University Football Operations Center. Make a right and follow the mechanical whir of cranes and the beep, beep, beep of construction vehicles in reverse, and it is soon apparent that the sign undersells the facility under construction. “Welcome to Dabo Land,” says Thad Turnipseed, Clemson’s director of recruiting and external affairs, as he walks toward the $50 million work in progress, where scores of hard hats hustle to finish construction by the scheduled Feb. 1 ribbon cutting.

The new home for Clemson football is in many ways a monument to fun. It will feature a nine-hole miniature golf course, a sand volleyball pit, a full-length outdoor basketball court, a virtual reality room, a barbershop, a bakery, a two-lane bowling alley, two Ping-Pong tables, three pop-a-shot machines, an outdoor movie space, an indoor movie room and three 70-inch televisions with video game consoles. Also, there’s a slide. As plans for the place were coming together, Swinney requested “a Google slide,” inspired by the one he saw in The Internship, the 2013 comedy in which Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson work at the Internet behemoth. As players walk down the hall from the team room, they’ll have a choice to get back to the first floor: take the stairs or a 33-foot ride on sloped stainless steel. “It’s a little too fast right now,” Turnipseed says, peeling back the slide’s protective padding. “I put my 10-year-old son on it. He went about six feet off the end.”

• Get your copy of SI's exclusive Clemson national championship commemorative

The bells and whistles are complemented by more functional highlights such as a massive weight room, injury rehabilitation equipment and an academic center. In whole, the facility can be viewed as a 146,000-square-foot shrine to stability. Clemson became one of the nation’s elite programs because it decisively and aggressively committed resources to pursuing championships; the new football center is one of several investments meant to ensure the fun never ends. “We’ve pushed our university, we’ve pushed our donors, we’ve pushed to say, Look, if you want to have this type of success, we need to have resources,” athletic director Dan Radakovich says, noting that no state money or student fees have been used for any of the projects.

Related: Alabama, USC, Penn State lead Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25

Jeff Scott, the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator and a Clemson receiver from 2000 to ’02, recalls a time when staffers rolled in used pool tables for entertainment, and his peers were plenty excited. “Players were hiding the cue ball in their lockers so they could play the first game after practice,” Scott says. No one has to contemplate hoarding now; even if the two pool tables in the lounge are occupied, there’s a golf simulator a few steps away. And consider how swiftly Clemson worked to refurbish player accommodations at its Lightsey Bridge apartments. In ’13 the program lost out to Auburn on top 25 recruits Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, both defensive linemen. When explaining their decisions, both players cited quality of housing. The following year Clemson’s offensive staff visited Auburn’s coaches to exchange ideas, and on a lunch break, Scott sneaked across the street to the player apartments and persuaded a resident to let him take pictures of the rooms. He shared the photos with Swinney, Turnipseed and other administrators upon returning to campus.

That June, Clemson began the first of multiple $1 million renovation projects for its own player accommodations. “The majority of places that would have that issue, it would take them five or six years to correct it,” Scott says. “There’s an alignment of power around here that has allowed us to improve ourselves very quickly. It’s no secret why we’re at where we are now.”

While the money helps Clemson keep up with the Joneses, it’s the fun-loving culture that sets the Tigers apart, and there the 47-year-old Swinney sets the tone. He traces his commitment to joy to Gene Stallings, his coach at Alabama, who instilled in him the need to have fun no matter the score or situation. “I never want guys to dread coming over here,” Swinney says.

Swinney, who was never a coordinator before taking over the head job, also gives his assistants latitude. “He’s not down there saying, We’re going to do this, this, this and this. He trusts us,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott says. Instead the coach who’s known to do the Nae Nae—poorly—during postvictory celebrations motivates by playing the role of the goofy dad people don’t want to disappoint. “You fear Dabo,” Turnipseed says, “because you love him so much.”

• Get your Clemson national championship gear

Meetings start at 8:15 a.m. so staffers can drive their children to school. During the season Wednesday night is Family Night, with coaches, their spouses and kids, and players invited to eat dinner together on the fourth floor of Memorial Stadium. Almost daily Elliott’s wife, Tamika, brings him a Chipotle chicken burrito with brown rice, black beans and a little corn salsa, and he takes a break from game-planning to have lunch with his better half while his sons, A.J., 3, and Ace, 1, run the halls. “Not one person complains,” Elliott says. Then there is defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant this season and who has directed a top 10 unit each of the past three years. Clemson pays Venables a robust $1.4 million a year, but a paycheck isn’t the only reason Venables is in no hurry to leave. “We’re not uncomfortable saying, Hey, fellas, I’m going to watch my son play in a scrimmage, I’ll be back in an hour, you guys hold it down,” Venables says. “Sometimes more is not better. There’s that balance. I respect that, and I don’t take that for granted.” Only one assistant has left the staff since 2012: Chad Morris, who took the head coach gig at SMU in ’14.

The comfortable and content staff has had talent to work with too. Clemson has brought in composite top 15 recruiting classes in four of the past five cycles. (Its current class ranks 13th nationally.) Motivated fans and a synchronized athletic department plus happy and talented players and staff are the makings of a great program, but it takes more than a list of ingredients to cook a championship meal.

*****

Overconfidence should not have been an issue for the Tigers entering 2016, especially with the ache of last January’s title game loss to Alabama still lingering. Swinney made sure of it just the same. He insists he commissioned a national finalist banner for the indoor practice facility in honor of what the team achieved last season. His players didn’t necessarily take it that way. “Seeing that every day kind of pisses me off,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware says. “Coach Swinney did a great job putting that in our face.” Early on the Tigers indeed appeared to be locked in: The first three scheduled “accountability runs” of the spring—extra cardio workouts as punishment for being late to class or wearing the wrong gear in the weight room—featured zero participants. “I’ve never had that,” Swinney says.

Clemson opened the season with Watson working with a full complement of assets that included 6’ 3”, 225-pound, 1,000-yard junior receiver Mike Williams, who fractured a vertebrae in his neck on the 11th snap of the ’15 season and missed the rest of the year. The defense replaced seven starters but continued to showcase the program’s ability to recruit and develop talent well enough to avoid a drop-off. New starter Kendall Joseph, an inside linebacker, finished as the team’s second-leading tackler after making 11 tackles the previous year. And there was 18-year-old, 340-pound freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the nation’s No. 3 overall recruit, who went on to become ACC defensive rookie of the year. The Tigers won nine straight to start the season, a stretch that included high-wire statement victories over then No. 3 Louisville (42–36 on Oct. 1) and then No. 12 Florida State (37–34 on Oct. 29). The spotless record looked good from afar, but a closer examination revealed blemishes.

The Tigers committed 18 turnovers in those first nine games. Ten were interceptions thrown by Watson, who had tossed only 13 picks in 15 games the previous season. And if the results against rivals like the Cardinals and the Seminoles were thrilling, other outcomes were less inspiring: A 30–24 win over Troy on Sept. 10 and a skin-of-their-teeth 24–17 overtime escape against N.C. State on Oct. 15 were, in retrospect, telltale signs of a team with a dulled edge. (The Wolfpack missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.) When Pittsburgh traveled to Death Valley on Nov. 12 and emerged with a 43–42 win, it was Clemson’s first loss to an unranked team in five years. Both the Tigers and the gobsmacked 81,048 in attendance were facing a stark reality: Clemson could miss the playoff. “The way we were going, I’m not going to say I didn’t see it coming,” senior tight end Jordan Leggett says. “I felt we were getting a little bit complacent. We tried to step it up each week, but it felt like nothing was changing. It’s kind of like we needed that to happen for us to be where we are now.”

Related: Clemson's classic win over Alabama proves each team is equipped for sustained glory

A locker room accustomed to postvictory dance tunes went silent. Elliott saw uncharacteristically somber faces and eyes directed toward the floor; the Tigers’ assistant surmised that many of his players simply didn’t know how to lose. Swinney trotted out a rarely used but reliable bromide after the defeat—“Prosperity is a terrible teacher,” he said—and Clemson learned its lesson. The next week of workouts featured renewed diligence and attention to detail. “Guys couldn’t wait to get back on the practice field, couldn’t wait to get to meetings,” sophomore defensive lineman Christian Wilkins says.

Three straight victories, with only three total turnovers, earned the Tigers their spot in the final four and the Fiesta Bowl semifinal against Ohio State, at which point the program truly recaptured its fun-and-games philosophy. After six bowl practices, Swinney bused the team 40 miles northeast to Frankie’s Fun Park in Greenville, S.C. The day featured such gravely serious business as 315-pound offensive tackle Sean Pollard and 305-pound guard-tackle Maverick Morris sharing a single go-kart. (“We didn’t want to wait in line,” Pollard explains.)

By the time the Tigers reached Arizona they were back to business. Boulware called for 8:15 a.m. film sessions, shoehorning in extra work before various morning commitments, lest the group fall out of the routine that served it well all year. The result spoke for itself. The Tigers ransacked the Buckeyes 31–0, the only time an Urban Meyer-coached team had been shut out in 194 games. If the scoreboard didn’t indicate that Clemson had rediscovered its identity, the unmistakable strains of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” emanating from the locker room did. “[Pitt] gave us that wake-up call we needed,” junior receiver Artavis Scott says. “It’s kind of good that it came at that time.”

There remained one last peak to traverse, to validate at last all that the program had built, and was built upon.

*****

Simon Bruty

In the week before the championship game, Swinney beamed at what his program has become. “You’ve got a king-high flush and you hope they don’t have the ace,” he said. “That’s all that’s gonna beat you.” Only six years earlier Clemson’s coach wasn’t sure what hand he would be dealt. Following a 29–7 home loss to South Carolina that left his team at 6–6 to end the 2010 regular season, a defeat that dropped his career record to 19–14, Swinney walked the hallway toward his office at Memorial Stadium to find his wife, Kathleen, standing outside the door with tears in her eyes. She told her husband how sorry she was about the defeat. Then she informed him that Clemson’s athletic director, Terry Don Phillips, was waiting inside.

Swinney was certain he would be fired. He felt his culture had taken root, but he knew the results weren’t there to match yet. So he took a deep breath and entered the room. The lights weren’t on. Phillips sat on a couch in the dark, in silence. After Swinney took a seat, Phillips delivered his verdict. He said he knew Swinney was disappointed. He told his coach that both of them would be subject to a great deal of criticism. “But let me tell you something,” Swinney recalls his boss saying. “I’m more confident right now that you’re the guy for this job than I was when I hired you.” With that, Phillips hugged his football coach and left.

Related: Alabama experienced the rare pain of loss, and it stings

As he retold this story, Swinney stood in the team room, between two walls bearing important lists in white lettering. To his left were his program “commandments,” the 16th and final of which is simple: Have Fun. To his right were the team goals for every season, the fifth and final of which is predictable: Win The Closer. A half-dozen years after he walked into his office expecting the worst and instead found himself empowered by his then boss’s faith, Swinney’s team has compiled six straight seasons of 10 or more wins and secured a national championship. The self-described dreamer has his singular triumph, the ultimate rejoinder against the dour or irascible or self-important titans of the sport, the final proof that he can win big by having more fun than anyone. “Gotta have some belief,” Dabo Swinney says. “Gotta have some vision to achieve anything great.”

*****

Inside the controversial play that won Clemson a national championship

The play is called Orange Crush. Kindly put, it involves an outside receiver running a slant that might prevent opposing defensive backs from following the inside Clemson receiver on his out route. The Tigers’ coaching staff had been waiting to use the play until the right time this postseason, and that particular moment came with six seconds left on Monday. Trailing 31–28, and camped at the two-yard line after driving 66 yards on eight plays, they guessed there was time for one quick-hit pass attempt at a go-ahead score. Clemson had clawed back from two double-digit deficits against the nation’s most stifling defense. No sense in settling now. “We’re here to win it,” Jeff Scott said.

Related: National title report card: Player grades for Clemson's win over Alabama

Orange Crush played out perfectly: Artavis Scott created enough traffic in the Bama secondary to spring Renfrow free near the edge of the end zone. Watson rolled to his right and calmly hit the sophomore receiver who played all but one of Clemson’s 99 snaps on Monday and who now, almost inconceivably, has 17 catches in the last two championship games against Alabama. “It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream,” Renfrow said. It was a fitting culmination to the quest: A former five-star recruit at quarterback finding a 5’ 11” ex-walk-on for a pinnacle moment. “It epitomizes our program,” Jeff Scott said. “There’s an appreciation for everybody.”

Not long after, the party began. The Tigers wouldn’t wait to reach the locker room to dance. There was Wilkins, the 310-pound defensive lineman, shimmying his way into a split as his team bounced on the dais behind him. DJ Kool growled, Let me clear my throat over stadium speakers for a new college football powerhouse that announced its fun had only just begun. “You can’t win two until you win one,” receiver Mike Williams said. “There’s more to come.”

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