Clemson’s Waking Nightmare
Clemson football, as it relates to the University of South Carolina, has hit a bit of a slump, and that slump extends far beyond the two straight victories that the Gamecocks are currently enjoying. For the first time in forty years, the Clemson coaching staff seems to be in a state of permanent flux, while the Gamecocks are as stable as they’ve ever been in that time. Carolina routinely wins the in-state recruiting battle, and among the very elite in-state talent Clemson finds itself off the radar, most recently with the nation’s top recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, but also with program changing talent like Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore. The fate of the Tigers teams is inexorably intertwined with that of the Gamecocks, as is usually the case with competing in-state schools, but Clemson and its’ fans aren’t used to being on the short end of the stick in the Palmetto State, and the paradigm that allowed Clemson to dominate the state and the series seems to have shifted. What happened?
Clemson’s fall from grace has a little bit to do with their overheated approach to the rivalry with Carolina, a little bit to do with the overblown expectations of a fan base that still expects its’ program to churn out national championships like a Southern Cal or an Alabama or a Miami, despite having won only one title (and that one was thirty years ago) and a little bit to do with poor program stewardship from people like Terry Don Phillips, who has done more to weaken the Tigers’ state of affairs than Carolina ever could have.
We begin with the rivalry. Every Carolina fan knows the state of the rivalry. We know it because no Clemson fan will let us forget. Clemson enjoys a record of 65-39-4 against the Gamecocks, including the largest margins of victory, longest streak of wins and unbelievable dominance in every decade since the series began. The ownership of the rivalry with USC is quite an achievement, definitely worthy of note, but has been allowed to become the very identity of the Clemson Tigers, their proudest achievement and their very reason for being. This approach served them well while Carolina languished in its’ own mediocrity, but as the Gamecocks have improved, Clemson has been left without the series dominance and therefore, has become a team without a beating heart. Clemson’s locker room is festooned with images from past victories over the Gamecocks. The rivalry with Carolina is represented in a way that overshadows their 16 bowl wins, 17 conference titles and even their national championship. Why? Well, for starters, Clemson hasn’t won a conference title since 1991. The National Championship was in 1981. Clemson has won a single bowl game in their last five tries. One wonders what Clemson would use their locker room to advertise IF NOT their series record over Carolina since every other achievement of note happened before anyone on their team was born. These days, their last argument for the Clemson program being anything but mediocre is crumbling, having lost the last two rivalry games, and being on track to lose a third. For the Clemson fan, this is the Fall of Rome, the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the Twilight of the Gods all rolled into one, and it isn’t over yet. You’ll be seeing more vids like this before the 2011 season is over…
This brings me nicely to my second point: Clemson has an overinflated view of their football program, and that view leads to hopelessly overblown expectations. The national title of 81 was bandied about by the fanbase for years, decades even, as representative of the state of tiger football, but as the time continues to slip by, Clemson is bound to that title like Jacob Marley to his chains, and with every clink and rattle they are reminded of an era that is too long gone to brag about too loudly. The expectations remain though, and every year Clemson trots out another bit of hype to convince the fanbase that 1981 isn’t as far away as they think. CJ Spiller was touted as an elite running back, one of the nation’s best, and yet was snubbed by Heisman voters, ultimately never being even invited to attend a Heisman ceremony. Kyle Parker was sold as a once-in-a-generation athlete, hitting blah blah many home runs and throwing for yadda yadda many touchdowns in the same season. His carreer ended with an ignomonious benching in his final home game, during a drubbing at the hand of the University of South Carolina. Da’Quan Bowers was supposed to be the first pick in this years NFL draft, but instead he went 51st. Yawn. With every failed bit of hype, Clemson fans become more resolved that their team is elite, and more shellshocked when their team is proven to be average. In the end, this crazy dynamic cost Tommy Bowden his job, and that is the moment that Clemson football was REALLY in trouble.
Tommy Bowden did as much as could be reasonably expected with a program of Clemson’s caliber: 72-45 record, eight bowl appearances and domination of Carolina. When his fanbase started to get restless from this “lack of success”, Clemson Athletics Director Terry Don Phillips gave him a nice fat contract to show his faith in the coach. He was run out of town the next year, in the middle of the season. Think about it: Clemson fans were happy to pay a member of the Bowden family 3.5 million to NOT coach their team, opting instead to get excited about everyboy’s favorite real estate agent and wide recievers coach, Dabo Swinney. Swinney brought with him a command of the “aw shucks” style of coachspeak, and a deep understanding and mastery of the patented Clemson Hype. His first recruiting class was univerally considered a failure, but that didn’t stop him from christening them “The Dandy Dozen” and touting them as the future of Clemson football, and the beginning of a return to the glory days of 81. Then he went 15-12, lost the ACC championship game, lost two of three bowl games and lost two straight to the Gamecocks. Bowden must have chuckled while counting his millions of Clemson dollars.
Swinney’s hype continues: Taj Boyd has suddenly become a next level QB, the incoming recruiting class will immediately contribute in ways that will allow Clemson to compete for the ACC title, and Dabo has hired various “small school” assistants that will return Clemson to its days of glory. Nobody outside of Pickens County believes any of this, of course, but Dabo keeps saying it and the fans keep buying it.
While Clemson fans keep drinking the kool-aid, Carolina fans find their peace of mind by simply observing what IS. We need not worry about which freshmen will be able to contribute immediately (but if a Clemson fan drags you into that particular conversation, you can always bring up Jadeveon Clowney) because our major contributing talent is already on the field, and recognized on a national level. We don’t have to hope that stuntcasting in the offensive coordinator job pays off, we have Steve Spurrier.
One wonders how Clemson’s football season will go. I predict another 6-6 affair, which will drop the jaws of the Clemson faithful, and result in a plaintive wail of agony. I predict Swinneys hot seat will glow incandescently. I predict the hype machine will crank up again, before the season is even complete, and we will hear a lot about the talent of the freshmen and how close Clemson Came to going undefeated. Just wait til next year. These boys are winners. Blah blah blah.
Clemson’s nightmare is set to continue for a few more years, and Carolina fans should thank God that the Clemson fan base refuses to see their situation for what it is. The longer they remain in denial, the harder their problems will be to solve.