Just outside the city of Clemson, South Carolina, on a two-lane bypass around the main highway into town, stands Mac’s Drive-In, a Clemson touchstone for more than half a century. It’s tiny, not much bigger than a high-school classroom, and every free surface is covered in Clemson Tiger memorabilia, from glossy photos to autographed pants to a goal post that wraps around one corner.
The Dabo Swinney years have presented a welcome new challenge to the nearly 60-year-old diner: How to fit piles of new championship merchandise into an already-stuffed diner. A championship banner hangs in front of the goalpost. Over in one corner, a photo of a gloating Swinney next to an ACC champion trophy leans against a plastic tiger atop a “Toy Taxi” claw machine. But the odds are very good that there won’t be many relics of the 2023 Tigers adorning the walls of Mac’s anytime soon.
There’s a sign that hangs throughout Clemson’s football palace, too: Best is the Standard. In Swinney’s tenure, they’ve hit that standard more often than not. Clemson has exactly one losing season: his second, in 2010, when the Tigers finished 6-7. Since then, Clemson has won double-digit games every single year, captured two national championships and seven of the past eight ACC championships.
But the Tigers are now in a full-on headed-for-the-guardrails skid. As recently as last year, Clemson was 8-0 in the ACC, but losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina cost the Tigers a chance at the College Football Playoff. Clemson this year is 4-4, just 2-4 in conference play, and looking as lost as it ever has under Swinney’s illustrious reign. Those two ACC wins came against Syracuse and Wake Forest, which have a combined conference record of 1-8. Clemson’s other two wins have come against 4-4 Florida Atlantic and Charleston Southern of the FCS.
On the field, quarterbacks D.J. Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik haven’t matched the national championship standard of Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson. Turnovers have brutalized the Tigers, who can now only watch as Florida State, Duke, North Carolina and NC State race past them up the ACC standings.
Rage and frustration have been simmering for a while now in Clemson, and everything boiled over on Monday night, when “Tyler from Spartanburg” called into Swinney’s radio show and launched himself into college football fan immortality. Tyler needled Swinney into a defensive, defiant five-minute rant both justifying his own accomplishments and ripping those who would doubt him and his team.
“The expectation is greater than the appreciation. And that’s the problem,” Swinney seethed. “We’ve won 12 10-plus-win seasons in a row. That’s happened three times in 150 years. So if you wanna know why. Clemson ain’t sniffed a national championship for 35 years. We’ve won two in seven years. And there’s only two other teams that can say that: Georgia and Alabama. OK?”
It’s a long, hard fall for a school that was trading haymakers with kaiju like Alabama and Ohio State so recently that its current seniors were freshmen. Put it this way: At this point in the season, nobody’s paying attention to the 10th-place teams in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 anymore. Yes, Clemson is now in the company of Auburn, Northwestern, Texas Tech and Cal. Maybe the Pride of Spartanburg did Clemson a favor, or maybe Tyler just reminded everyone of how far from grace this year’s squad now stands.
It’s entirely possible that Swinney used Tyler from Spartanburg as a handy motivational catapult, much like a baseball manager getting himself thrown out of a game to fire up his team. Consensus seems to have coalesced on the idea that Tyler was pretty harsh given the woeful state of Clemson before Swinney … but also that it’s perfectly fine to expect better than 4-4 out of a coach with an eight-figure annual salary.
Assessments of what’s gone wrong with Clemson center on a few key facts: Swinney’s reluctance to look outside the Tiger family for help, his deep aversion to the transfer portal, the program’s failure to produce stars who can achieve greatness out of the gate the way Lawrence, Watson and Travis Etienne did. Swinney is like a poker player who once held a mountain of chips and is now down to a handful; he can play his way back into the game, but he’ll have to be smart, disciplined and opportunistic in a way he’s never been before.
In the wake of Monday’s spectacle, this weekend’s game takes on a whole new meaning. Notre Dame arrives in Death Valley a three-point favorite in a matchup that surely looked a whole lot more appealing a few years ago when it was scheduled. Now it’s just a chance for two dented blue-chip programs to burnish their reputations at the other’s expense.
When someone writes the story of the Swinney Years at Clemson, the Tyler from Spartanburg Incident might be the spark that gets Clemson fired up again, or the last splash of water that doused whatever flickering flame was left. We won’t know for a while yet, but we’ll get a sense over the next few games; after the Irish, Clemson faces Georgia Tech, North Carolina and South Carolina with a bowl bid — and self-respect — still on the line.
The question now is whether Clemson under Swinney will have more high points to look forward to … or whether it will have to be content with all the memorabilia of past glories.
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