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October 31, 2011
Behind a spirited coach, a pace-pushing offensive coordinator and some breathtaking new playmakers, Clemson is winning like it's 1981
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October 31, 2011

Reborn In Death Valley

Behind a spirited coach, a pace-pushing offensive coordinator and some breathtaking new playmakers, Clemson is winning like it's 1981

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Dabo Swinney, the young Clemson coach, was talking to a group of old players last Friday night at a reunion of the 1981 Tigers, the only Clemson team to win a national title. The players, most of them, had seen 50 come and go, and a few were wearing pleated Dockers with cellphones on their belts and championship rings on their thick fingers. Full onset middle age. Danny Ford, an even younger coach himself 30 years ago, sat on a sofa and listened as Swinney suddenly found himself talking about ... Steve Jobs.

"Steve Jobs?" Swinney asked the room. You could hear his mossy boyhood near Birmingham in the way he said the name. Dabo got his own moniker from an older brother who called the new kid in the house, christened Christopher, a variant of dat boy. "The Apple guy?" Yes, of course: Steve Jobs, the Apple guy. The whole room knew, but Swinney understands the wisdom in taking nothing for granted. "I heard a quote about him from President Obama. President Obama says, 'This was a man who was brave enough to think differently.'"

Ford, now 63, and his Clemson team were brave enough to think differently, Coach Dabo said, and they won the national title. The 41-year-old Swinney (pronounced SWEE-nee) was challenging himself and his team to do the same—and make the Tigers, who have not won even an ACC championship in 20 years, special again.

They have been thinking differently. The hallmark of Clemson football has always been stingy defenses. Now, the Tigers are looking to put way more points on the board, and after a 59--38 spanking of North Carolina last Saturday they are averaging 40.6, best in the conference, up 16.6 from last year. They have a new up-tempo offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, who takes his cues from the 32-minute full-court press high school basketball teams he used to coach. They have a new starting quarterback in sophomore Tajh Boyd, who offers at least the suggestion of Donovan McNabb. They have a new change-of-pace option in freshman back Mike Bellamy, and a new air option, in freshman receiver Sammy Watkins. Both run as if they were lifted off the track team. Keeping an almost fatherly eye on those youths, and teaching them some of the tricks of the college football trade, is Dwayne Allen, once the team's biggest brat (or worse) and now one of its sage leaders, and a highly effective tight end too.

Swinney and Morris loved what they saw of Bellamy and Watkins in preseason practice, and Swinney committed to his youth movement from the start of the season. Landon Walker, the starting right tackle whose father was on the 1981 squad, said he's never been on a team in which player assignments are so clear. On the sideline Swinney looks so animated, but his mantra, as Walker described it, is this: "Execute, execute, execute."

This is a team that doesn't panic. In the second week of the season the Tigers were playing Wofford. After two quarters they were tied 21--21. At home. Against an FCS team. In the second half Clemson figured a few things out and allowed its superior fitness, as much as anything, to take over, winning 35--27. The following week the Tigers, who entered the season unranked and picked to finish second in the Atlantic division, beat defending national champion Auburn 38--24. They are now 8--0 and ranked sixth in the country. Mojo has returned to Death Valley.

Swinney and his wife, Kathleen, and the oldest of their three sons, Will, scurried out of the 1981 reunion, and made a quick stop in Daddy's office before joining the team at a Friday-night movie, Dream House. In the office, among many posted credos, one stood out for its simple genius: THERE IS NOTHING LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE SCORE AT HALFTIME. Swinney, a wide receiver on Alabama's 1992 national championship team, believes that for football and even more so for life. In his own boyhood, he says, he lived through the havoc caused by his father's addiction to alcohol. He has also, he says, seen his father, Ervil, turn his life around 16 years ago and become sober.

After the movie Dabo and Will headed to the team hotel. Campus offers many distractions, while the Hilton Garden Inn off I-85 in Anderson, S.C., offers none. Two team buses, one for the offense and one for the defense, left for Memorial Stadium at 9:30 the following morning. Before boarding, each offensive player was given a sealed envelope with a handwritten pep note from his position coach. Morris started the practice this fall. He's the Bill James/Billy Beane of this Clemson team, thinking of new solutions to old problems, like how to score more points than your opponent. So far, so good. Last year, the Tigers were 6--7.

At the stadium the players changed into their uniforms while the muffled music of the Clemson marching band and the chants of fans oozed through the cinder-block walls of their locker room. With the band, the cheerleaders, the dance team and the majorettes, there are almost three uniformed supporters for every uniformed player, and that's not counting the dozens of male fans wearing nothing but purple and orange body paint north of their navels, with Tiger paws painted on their nipples. (For this and other liberties wars have been fought.) Among the female fans the look of the moment is a short orange skirt, bare legs and mid-calf, square-toed cowboy boots. Death Valley on game day is a spectacular place to be.

There were 79,000 people in the house on Saturday. The Clemson library, modern and often packed, practically shuts down on Saturdays when the Tigers are at home. The library owns a Bible that once belonged to one of Swinney's predecessors, John Heisman. In it, somebody wrote Heisman's 14 football do's and don'ts. The last of them:

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