CLEMSON, S.C. — Not long after Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney learned his top-ranked Tigers would face Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Jan. 1, he offered a playful complaint.
“I can’t seem to get away from these guys, as hard as I try,” Swinney said.
One could forgive any frustration on his part: Clemson has played Alabama, the dominant program of this era, in the past two national title games, with each team winning one of the extremely close contests.
But Swinney’s characteristically folksy remark actually masked a crucial truth: Swinney really has tried to get away from those guys. He has turned his program into the anti-Alabama, and in the process has lifted Clemson — what by many rights should be just another Southern school that likes football — to a competitive level unmatched by any other. Except, of course, Alabama.
That makes Clemson a notable outlier. With four national titles in the past eight seasons, Alabama under Coach Nick Saban represents college football’s gold standard, and most rivals have tried to ape it to beat it.
There are dozens of head coaches knocking around college football who have copied Saban’s joyless exterior, C.E.O. mentality, fanatical devotion to detail and buttoned-down professionalism (all the more conspicuous in an “amateur” pastime). Rivals have constantly sought out the next best thing: Four former Saban assistants are now head coaches in Alabama’s own Southeastern Conference, including Jeremy Pruitt, the current Alabama defensive coordinator who was named Tennessee’s head coach earlier this month, and Kirby Smart, who has Georgia in the playoff in his second year in Athens.
The Saban formula centers on “the process,” a philosophy that emphasizes correct play over wins and losses (while conveniently leading to oodles of wins); an insatiable quest to pluck the very best prospects from across the country, with Crimson Tide starters hailing from Florida and Texas, New Jersey and Maryland, Iowa and California; and a sales pitch in which a former N.F.L. head coach pledges to prepare recruits for the next level.
But as so many teams have tried to catch up to the Crimson Tide, Swinney, an Alabama alum who at 48 is a generation removed from the 66-year-old Saban, has gone his own way. He has displayed actual joy at winning. He has focused on recruiting locally. And he has embraced Clemson’s quirky side — its out-of-the-way location, its goofy fans (they love to put little tiger tails on their trucks) — making his program a stark contrast to Alabama and its countless imitators.
“If Alabama’s the business decision and the N.F.L. pipeline, Clemson is the family,” said Barton Simmons, director of recruiting for 247Sports, a digital bible for college football’s wonk set. “Dabo Swinney presents his program in a very different light than you see at the more traditional powerhouses.”
Historically, college football has been extremely top-heavy. Since World War II, the teams that have finished in the top four of The Associated Press poll three years in a row, as Clemson seems likely to do, are a roll call of the game’s royal family. Nearly all rely on some combination of tradition; the prestige of a flagship university, with hundreds of thousands of proud alumni and state citizens among the faithful; and the war-chest of a football-obsessed private institution.
But Clemson is a land-grant university of the 23rd-largest state, for years the poor sister to the University of South Carolina. It has 18,000 undergraduates, 20,000 fewer than Alabama. Before its current run, its football legacy comprised one national title (1981), several good years in the 1950s — and a lot of unjustified pride that helped fill the university’s 86,000-seat Memorial Stadium, known as “Death Valley.”
Terry Don Phillips, the former athletic director who promoted Swinney to head coach in 2008, recalled attending a game here in the early 1970s as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech. He was scouting Clemson’s opponent, Virginia. “Neither team was very good,” Phillips said. “But that stadium was filled.”
In place of the heritage that Alabama or Ohio State boasts, or the constant spotlight that Southern California and Notre Dame promise, Swinney talks about Clemson as a family, and about the peaceful quiet of the lake near the campus, and about how football is almost the only game in a town that boasts few distractions.
In 2015, wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud made an official visit to Alabama just weeks before national signing day. After his deep-dive into Tuscaloosa, he upheld his commitment to Clemson.
“The way people communicated with each other, the way they smiled all the time, I felt it was a family atmosphere,” McCloud said last week.
Some might see the university’s remote geography, in an awkward western shoulder of South Carolina known as the Upstate, as a hindrance. Swinney understands its proximity to the interstate that connects Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, two growing metropolises that incubate plentiful football talent.
“There’s enough good players within 300 miles of Clemson, S.C., to stock an N.F.L. team,” said Vic Koenning, formerly a Clemson defensive coordinator.
The Tigers can stretch their paws when they want to — last week they got the commitment of a top offensive lineman from near Cincinnati and nabbed one of Florida’s best players — but just five states were represented among its 15 signees this month. Alabama’s 15 signees last week came from 10 different states. Rattling off a list of nearby states that are among the best for recruiting in the country, Swinney said, “That’s our bread and butter.”
Evidence that Clemson makes the most of its 85 allotted scholarships can be found in its unusually small recruiting classes. Swinney signed 14 players last year, for instance, compared to Alabama’s 26 and Ohio State’s 21. Such parsimony, Simmons said, illustrates Swinney’s ability to evaluate and develop talent, a necessity for a school with less money than many of its rivals. Their larger classes indicate more transfers and more players who do not turn out — or are not developed — as recruiters had hoped.
The Clemson athletic department’s $104.8 million in revenue last year was just 28th in the country, per USA Today’s database (Alabama’s was fourth with $164 million). Clemson extends its dollars by paying lean salaries outside of football, while in football raising Swinney’s salary to $6.75 million, just short of Saban’s annual take. The school’s basketball coach makes less than $2 million, low for a school in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“We’re able to target those resources into the areas that will allow us the best return on our investment,” said Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.
An intangible family atmosphere is the final piece. Last week, as Clemson announced its highly ranked future freshmen and prepared for the Sugar Bowl, assistant coaches’ young children ran around the football facility, largely unsupervised, taking turns on an indoor slide. The down-home environment is part of what helps Clemson not only attract new players but also keep old coaches.
Brent Venables has been the defensive coordinator of two different national title teams and would likely draw major head-coaching offers — ones that would exceed even his generous $1.7 million salary — if teams thought he might consider leaving. Instead, last week Venables saw his son, a well regarded linebacker, sign to play for him at Clemson. Saban, in contrast, has lost two offensive coordinators and two defensive coordinators in the past three seasons, arguably a good sign that nonetheless erodes team stability.
“He treats ‘em well, pays ‘em well,” said Steve Spurrier, the Hall of Famer who for years did battle with Swinney as South Carolina’s head coach. “Some of these guys around the country aren’t the easiest guys to work for.”
Several players, too, independently cited the “family” atmosphere as pivotal in their decisions to come to Clemson.
Sean Pollard, an offensive lineman, compared Clemson to his tiny hometown in North Carolina. “This place is different,” said Pollard, who likes seeing the same people around campus every day, something he said he does not think happens at Ohio State or North Carolina State.
Koenning, who is now Troy’s defensive coordinator, said in a phone interview that he had perceived Clemson’s sky-high potential even during the Tommy Bowden era of the mid-2000s, when Clemson was stuck in second gear.
“Clemson’s a special place, with the lake and the layout and the importance they put on football,” he said.
Koenning didn’t get Clemson’s top job when Phillips gambled on the 38-year-old wide receivers coach to replace Bowden. He sounded wistful when he added, “There isn’t anything they can’t have.”
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