As the 49th point was posted on the Hard Rock (then Sun Life Stadium) scoreboard in favor of West Virginia, there was little left in limbo for the 2012 Orange Bowl other than who might be the next coach of the Clemson Tigers. Firing coaches did not occur back then at the breakneck speed that it does in this day in age. However, when you appear in a high profile game like the Orange Bowl and you’re getting your pants pulled down like this, it’s tough not to consider that the head coach of the team down 49-17 at the half might be in line for a pink slip.
I was in attendance that night as the Orange Bowl turned into a personal hell for Dabo Swinney’s squad. The second half provided little relief as West Virginia tacked on another 21 points enroute to the most lopsided and embarrassing loss in the game’s history. There were precious few excuses for Swinney. After all, this was a squad that included Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Andre Ellison at running back and a trio of wide receivers that any team would have died for: DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. The defense that yielded 70 points included pros like Dwayne Allen, Bashad Breeland and Coty Sensabaugh. The only logical explanation in Twitter terms could be that the head coach sucked. It was year four in the Swinney regime and this total failure in front of millions of viewers followed a 6-7 campaign the year before. It also included a winless record vs. arch rival South Carolina. In fact, Clemson closed out the 2011 season losing three of their last four games, all by double digits. In 2019, that’s ground for immediate dismal of coach and staff followed by a national search that will culminate with the hiring of some hot shot offensive coordinator who will start all over.
Two things saved Dabo Swinney at the conclusion of that night and the 2011 season. First, Twitter wasn’t a thing and neither was the Nick Saban Crimson Tide Era. Twitter, the platform for fanbases to cry out to the public every emotional swing that encompasses a game day viewing event was in it’s infancy. The platform had not yet amassed the power to get guys run out of town (Rich Rodriguez at Michigan) or get coaches fired before they were actually hired (Greg Schiano at Tennessee). Those superpowers would manifest themselves years later on the social platform and wage war on any and all celebrities.
The end of the 2011 season saw the second national championship for Nick Saban at Alabama. People were certainly paying attention but no one was ready to call the Crimson Tide a monster. Perhaps there was a third thing working in Dabo Swinney’s favor on the dejected plane ride home from Miami. Maybe folks in Clemson, South Carolina just have more patience than the rest of us.
When the 2012 season opened up, Swinney still had a job and the wheels were set in motion for what we all witnessed either in person or on television on January 7, 2019. Both Alabama and Twitter would continue to grow at a record pace. That fact came much to the chagrin of college coaches across the nation. As the Crimson Tide machine got stronger in it’s parts, college athletic directors got weaker in their resolve. As Alabama piled up championships, coaches started getting cut more often and with greater haste. What took Nick Saban years to build in stops across college football and in the pros, athletic directors wanted their coaches to amass in three years or your seat gets hot.
The Twitter monster grew too from 2012 on. More and more sports fans flocked to the social media platform attracted by it’s easy set up and even easier ability to promote individual thoughts and ideals to eager listeners. Long ago in high school you had those pack of gossipers that would huddle together in corners and talk ill of anyone with status. Twitter provided a digital network of gossipers with more access and wider audiences. As such, college football Saturdays would see the timelines packed with fans living and dying by each move their team made. Lose to a rival and embarrass a fan in front of rival fans he’s been beefing with and the clock was ticking and Twitter would fire you. Lose a bowl game by a score of 70-33 and you can forget about fan support come next season.
If Dabo Swinney would’ve lost a bowl game 70-33 in this Twitter Golden Era and after Nick Saban had compiled five national championships in Tuscaloosa, Bleacher Reports would have already released the article “Top 10 Candidates to Be the New Sheriff in Death Valley”. I’m sure even the good folks in Clemson may have even run out of that good ole fashion Southern patience.
As luck, hard work and vision would have it, Dabo would circumvent such ire and circumstance. Since getting a tropical ass whippin in that 2011 Orange Bowl, Swinney has low key produced the 2nd biggest Dynasty during the Saban Era. Clemson has won 11 games in all but one season since 2011. They have appeared in three of the four college football playoff championship games and they have now won two of the last three national championships. Along the way, Swinney has managed to keep his coaching staff together and convince projected first round picks to come back for their final season despite already having a championship ring on their finger. Not only has Swinney built a program, he’s built a family. Last night was hard to imagine when Geno Smith hit Willie Millhouse for a 7 yard TD to give West Virginia a 70-26 lead on that awful night in Sun Life Stadium.
Along the way, one has to wonder just how many college football programs panicked and rid themselves of potentially dynasty building coaches simply because of a less than stellar season or especially embarrassing moment. The frantic, irrational chasing of Nick Saban and incorrect use of Twitter as an effective decision maker has likely dunked many a potential national championship coach into the unemployment line. In it’s wake, college football has been left with only two programs with the resolve, experience and know how to meet each other every year in college football’s final game. However, there are some other programs peeking their heads over the horizon. The question is, did last night buy them time to get to the top of the mountain and add mystery to college football again.
Four short years later, I would settle into my seat in the same Sun Life Stadium only to watch the same Clemson program that got mugged in 2011, drag my alma mater, the University of Miami, behind the woodshed. At 28-0 in the 2nd quarter, I couldn’t take it anymore. I rose from seat in disgust and departed. On my way down the ramp, Clemson scored again to make it 35-0. As I reached the parking lot, a disgruntled fan draped in a Ken Dorsey jersey let off a manic laugh that only a serial killer could appreciate as he barked out “Clemson just scored again.” It was the third score since I left and it would open the door for the third head coach hiring for Miami since Dabo Swinney got the job at Clemson. Oh the irony.
Author: Chad Wilson
Chad Wilson is a college football recruiting expert and creator of the GridironStudsApp which allows high school football players to gain exposure to college football coaches and fans. Wilson is a former college football player for the University of Miami (92-94) and Long Beach St. (’90-’91) and played briefly for the Seattle Seahawks (’95). He is also a former youth and high school football coach for over 15 years. Wilson’s older son Quincy plays in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts and his younger son plays cornerback for the University of Florida. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.