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Clemson All Smiles in the Spotlight

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By BJ Bennett
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There is an energy around the Tigers that is as palpable as it is unique.


If you want to have fun, you have to win. We do a lot of winning and we have a lot of fun.

~John Simpson

Clemson has made the College Football Playoff four years in a row, has claimed two national championships the past three seasons and is one of the overwhelming favorites to win it all this fall. Winners of 58 of their last 62 games, the Tigers are on a historic run that, quite quickly, has turned into an all-out sprint. Maybe, with this group, even a skip. Smiling and shaking hands at the ACC Kickoff, Dabo Swinney has developed a true generational superpower. He has done it his way.

Many teams embrace the moment. Swinney and Clemson come with a great big hug, instead.

There is an energy around the Tigers that is as palpable as it is unique. At Clemson, you don’t just climb the ladder, you ride the slide. You don’t just pump iron, you rub the rock. The only beat, for well over a calendar year now, has been the rhythm of a dance routine. It’s a style, in football, you don’t normally see.

These Tigers prepare and work with unrelenting compromise. Swinney has a clear standard of excellence. Anything less and recent achievements would be nothing more than a dream. That said, Clemson also makes it a point to enjoy the process. The Tigers are different because, like Swinney, they are determined to be. Everyone in the program embraces the special opportunity they have. Simply put, they celebrate it. Recently, they have had plenty of reasons to.

“Fun,” beamed guard John Simpson when asked what one word he would use to describe playing at Clemson.

How the Tigers go about their business may be one of the quiet keys to their staggering success.

“It’s all about having fun. I feel like you can’t be uptight and so serious all the time and expect to be great,” Simpson continued. “If you want to be great, the fun is in the winning like coach Swinney always says. If you want to have fun, you have to win. We do a lot of winning and we have a lot of fun.”

Swinney, of course, is the catalyst. He has long made the most of his opportunities by being grateful for the chance to do so. As countless examples show, there is true power in that perspective. Joining Clemson as the program’s wide receivers coach in 2003, Swinney took over in an interim role in 2008, then, despite some skepticism, took over the Tigers officially. His optimism was his base. The rest, already, is history.

So much about Swinney is refreshing. He greets strangers like air conditioning after an afternoon of yard-work in the summer sun. Notably, there is an authenticity in his aura. Such an approach has paid unprecedented dividends in terms of Clemson’s national standing and, looking ahead, current recruiting efforts. The spirit of Swinney and his staff, proliferated by the players the Tigers bring in, is the foundation for the defending national champions. It’s their culture.

What Swinney does is who he is.

“Everything you see on TV is what you get. He is a fun loving guy, he really cares about his family, cares about his players,” added safety Tanner Muse. “We went to dinner last night, we had a great time, laughing. He got us dessert. I got this banana bread pudding and it put me in a casket, I was dead. He loves all of his players, he treats them all the same. It doesn’t matter if you are a five star or a walk-on, you are all the same at Clemson.”

Levity has proven to be a very real part of Swinney’s leadership. The ripple effect, for his program, has been powerful. Swinney has found a beneficial balance.

“On our plane ride over here, he was literally joking, laughing. He is a fun guy to be around and I feel like every program needs that kind of person,” Simpson nodded. “He is serious when he needs to be serious, funny when he needs to be funny. It’s always good to be around somebody like that.”

Instead of approaching the ACC’s media days event only focusing on a message, Clemson, before the interviews ever started, went off-script. Simpson walked the halls of the Charlotte Westin wearing a long-blond Trevor Lawrence wig. The move was an absolute hit. Simpson immediately become one Wednesday’s stars, more so than he ever expected. With some voicing displeasure over Swinney not choosing to send Lawrence to meet with the media, Simpson changed the entire dynamic with strands and a smile.

With the college football world watching, the number one team in the country sent an offensive lineman to represent the program wearing a mock-hairpiece inspired by its superstar quarterback. Such is Clemson. Fittingly, it was all apart of Swinney’s plan.

“Coach Swinney came up to me and was like ‘hey look, I got this wig for you,’ right before we loaded the plane, ‘you have to wear it man, that would be funny’. I was like ‘Coach, a lot of people were on Twitter talking about me coming, so that’s a great idea’. Now I’m like a phenomenon, everybody is taking pictures of me, it’s weird,” Simpson chuckled.

There is a purpose to Swinney’s plan. All of the activities, all of the banter, has brought this team together. An environment where communication is cultivated and fellowship is fostered has been the ongoing result. Make no mistake about it, the competition remains as fierce as anywhere in the country; within that, however, a deep commonality remains. On the field, Clemson plays with a togetherness that starts far from it.

For all of the pundits trying to explain the Tigers’ rise to prominence, the formula may actually be fairly simple to explain. Chemistry is Clemson’s chemistry.

“We are the kind of guys, you can talk to anybody and anybody will give you positive feedback or the feedback that you need and not that you want. When you have guys like that who surround you, you are bound for greatness,” Simpson shared. “I can go to any single individual on my football team and talk to them about anything. That means a whole lot.”

The application of this Clemson brand has helped the Tigers grow and, in terms of realizing expectations and reaching their potential, win. This is a Clemson circle that comes with rings.

“It’s the guys that you play with. We had a great group of guys last year and the coaching staff was great, we all had a lot of fun. If you’re not having fun, what are you doing? You have to have fun with what you are doing and it showed,” Muse concluded. “We had a really good bond between our defense and the whole team and I think it’s what you saw every Saturday.”

Don’t misunderstand, Clemson isn’t just happy to be here. As the grind continues, so, too, will the grins.

BJ Bennett – B.J. Bennett is’s founder and publisher. He is the co-host of “Three & Out” with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the “Southern Pigskin Radio Network”. Email: [email protected] / Twitter: @BJBennettSports

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