But as so many teams have tried to catch up to the Crimson Tide, Swinney, an Alabam 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.”