The Clemson Tigers have spent the past several years in the graces of the media and college fans alike. With star players like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence working through the program, it was easy for bandwagon college football fans to root for the Tigers. They were the only real challenger to Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, defeating them in the National Championship game twice.
However, a 4-3 start to the 2021 season, with losses to Georgia, North Carolina State, and Pittsburgh, has the entire program in a tailspin. Following a narrow victory over Syracuse, an NFL prospect safety and another running back entered the transfer portal, the second and third players to leave the program since the start of the season. We can only assume that they will be far from the last to declare their intentions to leave the once stellar program.
Head coach Dabo Swinney has been at the mercy of National Media writers for the entirety of his tenure. Beloved as a real football coach, it wasn’t until Swinney opposed NIL laws that the media turned face on him.
It’s easy to say that this is one year for the Clemson program and that they will be back. It’s easy to assume that with the level of success that they have accomplished. However, if things don’t begin to change, it will only get worse for the Tigers program.
Dabo Swinney’s lack of interest in the transfer portal
Swinney and Clemson’s fall from grace is not a simple Jedi trick played by the media. In it are key factors – decisions and philosophies – that have all played into the downfall of the program. These decisions have been made by Dabo Swinney. He has done it to himself.
Swinney is a tremendous believer in the health of a program being built by homegrown talent while promoting culture. What that means is that Swinney’s program philosophy relies on the recruitment of star high school players who buy into the program and grow within it.
If we look to the players who have transferred out of Clemson this year, there are seven starting players who left for other schools. Five of the guys on the list above are potential NFL day two draft picks (Nyles Pinckney, Jordan Williams, Mike Jones, Deion Kendrick, and Joseph Charleston). The talent that has replaced them are very young and inexperienced.
Here’s the astonishing part of this entire situation:
Clemson has never accepted a transfer into the program since the start of the transfer portal. Swinney doesn’t believe in them. He’s been very much against the transfer portal since it’s inception. If you look at the other top programs in the country, Clemson stands alone.
The attitude toward players who leave the program
Players who leave the program are treated with hostility following their decision to leave. Following the 2018 season, Swinney refused to give a National Championship ring to quarterback Kelly Bryant. Bryant started the first four games of the season before surrendering his starting job to the then-freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
After losing the starting job, Bryant entered the transfer portal and ended up playing his final collegiate season at Missouri. When the team defeated Alabama for the National Title, Swinney believed that Bryant deserved no credit.
“He wasn’t on the team. You’ve gotta be on the team to get a ring,” Swinney explained while appearing on ESPN. “I love Kelly and appreciate what he did for us, but he decided to move on.”
Granted, Bryant did call losing the job a “slap in the face” when asked about it, although it was clear to anyone who watches football that Lawrence was the better quarterback. Still, Bryant helped the team win the first four games. Football people I spoke with at the time all agreed that the judgement of Swinney was very harsh and ungrateful in this instance.
Swinney’s opinion on the transfer portal
Back in July, Swinney opposed the transfer when asked about it during ACC media days. He talked about how confusing the time period is for young college football players.
“I don’t get a vote in those things, but I would’ve liked to have seen the different,” Swinney said at Clemson’s media day. “Young people make emotional and irrational decisions a lot, not all the time, and now you throw in name, image, likeness and tampering and no reason for pause or consequences. The grass is greener and it’s really not. The grass is greener where you water it.”
When asked about the portal last week, following the loss of two more players to it, Swinney’s response was somewhat poignant.
“Boy, the weekly transfer portal question,” Swinney exclaimed, “man, do y’all go who’s got the short stick this week?”
However, Swinney went on to explain that he isn’t against the transfer portal, despite what he had said earlier in the year.
“Again, I’m not opposed to the transfer portal. I’m not. I’m not some anti-transfer portal deal. I’ve said this 100 times. If we need to use the portal, we’ll use it. But I’m not going to do something just to do something. I don’t know why everybody keeps asking me that.”
If Swinney truly does not oppose the transfer portal, then why does he feel the need to treat his former players with hostility behind closed doors? Why won’t he use the portal?
Rumors of Clemson’s players payment program
The oddities surrounding the Clemson program and how they compile their rosters are certainly intriguing when compared to the other top programs in the country. They turn their backs and treat players who leave the program with hostility. They recruit young, high school kids and don’t target experienced veterans who understand the business side of college football. Their classes are normally significantly smaller than the other top schools.
The oddities don’t end with the lack of interest in the transfer portal or the smaller recruiting class sizes. When speaking with high school players who visit Clemson, and don’t chose the school, they talk about how the visit starts… with a trip to Newspring.
Newspring is a contemporary Christian church with 14 “campuses” located across South Carolina. Here’s a glimpse of the church during this past Easter‘s service:
It’s been rumored for years that the boosters at Clemson funnel cash through the church to recruits. Every Clemson recruiting visit starts at this church and players appear on the campus spontaneously throughout the football season, usually once a month.
When it comes down, it’ll be a tough recovery for Clemson
The Tigers will have a lot to answer for if it’s true that players have been getting paid through Newspring to come through the Clemson program. Swinney will have a lot to answer for too. However, with the lack of a team that Clemson has fielded this year, you have to wonder if his sins are finally catching up to him.
There is something odd about the philosophy that Clemson has always used to build their championship program. They’ve had top rated recruiting classes with fewer players and a higher overall recruit rating average.
It’s not the end of the road right now for Swinney. If we look to the greatest college football coach of all time, Nick Saban, there’s a certain trait that allows Saban to stand out as the best;
The ability to adapt.
Swinney has to learn to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of college football. He has time to figure it all out, but he needs to start now.