Clemson finally finds the next Danny Ford in a dude named Dabo

col-tbuzz-2The late, great John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” was on the top of the charts, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” was No. 1 at the box office, Ronald Reagan was getting the hang of the President thing, and the Clemson Tigers were national champs.

Thirty-four years later, retro is in again at Clemson. And it’s not just the Tigers’ first undefeated season and national championship game appearance since that fateful season that has the Tigers feeling like it’s 1981 again. The way the Tigers have completed their long climb back to the top is a familiar folk tale for longtime followers of Clemson football.

Just as Danny Ford was promoted from within the staff following the departure of Charley Pell, making him the youngest head coach in NCAA history at only 30 years old, the Tigers also went to the bench when Tommy Bowden resigned under pressure in 2008. In the ultimate case of history repeating itself, the man to lead the Tigers to the promised land was in their midst.

Dabo Swinney was no spring chicken (sorry, Gamecocks fans) when he got the call up at only 39. His surprising hire was the latest twist in a political tug-of-war within the athletics department that began with Ford’s divisive exit in 1990. The Tigers hired hard-liner Ken Hatfield, who lacked Ford’s good-ol’-boy charm and was run out of town despite a 32-13-1 mark.

The Tigers hired former Ford assistant Tommy West, who had only been a head coach one season at FCS Chattanooga before being handed the keys to the Clemson football machine. He ran it into the ground, and another savior was brought in from the outside. Bowden had the bloodlines of his famous father but he was never fully accepted into the Clemson family.

So after a back-and-forth battle of searching the world for the best coach and finding one of their own, Clemson took another gamble on Swinney, a curious choice given his inexperience. But Dabo was the first candidate who could appease both sides of Clemson’s internal split – a good ol’ boy who could win on Saturday and sit next to them at church on Sunday.

Swinney was smart enough to surround him with some of the top assistants in the country, allowing the Tigers to compete and recruit with anyone in the country while still having Swinney’s country charm as the face of the program. He won the first ACC title since Ford, beat Florida State and South Carolina, won a BSC bowl game, and restored Clemson as a national power.

This breakthrough season has been Swinney’s signature moment. A season that began with the death of his father saw Dabo grow into his own. His down-home, aw-shucks mannerisms make him beloved by his players, Clemson fans and the media. His goofy motto “Bring your own guts” and lilly-white version of dancing the Whip and Nene have made Dabo a Clemson folk hero.

So win or lose in Monday’s title game against Alabama, Swinney’s home state and alma mater, the Tigers have finally found their Danny in a new package known as Dabo. It might not be a match made in heaven, but one just south of there on the hills of the Upstate. Retro is back in style in Clemson, where a familiar recipe for success comes with a Southern accent.

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