If searching the landscape for bellwethers, one could have done a lot worse than a moment in Greater Phoenix on the night of Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. It happened in an interview room, at an interview dais, just after a national championship game ended at 45-40 and boasted two winners, Alabama and runner-up Clemson. It came just after Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney finished his remarks and stood to depart.
Then and there did Swinney lean down to quarterback Deshaun Watson, who remained to field more questions.
"I love you," Swinney said.
"Love you, too," Watson said.
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In the citadel of American culture known as college football, it's a 21st century of fewer huddles and gaudier uniforms. It's about waterfalls in football facilities and occasional targeting calls, with futuristic hitting from athletes ever faster, harder and more fortified with nutritional precision. And curiously, it's about an enhanced social setting in which the three best words in English - "I love you" - get spoken out loud where they once went muffled.
As Swinney departed, a mind might have shifted to a 20th century both historic and prehistoric. It might have conjured Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Bear Bryant, John McKay. It might have wreaked a giggle. That's precisely what the former Chicago Bears receiver Brian Baschnagel did at first when asked if he ever heard "I love you" from Hayes, for whom he played at Ohio State from 1972 to '75. He laughed. Yet that's not what many coaches do when asked if they find it crucial to say the three words out loud.
"Absolutely," said Swinney, 46, whose program stands 56-9 across the last five seasons.
"It's what we're about here," Watson said. "We love each other and really care for each other here."
"The vocal part has changed, you know," said the retired Randy Hart, 68, who played guard for Hayes in the late 1960s, and whose five-school, 46-year career as an assistant coach included 24 seasons at Washington and six at Stanford. "The conversation has changed. But still, the feeling's there."
Everyone from Hart to Swinney to Baschnagel to Bryant's former Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge agrees with that. They agree that men such as Hayes and Schembechler felt a deep love for players but did not - or could not - express it. They also agree the expression has become both ubiquitous and essential.
"I mean, I think those guys loved their players," Swinney said. "But I think relationships may have been different, I don't know. But I know for me, that's what I try to do, is love my players. And say it. Tell them. Absolutely. I want them to know that. You know, I might be the only one they hear that from, in some cases. And you know, I'm going to be on 'em, when they don't do what they're supposed to do, but I also need to tell them I love them, and encourage them, and build them up."
Rutledge, 59, makes a broader point. Not only were coaches less likely to utter the words last century; so were parents. By now, though, Rutledge coaches Valley Christian High in Chandler, Arizona, and the words are invaluable.
"Those three words go a long way when you're talking to kids," he said. "That day, that might be something they needed to hear. . . . If they know you care, they'll handle everything."
The mutual gratitude between Swinney and Watson pours right out into the open.
Watson: "We just kind of bonded from Day One," with "just his passion and personality and just being a great human being, and all that stuff is just very, very special."
Swinney: "First of all, he believed in me," and then there's Watson's famed humility, and "how he handles his role on the team," and "the way he helps and serves other people," and, "You know, he's a giver."
So after the rare human collaboration entailed in a five-month season at a brutish sport, as 14-1 ended with its lone disappointment, Swinney leaned down toward Watson because he wanted him to know something he vocalized to a reporter months later.
"My love is not conditional," he said.
Clemson is back in the College Football Playoff this season and will meet Ohio State in a semifinal game on Dec. 31.