Commentary: Clemson learning what it takes to be a winner

11/15/2009 12:00 AM

11/15/2009 8:35 PM

RALEIGH | CLINCHING A DIVISION title Saturday would have been nice, but some will say it would be better to get the job done at home.

That's what awaits the Clemson football team and its fans Saturday when the Tigers play their last home game of the season, against Virginia.

Maybe, after 18 years, that elusive 'C' word will fit them.

A division championship, which would be its first, is one victory from becoming a reality, and with it will come the chance to play for something bigger - an ACC championship.

"I told 'em before the game, championship teams take care of business," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the Tigers whipped North Carolina State 43-23. "I asked them, 'Do you think you're ready to be champions? We'll find out today by the way you play.'"

They looked the part, but there is work left to be done.

The larger lesson learned during an eight-game conference season is that Clemson is learning to do what Swinney has been saying all year it needed to.

It is learning how to win.

"We've been wandering around in the desert for a long time at Clemson," Swinney said, "and it has come down to four quarters."

Yes, it's that close to Clemson being able to call itself a champion.

Some of the things winners do aren't always pretty, and that's all right because of the thing that sets winners apart: They are going to play games that seem as though they belong in a framed picture, mounted in a big room above a roaring fireplace.

The win at Miami was one of those for Clemson, but when teams get to the point that they truly understand what winning is about, they are all beautiful, because winners only care about winning.

As soon as the game ended Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium, Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was about the first one off the field, and he didn't look happy. He had watched his group surrender 56 yards in seven plays on a North Carolina State touchdown drive that made the final score 43-23.

Steele couldn't have been pleased with because it was an indication that, despite some backup players being in the game, despite the fact that the game was not in doubt, Clemson's defense gave up points it didn't need to surrender.

"The victory is the reason we came here," Steele said a few minutes later, "That's great. I'm glad we got it, but the mind-set has to be looking at what we did, looking at the mistakes we made and figuring out a way we can correct it."

That's good stuff for a hard-edged guy such as Steele, whose task is to screw things down tight so nothing gets loose. He's looking for perfection, which will never come but is always the goal.

These are the approaches winners take, and it is an approach this group of football players at Clemson seems to be understanding in a way that those that came before them didn't,, going back a generation.

"You gotta make a decision to win," Swinney said. "It's a choice. You have to expect it, you have to plan for it."

It took a while at the start of the season. There was indecision and doubt, but winners always face those things and find a way to get the job done.

For this team, in this conference, there's one more job that awaits.

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