Every season Clemson plays Wake Forest, every other year in Winston-Salem. It has been four seasons since Clemson and Wake played at Grove Stadium on a Thursday night.
Wake beat Clemson, 12-7, and four days later Dabo Swinney was Clemson’s interim coach.
“It was a nightmare,” Swinney said Tuesday. “We just couldn’t do anything right.”
Swinney, then the receivers coach, remembers the game and the circumstances well. Clemson, ranked No. 9 in the AP poll to open the season, lost to Alabama in the opener and the season lost traction. A loss to Maryland the week previous to the Wake game was a precursor to the implosion on national television.
When he and Billy Napier went recruiting the next night, Swinney said there was nothing in the wind, though coach Tommy Bowden had announced that Willy Korn would replace Cullen Harper as the starting quarterback for the Georgia Tech game. The weekend was relatively uneventful, Swinney recalled, and he was in a meeting Monday morning when the staff received word that Bowden would meet with them.
Bowden told them he had resigned. He walked out of the room and athletics director Terry Don Phillips entered. Swinney said he remembered Phillips talking about moving forward in a difficult situation then delivering the words that changed his life. “Dabo, you’re now the head coach. You call the shots. See me in my office in five minutes.”
Wake has been a burr under the saddle for a generation at Clemson. Each of the past three coaches were fired after losing to Wake Forest in their finals seasons. Ken Hatfield lost his last two and was released with a 32-13-1 record.
Bowden was on the proverbial hot seat in 2003 when he rallied the team after a 45-13 loss at Wake to beat No. 3 Florida State the next week, finish with four victories and earn a new contract.
Five years later, the seat became too uncomfortable and Bowden resigned.
Clemson lost to Georgia Tech the next week in Swinney’s first game then won four of the last five to secure his job. His teams have beaten Wake Forest each of the three successive seasons, building on Clemson’s dominance in the series.
This season, Wake (4-3, 2-3) beat North Carolina and Virginia, lost close games to Duke and Maryland and one of its best players, wide receiver Michael Campanero, might play with a hand fracture. Winner of an ACC championship in 2006, coach Jim Grobe (3-8 vs. Clemson) has a knack for teaching, preparing and exacting maximum production from players.
Nationally ranked Clemson (6-1) was listed as a 13-point favorite after an unsatisfying 38-17 win against Virginia Tech. The offense lurched with quarterback Tajh Boyd off his game and the line struggling to protect him (five sacks). Swinney wrote it off as “our worst offensively.” Boyd said he had some shoulder soreness and didn’t throw during a Sunday practice.
Swinney also wants further evidence from his defense after an encouraging game in which Clemson forced four Virginia Tech turnovers and generated a representative pass rush.
Since 1998, Clemson has a 1-9 record on Thursday night ESPN games. The win was at N.C. State in 2005. Swinney understands there are no absolutes.
“I am blown away by how quickly life can change,” Swinney said in discussing the road he has traveled since that October nightmare in 2008.
“It’s been that way my whole life as far as just trying to stay focused on the things you believe in and things that are important, trying to prepare yourself for opportunities even if they don’t ever come.
“You just never know,” he said. “You never know when your opportunity it will come or how it will come. You never know who is paying attention.
“We’ve come a long way.”