In writing his first two books, both based on his day job covering Clemson football — “Classic Clashes of the Carolina-Clemson Football Rivalry: A State of Division” in 2011 with ESPN.com’s Travis Haney, and “The Danny Ford Years at Clemson: Romping and Stomping” in 2012 — Larry Williams discovered the difference between books and what he does in his beat coverage for Tigersillustrated.com.
That is, he got used to the insides of various libraries, where he pored over microfilm — long, grinding hours with nary a football player in sight.
By comparison, Williams’ latest effort for Charleston-based publisher The History Press (his first book set a History Press record for sales by a sports book) was almost — almost — an effortless transition from what he does every day. The first two books were history, he said; this was current events.
“This” — “Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory under Dabo Swinney,” released in February and covering the Tigers’ 2015 run to the College Football Playoffs championship — “was happening right now,” he said. “It was very little ‘research’ other than to look back at quotes” gleaned during the season. “This was a breeze by comparison.”
Williams spent last fall up to his notepad in the Tigers’ journey to a national title showdown with Alabama — the greatest moment in Clemson’s football history … so far, he says.
Other books have been produced on that 14-1 season, including coffee-table tomes by the Anderson Independent-Mail and Greenville News. But those are mostly compilations of articles and photos done during the season. Williams wanted something new — a look not just at the season, but how it came about. “I wanted to do the story of how Clemson got to this point,” he said, “(because) I see the program continuing to win, so five years from now, the book will still be relevant.”
Williams’ theme for the book is how Swinney, an exuberant and often underestimated coach, built Clemson into a national contender, and how his turbulent early life shaped his ability to do that. Much of that story is now common knowledge: the alcoholic father, walking on at Alabama, rising from assistant coach under Tommy Bowden to become creator of the double-digits-wins-per-season powerhouse.
“The part that resonated for me was the way Dabo handles himself, his leadership,” Williams said. “It really is a family atmosphere over there. That comes from his ability to connect with people on a personal level.”
A bonus was that “Dabo is the most expansive quote you can have. He almost always says something, and if you pull him aside for more” — which Williams regularly did in his job — “he’s always accessible.” Coordinators Brent Venables, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott followed their boss’ lead there.
While much of the book is chronological, Williams included chapters on Venables, quarterback DeShaun Watson and linemen Christian Wilkins and Mitch Hyatt, which give the story more depth.
The last two chapters on the Orange Bowl win against Oklahoma and the Alabama loss came as they happened. The latter, Williams says, caused the most stress.
“Four days from deadline, I’d written almost the entire book based on (the Tigers) being tough, able to stand up to Alabama,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘What if they get manhandled? I’ll have to do some serious re-writing.’ ” When Clemson took the Crimson Tide to the wire, 45-40, “I breathed a sigh of relief.”
Since being released on Feb. 15, sales of the first run of 2,200 copies have necessitated a second printing. Beyond that success, Williams said, is a private satisfaction.
So: What if Clemson, picked as a 2016 title contender, takes that final step? Williams laughed. “If they win it all,” he said, “I guess I’d have to write another one.”
Copies of “Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory under Dabo Swinney” ($21.99) can be ordered directly from Williams by emailing email@example.com. Williams will autograph copies on request.