CLEMSON | Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney wanted his players to go "all in" the rest of the season. Looks like Tiger fans got the message, too.
Fans stood five and six deep for the Swinney's first "Tiger Walk," which the new coach hoped would show his fragile team it wasn't alone as it got ready for Georgia Tech on Saturday.
"It feels like it's the first game of the season," a smiling Ray Cash said shortly before the walk started.
Swinney took over Monday after longtime coach Tommy Bowden stepped down amid the Tigers' struggling season. Swinney, who enjoys watching poker on TV, said in card game's parlance that Clemson had pocket 10s with much left to be decided.
"We don't have a great hand, but we've got a chance, and we're going all in," Swinney said earlier this week. "These players need to be all in and we'll see what happens."
Clemson couldn't sustain the emotion, falling to Georgia Tech 21-17. Despite the loss, Swinney was proud of the Tigers and how they rebounded from the loss of their head coach.
"They played with passion and fight today and this is just the start of a unified Clemson team," he said.
Among Swinney's first ideas was the walk, often used by colleges for players to interact with fans. Athletic spokesman Tim Bourret remembers Clemson holding other walks among fans in years past, "but nothing like this."
Swinney, Clemson's receivers coach since 2003, was the first one off the bus, pumping his fist as fans chanted "Dabo." By the time Swinney crossed the parking lot, his eyes were red with emotion.
Clemson's players, dressed in sport coats and ties, also soaked in the cheers near the end of a difficult week.
Freshman Willy Korn, a first time starter, slapped hands with crowd members as teammates waves and pumped their arms in the air.
"Today was electric," Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly said. "It started with the Tiger Walk. It was good to see how the fans supported us."
Another line of people stood applauding on a nearby hill, while several fans and recruits watched from Clemson's WestZone complex, built during Bowden's 9½ seasons.
"It's a new tradition our coach has started and the fans and the students have responded," Clemson University President James Barker said before the team passed by. "I'm just excited to be here. There's an energy here already."
James Gilstrap and his wife, Elizabeth, were among the first on line for the walk. They were in attendance three weeks ago when Clemson coughed up 17-6 halftime lead and lost to Maryland 20-17. The defeat, combined with a 12-7 loss at Wake Forest a game later, brought many to the realization the Tigers had to have a change, James Gilstrap said.
"We thought the world of Tommy Bowden but we realized it was time for the program to take a step further," he said.
Bowden recognized that perhaps he'd done all he could and offered to leave in two Monday meetings with athletic director Terry Don Phillips.
Phillips said Bowden understood that winning an Atlantic Coast Conference title was critical to keeping the job beyond this season.
One of Swinney's first moves was dismissing offensive coordinator Rob Spence, a second favorite target of dissatisfied Clemson supporters.
Nearly a week later, fans were ready to stop booing Bowden's program and celebrate Clemson football.
"I think it was inevitable," Brett Cash, Ray's son, said as he flipped omelets outside a family van. "I hate it for coach Bowden. I'm glad coach Spence is gone. I think he was the problem and I think coach Bowden's loyalty to him might have lost the team and I think did lose his job."
Bourret expected close to a full house at Death Valley. The Tigers won't return here until a Nov. 15 game against Duke.
A short time after the walk, Swinney came out onto the field by himself. He settled in a chair on Clemson's sideline and sat with his head down for a bit.
Swinney, guaranteed nothing beyond these next six games, has called himself a coach with nothing to lose. He found out early Saturday he's got plenty of Tiger fans who want him to win.
"We're praying he's going to be successful," Ray Cash said.