Remembering the 2008 Wake Forest trip

CLEMSON - It was supposed to be the year Tommy Bowden returned Clemson to the top of the ACC, a spot the Tigers hadn't claimed since 1990.

Heading into the 2008 season, it had all the makings to be one for the ages. What transpired over that five-month span certainly was unforgettable. But it wasn't quite what anyone had in mind.

Clemson's started as a preseason top-10 team. Picked to win the ACC, the Tigers were throttled in the season opener against Alabama.

Three consecutive wins were reeled off against The Citadel, N.C. State and S.C. State. In the final game leading up to the bye week, Clemson lost, 20-17 to Maryland.

Twelve days later, the wheels fell off. Clemson lost 12-7 at Wake Forest on a Thursday night.

The following is an excerpt from the post-game grades feature by CUTigers publisher Roy Philpott after the loss to Wake Forest:

"What's more disheartening than anything else is to put what has happened so far this season in proper perspective. Given all of the talent assembled on offense, including several players with first or second-round potential in next year's draft, not only will this team not win the Atlantic Division, it won't even come close. Ouch. What happens now is anybody's guess but clearly the football program under Tommy Bowden is at a crossroads and the pressure from unruly boosters and fans is about to reach a level we've never seen at Clemson- and that's saying something."

Swinney and several players, now seniors, who were true freshmen in 2008, will travel play at Wake Forest on Thursday night. They reflected on the historical significance of their last Thursday night in Winston-Salem and what transpired after that game.

Dabo Swinney
I remember it well. We just couldn't do anything right. Oh, my goodness. It was a long night, a long trip back. On Monday there was an interim head coach, just a tough, tough deal -- a tough deal. It was kind of a culmination of how we played that year. We just hadn't played well. That night was kind of the epitome of that. We just could not seem to get anything going. We played pretty good on defense, just could not do anything offensively, from what I remember.

Xavier Brewer
I was in the dorm room, just yelling at the TV, frustrated. That was frustrating. They had a really good team, as well. It was just frustrating that we didn't play up to our ability. I just don't want to let that happen to us.

Jonathan Willard
I remember us, as redshirts, we were in the room, because nobody was traveling. We were in the same apartment. We had a big screen TV, just looking at the game like, ‘Man, come on. Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick it up.' We kind of thought that the group didn't show up like the way that they practiced the whole week. We were just like, ‘Come on, a little more.' Dalton Freeman
I was watching it with my dad. I was just feeling embarrassed. We were going to have to do something about it.

Dabo Swinney
I went recruiting Friday night. I remember that. I remember me and Billy Napier going recruiting up in North Carolina. I think we were going to see a receiver, if I remember correctly. Boy, I remember, we were not very well greeted by some folks when we showed up at that game. Just coming off a really disappointing loss like that, we just played so bad. Not that -- Wake Forest is a great program. We really played bad. I don't remember the game. That's about it. Saturday, I was with my kids for the day. That was it.

While in a staff meeting that Monday morning game planning for that weekend's game versus Georgia Tech, Swinney and the rest of the Clemson coaches received word from athletic director Terry Don Phillips that a change was going to be made.



For audio of the press conference with Phillips and Bowden:

Dabo Swinney
We were in here on Sunday and we were in here on Monday morning, early. That was it. There was no indication of anything at all. We had a staff meeting that morning. We do the devotional. I had the devotional that morning, ironically. I gave the devotional. We got to the staff meeting. We were actually doing blitz pick-up and Andy Johnston walked in and said coach Bowden wants to see you guys…it was just a bizarre day.

Dalton Freeman
I just remember, that was kind of when everything started to fall apart. Coach Swinney became the new head coach and that was just the straw that broke the camel's back. You heard of a lot of things going on, but you weren't real sure, because coach Bowden had just signed a seven year contract.

Dabo Swinney
I was probably, like everybody else in the room, just stunned, because it wasn't a long discussion. Coach Bowden literally walked out and [Phillips] walked in and said, ‘Sorry guys.' It was very emotional. Everybody had a ton of respect for coach Bowden. It was a difficult thing. Coach Bowden was great. Like always does with everything, he handled it with class. He didn't say a whole lot. Terry Don walked in and I'm sitting there in sweatpants and a sweatshirt on Monday morning, a long day. ‘I'm sorry it's happened, but we've got to move forward and finish the season. Dabo, you're now the head coach. You call all the shots. See me in my office in five minutes.' I mean, literally, what would your reaction be? He left, so you can imagine the emotion in the room. It was a lot of emotion, guys saying this and that, calling wives, slamming notebooks. It was a raw moment. Then, it got quiet. I said, ‘I don't know what to say.' I was trying to get back together and find out what the deal is. That was it. About an hour later, I thanked every one of them individually and just tried to make it work. Everybody did that. Those guys did a tremendous job. That's one of the main reasons, outside of the two coordinators, I kept everybody. All those guys' contract was up March 1. Even though I was just getting a job by myself, from scratch, I probably would have done things a little bit differently. I played the hand that I was dealt and I did what I thought was right.

Jonathan Willard
It was just like another sad day.

Dabo Swinney

One of several changes implemented by Swinney during his interim season was the team walking together arm-in-arm during warm-ups.
My main focus was the players and just trying to get the players together, because we weren't together. I knew that the only chance that anybody would have was to get those guys to have some fun, to buy into some things, from a team standpoint and just come together. There was a lot -- I didn't sleep that week -- there was just a lot going on. Yeah, getting an opportunity to lead a program and be a head coach, at that point I was just passionate about trying to get these guys to believe that they could win again and that they could be good. It didn't have to be this way. Regardless of what happens in these six weeks, let's all come together. We've all got a job to do, it's a privilege to be here, these fans are buying tickets. We'll figure it out six weeks from now. But, for the next six weeks, let's just do our job the best we can. And they bought into that, the staff, everybody. It was a difficult situation for everybody. And everybody, I think, did a fantastic job in trying to make the best of a very tough situation.

Jonathan Willard
We came in and it was crazy. We were over in Jervey. Everybody came in and was looking around. We had a team meeting about coach Bowden had just got fired and that coach Swinney was going to be the interim head coach. I remember everybody looking around like, we don't have a coach. What are we going to do? I remember, Jock McKissic, he came up and was like, ‘We ain't got nothing else to do but to go out there and play for ourselves. Let's just get it. Let's go get it.' He stepped up and brought everybody along. We started playing from there.

Xavier Brewer
I was really numb. I don't know, but a lot of our other guys were like, ‘We've got to get out of here. We've got to transfer.' I wasn't really thinking straight. Coach Swinney was the one who recruited me. He brought me into his office and talked some sense into me and I was like, ‘Yeah.'

Jonathan Willard
That doesn't happen to everybody, your recruiting coordinator becomes the head coach. It was exciting to me, because I was like, ‘I'm going to have a chance to play.'

Dabo Swinney
We moved guys around. Mike Dooley was coaching tight ends for me. Billy [Napier] went from coaching tight ends to coaching quarterbacks. Jeff Scott is a G.A. on defense. He's coaching wide outs. We just rolled our sleeves up and went to work. That was a crazy, crazy week. We had fun. We had fun practicing. We were excited about what we were trying to do. We almost pulled it out.

After starting the 2008 season with a 3-3 record, Clemson won four out of the final seven games, including an emotional win over South Carolina in the regular season finale. Swinney was named head just days later. Since his first full-time season in 2009, Clemson has won 31 games, including the program's first ACC Championship in 20 years.

Xavier Brewer
It's just cool to see the guy that was the receivers coach turned into the head coach just instill a culture in everybody. All the players, we had to change the program from the inside out, and he's been able to do that, for the most part. One of the main things that he wanted us to do, he wanted us to win at home. We've been doing. He wants us to win the games that we're supposed to win. This season, we've been doing that. Just trying to change that from last season and have a better second half than we had last year.

Dalton Freeman
When he first took over, he talked about changing it from the inside out. That really means the culture and the attitude of the players. I felt like we've created a winning environment. Before, we were kind of hoping to go out there and win. Now, we go out there and expect to win every time we play. Along with that, he wanted to make it almost a guarantee to win at home. Since he's taken the job, we've won a lot at home. We just tied a record this past Saturday for most consecutive wins in school history at home, so we're doing a lot of the right things.

Dabo Swinney
Sometimes I sit and I reflect I'm blown away by how quickly life can change. It's been that way my whole life, as far as trying to stay focused on the things that I believe in and things that are important, trying to do a good job of where you are and preparing yourself for opportunities, even if they don't ever come. I try to use that as a positive when I got speak and things like that, make a point to people, you know what? You just never know. You never know, first of all, when your opportunity will come, or how it will come. The other thing is, you never who's paying attention. You never know how you affect some people's life by something you said or did or what they may have observed. Those are just lessons that I've learned throughout my life. I'm here…I'm thankful to have the opportunity to lead this program. I've just tried to do the best I can since the day I got this job, just get better each and every day, each and every year. I'm proud of the group for how far we've come since that time. I'm proud of the program. A lot of good things have happened. There've been some disappointments along the way, some lessons. Things like that. Looking back to, I guess that's four years ago now, we've come a long way. Hopefully, we just continue to get better.

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