It has 14 steps – one for each game of the college football regular season, plus a league title game and a BCS game – and it is metaphorical.
While you can easily bound up your garage ladder to clean out your gutters or patch a hanging shingle, climbing this ladder is slow, measured – and always done one step at a time.
"You visualize the ladder, get to the top of that ladder, there's 14 (rungs)," Venables, Clemson's second-year defensive coordinator, explained. "You have to put your foot on each one of them. You can't get to the top without starting at the bottom and stepping up all the way. But you can get from the top to the bottom in one step."
Clemson's 11-2 2012 season – capped by a thrilling 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU – has led to the biggest expectations of Swinney's five-year tenure. The Tigers are ranked in the top 15 of 11 different major preseason college football publications, with an average rank of 9.45 – Clemson is in the top 10 in eight of those rankings.
With a talented offensive core led by returning ACC Player of the Year Tajh Boyd and All-America wideout Sammy Watkins, as well as an improving defense, it is natural for fans to wonder: is this the year the Tigers make the leap to national title contender status?
Clemson coaches are well aware of the heightened expectations, but they prefer to attack them one rung at a time – starting with Aug. 31's likely top-10 Memorial Stadium showdown against border rival Georgia.
"We're focusing on our daily preparation – doing your job, staying committed on and off the field, setting the standard with everyone doing the best they can do, and don't worry about the scoreboard," Swinney said. "Worry about the journey, the preparation, execution – that's what you have to focus on.
"We're blocking all the other stuff out. At the end of the day, if we compete consistently at a high level, we're going to win a lot of games, because we're good enough. We've got a good football team. If we're going to be a great football team, we have to compete consistently at a high level."
Swinney and his staff know the pressures that come with national title contention. Swinney won a national title in 1992 as an Alabama receiver, Venables won in 2000 as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator, defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks won in 1998 as Tennessee's defensive line coach and tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Danny Pearman was also on Alabama's 1992 staff as an offensive tackles/special teams coach. Venables says he manages high expectations with consistent action.
"From day 1, the first day I got here, there's a certain way I come at those guys," he said. "Coaching at Oklahoma, they're not going to be satisfied with seven wins, going to be a bowl, 3rd place in your division. I'm no different there than I was here, and I wasn't any different at Kansas State. Here's the process, here's the work. A three-hour, 38-minute practice, 16 periods, or whatever it is that day.
"That's what you put your focus on. Who cares about those expectations? The end result is a byproduct of doing everything else right leading up to this week, this game, this month, all those things. My life is complicated enough. I try to simplify it for myself, my players, worry about today."
Venables says he's "the same guy I've always been."
"It's not, ‘OK, this year's different,' whether it's your expectations, the fans' expectations, the players' or mine," he said. "Mine are always the same. I'm like, ‘I'm going to go to the media thing today and take care of this.' Tomorrow will be another day, and when (players) report, it'll be another day, that's who I am. I know if you try to put the cart before the horse, you're doomed to failure."
Brooks focuses on keeping an even, humble keel with his defensive tackles.
|"Recruit too many of the Johnny Five-Stars that have a level of entitlement as opposed to the work that's required and the effort involved, that Clemson's just going to win because that's who Clemson was when I got recruited by them, and now I'm here, go play Georgia... it don't work that way."|
"As a coach, you've got to keep them humble. Sometimes the time to pat them on the back is not when they did good. It's when they didn't do good and they're expecting the wrath of, ‘I know you can do better than that.' Patting them on the back all the time, they get to thinking they've arrived. Of all the bad things that could happen, it's them thinking they've arrived."
Fans are excited about the Georgia game, and players and coaches are, as well. But Swinney cautioned against making it a be-all, end-all game, no matter the result. He pointed out that two-time defending national champion Alabama lost a November home game in each of the past two seasons.
After starting 2011 8-0 and finishing 2-4, Clemson showed consistency throughout 2012, leading both Florida State and South Carolina in the fourth quarter before falling. The South Carolina game, Venables said, has stuck with he and his players, and he is preaching consistent effort this fall, too – no matter what happens in the opener.
"You can fall off that ladder in one step," he said. "If you avoid the process on how you get where you want to be, you'll fail every time. It doesn't work that way. Might work in the short-term, but it's going to catch back up to you. Whether it's proverbial coach-speak or not, that's how it is. That's how it is in your line of work, any line of work.
"To be successful, what's the method, what's the formula. We don't have a monopoly on it here at Clemson, obviously. It's getting your players to buy in and consistently get the most out of each opportunity, which is every day. Practice time and timed real work. Our job is to organize it, be efficient, motivate them, inspire them every day, get the most out of them. Grow them so they can mature at the right pace."
Venables believes in culture, attitude, mindset and a player-driven leadership culture, which he calls "the boring stuff for (reporters), but critical to our success."
"Recruit too many of the Johnny Five-Stars that have a level of entitlement as opposed to the work that's required and the effort involved, that Clemson's just going to win because that's who Clemson was when I got recruited by them, and now I'm here, go play Georgia... it don't work that way," he said.
"I've been part of some level of dysfunction as well, where you have the experience coming back and something just isn't right. You're continuing to try and plant the right seeds and foster that development."
Consistently. Do that, and 2013 can become a special season.
"I tell the guys, the ball is not round, it doesn't always bounce our way," Swinney said. "It's out of your control for everything to go your way and have a chance to play for a title. From my seat, no one is going to be truly happy unless you win them all. If you win them all, someone's not happy about the way you won one. That's the nature of the beast. Our objective is to take every Saturday, play the best we can, control what we can control, focus on Clemson – and don't worry about who the opponent is."