Tommy Bowden's sudden resignation threw the program into uncertainty: highly-touted defensive commitments like Devonte Holloman and Craig Loston cut ties in favor of SEC schools.
When Dabo Swinney got the full-time head coaching position in December 2008, he scrambled to put together a 12-player class that he called "The Dandy Dozen."
Saturday, what remains of the "Dandy Dozen" will play its final home game in Memorial Stadium, and parting will indeed be sweet sorrow.
Swinney's Clemson recruiting class is small, but it has packed a major punch – the program's first ACC championship since 1991 and pieces of two ACC Atlantic Division championships. These Tigers are 36-14, and with a win over The Citadel Saturday, they'll tie the 1981 and 1984 teams for the fourth-most wins ever over a four-year span at Clemson. Win out, and they'll tie the 1991 seniors the as the second-winningest Clemson class ever.
Yes, these dozen were indeed pretty dandy.
"They transformed Clemson. Changed the culture at Clemson. They set the standard and made it realistic to achieve that standard," Swinney said. "They've done things that have never been done. They have a ton of records, a ton of first, did a lot of things that have not been done in a long time here on their resume.
"This group came here at a time of total change and no guarantees, and took a leap of faith with me as a head coach and in Clemson. What a journey it's been. They're part of the bricks and mortar and have laid a foundation for our future success."
11 scholarship players will run down the hill for the last time Saturday, but only seven players remain from the "Dandy Dozen."
They are quarterback Tajh Boyd, linebacker Quandon Christian, tailback Rod McDowell, guard Tyler Shatley, linebacker Spencer Shuey, tight end Darrell Smith and offensive tackle Brandon Thomas.
Offensive tackle J.K. Jay's career ended due to a back injury, while defensive end Malliciah Goodman, linebacker Corico Hawkins and safety Jonathan Meeks finished their eligibility last season. Wide receiver Bryce McNeal graduated after three years and transferred to Louisville and then UConn.
Shatley said sticking with Clemson in fall 2008 wasn't easy.
"It was tough," he said. "A lot of guys, when coach Bowden resigned started asking me, ‘Are you going to go somewhere else? You still want to go to Clemson?' We stuck it out, and I'm glad I came to Clemson and made that decision."
Following a 6-7 record their freshman year, Clemson has consistently improved as the Class of 2013 has matured. 2011 brought a 10-4 record and the ACC title. 2012 saw 11-2 and the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU. This fall, the Tigers are 9-1.
A win Saturday would give the program three consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1987-90. And two wins would bring the program's first ever back-to-back 11-win seasons.
Boyd, Christian, McDowell, Shatley, Shuey and Thomas are starters. Boyd owns more than 50 Clemson single-season and career passing records and owns the ACC's career passing touchdown record. He is one of the ACC's most prolific passers ever alongside N.C. State's Phillip Rivers. Thomas is an All-ACC selection, and several others should get shots at an NFL career.
Others, like kicker Chandler Catanzaro and long snapper Phillip Fajgenbaum, have earned scholarships as walk-ons. And cornerback Darius Robinson is completing his eligibility in four years.
But the core of the "Dandy Dozen" is small, which has only drawn them closer.
Boyd said he leaned on McDowell and McNeal during their redshirt freshman season, when all three were contemplating transferring, a common occurrence for redshirting freshmen.
The ensuing years have just strengthened the class's bonds.
"The relationships get stronger the older you get," Boyd said. "You come in and you're on the same team, but it's like a competition. ‘Who's going to be the first to play out of this class? Who's going to make the most immediate impact?'
"The older you get, you start to understand everyone's role and appreciate the person beside you. It's more than a football relationship. Football is a small part of life, minimal. You've got to enjoy it, enjoy the relationships while you can. You don't know who's going to keep in touch, who's not going to keep in touch. It's important to foster those relationships."
Shatley agrees that the class's small size has made a difference. Christian says the class is "all brothers" and "still hangs together to this day."
"Our class is extremely close," Shatley said. "I thought we were close when we came in but as we've grown, we've gotten a lot closer. Guys have left. It's been a great experience to get to know these guys. They're all great guys. I think that's the biggest testament to how we run things at Clemson. Everyone's a big family and we can get close to everybody."
Saturday, that group says goodbye to Memorial Stadium – but Swinney and those who they leave behind won't forget them anytime soon.
The Dandy Dozen
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