Team Chemistry Made the Difference

The remarkable ending to the 2003 season at Clemson has already been well-documented, but just what was it that enabled the Tigers to pummel their archrival, and inhilate two teams ranked within the top six in the country? "The biggest thing that helped us last year was..." said Clemson linebackers coach David Blackwell.

Leaving Groves Stadium in early November following a crushing loss to Wake Forest, it appeared as though the Clemson football program was at the crossroads.

Expectations of a 9 or 10-win season had fallen by the wayside and it appeared as though Tommy Bowden and his coaching staff were faced with an impossible challenge the following week.

Beating the 3rd ranked Florida State Seminoles.

It had been more than 14 years since Clemson had defeated their ACC rival from Tallahassee, and certainly most experts agreed that it couldn't be done after a backbreaking 45-17 loss at the hands of the Demon Deacons.

As it turns out, most experts were wrong.

The Clemson defense came out with a brilliant gameplan that completely shutdown QB Chris Rix and RB Greg Jones. 60 minutes later, the Tigers found themselves celebrating the biggest win in school history- a 26-10 win over Bobby Bowden and the third ranked Florida State Seminoles.

"We knew going in that we could beat Florida State," said linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator David Blackwell. "We knew that we were one of the few teams they would face that could match up with them speed wise on the edges. And that was big."

The victory itself meant much more than just another "W" in the win-loss column.

It meant that the Tigers had finally proven to the rest of the world that the team was talented enough to go toe-to-toe with one of the top programs in the college football landscape.

But how did it happen?

How did Clemson go from a 25-point loss to Wake Forest, to a 16-point win over Florida State, a 46-point road win over South Carolina, and then a 27-14 win over sixth ranked Tennessee in the Peach Bowl?

Ask any member of the Clemson coaching staff, and they'll tell you that there's a simple explanation.

"The biggest thing that helped us last year was team chemistry," said Blackwell. "When I first arrived here last year, you could sense that this team needed an attitude adjustment."

"There was talent here. No doubt about it. Even coming from Pittsburgh you could look out there and realize that there was a lot of talent on both sides of the football."

While the attitude adjustment was put in last spring, it really didn't seem to take hold until the 2003 season reached the lowest of lows. In fact, it almost seemed like the loss at Wake Forest had to happen so that this team, and this program, could realize it's full potential.

And leading the way for the turnaround wasn't the big time players that most Tiger fans are used to seeing on Sportscenter Sunday mornings.

No, it was guys like senior DT DeJuan Polk and senior WR Tony Elliott that helped keep the team together when times were down.

"Those two guys were the glue the held it all together this past year," added Blackwell refering to the seniors. "Behind the scenes, they kept this team together, they kept things from falling apart. I've said it once before and I'll say it again, the senior leadership on this team was the difference."

And now that the Tigers will lose two of their key leaders in 2003, not to mention wide receivers Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood, this spring becomes even more instrumental in helping identify who the "new" leaders of the team will be in 2004.

"That's one of the goals of spring. You like to see who steps up," said wide receivers' coach Dabo Swinney. "I like who we've got coming back, but you also like to have guys that are leadership guys. Guys that lead by example."

Looking back, it's almost unbelievable how the overall attitude of the football program changed. Just when it seemed like nothing could go right and the team was in complete turmoil, the Clemson Tigers won their last four games of the year and positioned themselves for a run at the ACC Championship in 2004.

And all along, it wasn't really a lack of talent. It wasn't a lack of coaching. It was a lack of team chemistry. It was a lack of leadership, and more specifically, senior leadership.

It was the intangibles that helped pave the way for future greatness. Let's just hope 2004 picks up where 2003 left off. Top Stories