As it is throughout the South, football at Clemson is inextricably entangled with religion and patriotism. Until 1955, Clemson was a military academy, all white and all male; the entire senior class of 1917 enlisted to fight in World War I. At football games, the spectators rise for a spirited rendition of “God Bless America.” Then, hands on hearts, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only after that do the players start hitting each other.
In college football, the same institutions tend to win championships generation after generation. “Clemson was never one of those schools,” says Danny Ford, a former coach who won the college’s only pre-Swinney title, in 1981. “I didn’t know if Clemson would ever win another. I really didn’t have high hopes.” Yet even before 1981, fans treated Clemson like a national power. “We would have 100,000 people coming to town every weekend,” says Davis Babb, who runs the athletic department’s support club and fund-raising arm.
The club’s name, IPTAY, stands for I Pay Ten a Year. The cost of membership has risen since its founding in 1934, but only to $60. IPTAY raised $63.7 million in 2018, an enormous sum for a university with maybe 150,000 living alumni. “People in the state grew up in families in which supporting the university was important, even among those who hadn’t attended it,” Babb explains. “Even when times were not as good, you had people say, ‘I’m going up to Clemson for the game.’” It didn’t matter that few people outside South Carolina were paying attention.
Swinney had never been to a Clemson game before he arrived to coach. He grew up in Pelham, Ala., south of Birmingham, where he slept in a car some nights. Alabama football provided common ground with his tempestuous father. Swinney was 13 in 1983 when he heard Bear Bryant had died. He remembers the moment as some others might recall the death of Elvis Presley. “Time stopped for me,” he says.
Swinney had a successful high school career as a wide receiver. He went to Tuscaloosa in 1989 unrecruited but determined. “He wasn’t going to give up,” says Woody McCorvey, who was an assistant coach at Alabama when Swinney played there and is now an associate athletic director at Clemson. Swinney lettered for three seasons and played on a national championship team. Then he stayed on eight more years as a graduate assistant and receivers coach. When head coach Mike DuBose was fired after a 3-8 season in 2000, Swinney had to leave, too. He was 31 and hadn’t held a job outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. “All I knew was ball,” he says.
A few months later, a former Alabama colleague called offering a job selling commercial real estate. Swinney dived in. He would meet investors at vacant lots in Grand Junction, Colo., and Olathe, Kan., and ask them to envision where their Cinnabon might go. He worked from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and had weekends off.