CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney isn’t one to get distracted with what other people think of his football program.
“Don’t let anybody walk between your ears with their dirty feet,” the Clemson head coach said Tuesday when asked a question about outside noise.
He is ferociously focused on Florida State (never mind that No. 2 Clemson is a 27-point favorite going into Saturday’s home game against the once-respectable Seminoles).
“Easily the most talented team we’ve played,” Swinney said.
So, predictably, the winner of two of the last three national championships isn’t overly concerned about recent California legislation granting college athletes control of their “name, image and likeness.”
That means they can cut their own endorsement deals with international corporations or the local car dealership.
South Carolina is among several other states with similar bills proposed or on the way.
That means, in a college football world in which above-board endorsement cash becomes part of recruiting, schools with larger and richer alumni bases might have a competitive edge over what Swinney has described as “little ‘ol Clemson.”
“We’ve probably been at a disadvantage for a long time around here,” Swinney said Tuesday. “Alumni and all those things. But we’ve found a way to blossom from the inside out. Again, I’m not worried about things I don’t control.”
But name, image and likeness is potentially as formidable as Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
Not to say the Tigers cannot compete when the bar is raised; that’s up to alums, fans and supporters.
But serious Clemson boosters, individual and corporate, are going to have to dig deeper in a new kind of college sports arms race.
Clemson vs. checkbooks
Do the math.
Clemson, even with its bulging 24,951 enrollment, isn’t as large as many of the other traditional football powers.
The metroplex between Three and Twenty Creek and Mountain Rest doesn’t have as many business opportunities as Austin, Miami, Columbus or L.A.
Clemson always has ranked in the bottom few among ACC schools in total endowment, one snapshot of alumni financial power.
Clemson was 27th in USA Today’s analysis of total athletic department revenue for 2017-18. Not bad, but not top four.
“Well, I mean, there's no doubt,” Swinney said the morning after his first national championship victory over Alabama in Tampa in January of 2017. “If we’d have walked out there last night and brought our checkbooks, we got our butt kicked.”
And yet Swinney’s Tigers are the best football program going, or at worst tied at the top with Alabama’s Nick Saban, Inc.
Against the financial odds, they are enjoying the best official bowl gifts.
That’s partly because football has meant a lot at Clemson for about eight decades.
For alumni and boosters, the value of winning on the field is famously outsized, for better or worse.
Player compensation is coming, probably sooner than later. That’s a great, overdue thing in any country that allows a free market exchange of services and goods.
Formerly against paying players, Swinney seems to be coming around.
“There’s a lot of positives that could come from it,” he said Tuesday on the name, image and likeness subject. “I have no idea. We’ll just have to let all the smart people figure it out.”
The way Clemson deals with the strange, new player compensation world is probably similar to the way the Tigers caught up with Alabama and its mascot.
“How do you eat an elephant?” Swinney has said. “One bite at a time."
Note that Texas, Texas A&M, Ohio State and Michigan rank at the top of athletic department revenues yet, among the foursome, only Ohio State has been to the College Football Playoff.
First, of course, Clemson must continue to win.
In the process, Swinney and Co. will have to keep extending the Clemson Culture brand, his virtually unique mix of family-style football and life skills sprinkled with spiritual substance.
The recruiting reach recently has extended from Charleston (running back Michael Dukes) to California (wide receiver Joseph Ngata and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei), to Texas (safety RJ Mickens) to Canada (wide receiver Ajou Ajou).
Maryland (defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and center Ryan Linthicum) and Philadelphia (Jeremiah Trotter Jr.), too.
Clemson football already sells nationally: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence on the cover of lots of preseason magazines and website previews, for instance.
Maybe Clemson Culture appeal will continue to attract enough national and regional endorsement cash, enough to compete with the elephant mascot and financial elephants of the college football world. But prepare to dig deeper.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff