Thursday loss changed Clemson four years ago

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates his first victory as Clemson’s coach in 2008.

CLEMSON — Oct. 13, 2008 seemed like just another Monday in the Clemson football offices.

Outside of the McFadden Building, Internet message boards and talk radio lines were buzzing following Clemson’s 12-7 loss at Wake Forest the previous Thursday. Vitriol toward the Clemson staff was spilled around water coolers from Chester to Charleston as the Tigers fell from a No. 9 preseason ranking to out of the polls. But inside the building, everything seemed like business as usual.

Around 10 a.m., wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was watching video of blitz pickups with the offensive staff. He was wearing gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Mondays were always long, so he was going to be comfortable.

It was then director of football operations Andy Johnston entered the dimly lit room with an unusual message: Head coach Tommy Bowden wanted to see the entire staff.

Bowden was brief and sullen — he was no longer the football coach. Bowden left the room and Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips entered.

“(Phillips) just said ‘Sorry guys, it’s a business. … We’ve got to move forward. Dabo, you are now the head coach. You call all the shots. See me in my office in five minutes,’ ” Swinney recalled.

Swinney was stunned.

“What would your reaction be?” Swinney said.

Coaches called their wives. Playbooks were slammed shut. Emotions poured out.

“It was a raw moment,” Swinney said. “Then it got quiet. I just said ‘Look guys, I don’t know what to say. I’ll meet with (Phillips) and find out what the deal is.’ ”

Bowden’s fate was sealed on a chilly Thursday night in Winston-Salem, N.C., four years ago. Clemson returns to Wake Forest on Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) as a much different program. There are new facilities, record levels of staff compensation and something that eluded Bowden for nine years — an ACC title.

The catalyst for much of the change over four years has been Swinney.

But without an offer made by Bowden, the Swinney Era might have never happened.

The perception is Bowden was fired. But Phillips maintains that is not true. He says Bowden offered to resign early on that Monday morning and Clemson gave him his full $3.5 million buyout, which Clemson finished paying out earlier this year. It was clear to both Phillips and Bowden there would be tremendous pressure to change in the offseason.

“I’m very grateful to what coach Bowden put on the table,” Phillips said. “It allowed us to transition in a way that was very good for program. … (Dabo) having the opportunity to be placed in that interim role gave us an opportunity to observe him beyond what I had already seen. I don’t think there’s any question that without being able to put him in that kind of role I couldn’t have made the recommendation to make him our head coach.”

Phillips was intrigued with Swinney. Players always gathered around the energetic assistant coach’s office. Phillips liked his positive demeanor. There was the impressive recruiting track record. It was Swinney who compelled a running back named C.J. Spiller to sign the back of his business card and agree to visit Clemson in 2005. Spiller became the first five-star prospect to leave Florida for an out-of-state ACC school. Swinney still keeps the card under glass on his desk.

As interim coach, Swinney immediately fired Rob Spence as offensive coordinator. Jeff Scott was promoted from graduate assistant to receivers coach and remains the only Clemson assistant — besides Swinney — who was on the staff in October 2008.

Clemson won four of its final regular season games, including a win over South Carolina. The Tigers made the Gator Bowl and Swinney was able to shed the interim label.

“I was trying to create an attitude of belief instead of hope,” Swinney said.

Four years later, Swinney has learned on the job and come close to building the program he envisioned.

He has made four coordinator hires, firing the first two coordinators he chose in Billy Napier and Kevin Steele. He’s pushed hard to increase staff compensation and build facilities. He’s always been able to recruit. After a six-win season in 2010 that placed him on the hot seat, he quieted skeptics with Clemson’s first ACC title in 20 years last season.

“I’m just trying to get better each and every day, each and every year,” Swinney said. “Looking back four years, we’ve come a long way.”