CLEMSON —On the evening of January 18, 1990 a mix of 3,000 students, alumni and locals gathered on the lawn of Clemson president Max Lennon’s home and chanted: “We want Danny.” After years of feuding with Lennon, with the possibility of probation looming over the program, Danny Ford departed Clemson. Perhaps fans felt compelled to gather because they knew what was in store for the program. Ford led Clemson to five top-10 finishes in the polls, but after the 1990 season Clemson has never again cracked the top 10.
On Jan. 3 2001, Bobby Bowden watched Chris Weinke’s final desperation pass fall short as Florida State fell to Oklahoma in the national title game. Maybe those in the Florida panhandle thought ‘we’ll get ‘em next year.’ After all, Florida State had finished in the top five of the polls for 14 straight years dating back to 1987. But they keep waiting for next year. The 2000 season was the last time the Seminoles finished in the top five.
After years of Bowden Bowls, regression, disappointment and regime change, there is evidence both Clemson and Florida State — from recruiting to a renewed commitment of resources — are on their way back to national relevance.
When No. 10 Clemson (3-0) travels to No. 4 Florida State (3-0, 1-0 ACC) at 8 p.m. Saturday (WCIV-TV) it will be just the ninth meeting between top 10 teams in Atlantic Coast Conference history. But it is the type of game that should become more the norm than the exception for the division rivals, says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“Clemson and Florida State should be two of the best programs in the country,” Swinney said, “hopefully that’s where we are headed.”
Not only do Clemson and Florida State want to see their teams back at the top of the polls, so does the ACC, which hasn’t placed a team in the BCS title game since Florida State in 2000.
“Every team needs a star, every league needs a star, every movie needs a star.” said Boston College coach Frank Spaziani. “We need Clemson and we need Florida State — from a conference standpoint — to be what they’re capable of being.”
To be what they are capable of, to be what history suggests the programs are capable of being, starts with recruiting.
Clemson has produced three straight classes ranked in the top 20, including the consensus top 10 class of 2011 class that included star Sammy Watkins and three other five-star recruits.
Florida State has signed back-to-back, top-five classes.
Clemson and Florida State’s 2013 classes both rank in the top 13.
Eight of the last 11 national champions have produced at least one first round draft pick on its defensive line and Florida State is loaded at the position. Clemson produced two second-round drafted linemen in each of the last two years, and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, defensive end, Robert Nkemdiche has committed to the Tigers.
Yes, Florida State’s also reeled in elite classes in the 2000s under Bowden and underachieved. Still, the top programs usually are found at the top of the recruiting rankings.
The programs are also rising because of an increased commitment to football.
Clemson’s $9 million indoor practice facility is under construction. Clemson has the highest paid assistant coach in the country in Chad Morris ($1.3 million), and a school record of $6.1 million in football staff compensation. The team believes recruiting has been significantly boosted by the West Zone facility at Memorial Stadium.
Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips was asked about the renewed commitment earlier this year.
“Our program is on the upswing,” Phillips said. “What we have to do is take advantage of our momentum.”
Florida State hopes to be in its own $15 million indoor practice facility in 2013. Jimbo Fisher is the ACC’s highest-paid head coach ($2.8 million). Fisher hired Mark Stoops in 2010 as defensive coordinator, who earned new contract paying him $575,000 per year this offseason. He might be in line for another raise as he leads the nation’s No. 1 defense.
Both programs also appear to have stability at the top.
After four coaching changes in 18 years at Clemson, Swinney signed a six-year extension this offseason that if completed would give him the same tenure as Danny Ford.
Fisher is under contract through 2016.
What the programs always had throughout the peaks and valleys are powerful brands, infrastructure, and geography for success.
Clemson’s paw logo, Florida State’s arrowhead helmets are iconic.
The country’s population, and football recruits, has shifted to the South and the West.
Clemson and FSU have the ACC’s two largest home stadiums, each with capacities over 80,000. They have two of the nation’s top 40 fan bases according to a study by the New York Times, which found Clemson to have the nation’s 10th largest fan base (1.76 million fans) and Florida State to have the 38th largest contingent (813,000 fans).
The ingredients are there will the top 10 rankings follow?
“We just have to win games,” Fisher told the Sporting News. “When you win games, everything changes.”