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The Clemson Football Culture Playbook

The Tigers have an elite culture that’s sustaining success for over half of a decade, will it end?

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College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Back on September 21st I put up a post on SOTU titled, “Miami is going to beat FSU, and the reason may shock you!” It was a tongue in cheek title as we all had a fairly good feeling Miami would knock the Seminoles off their low horse for a fourth straight victory over the rivals from the north. I’m also fairly certain every college football obsessed Floridian has seen the absolute culture toilet that FSU has become since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era through Willie Taggart and into the early Mike Norvell era.

The Culture Playbook

The high school playbook

For a program’s culture to be good, or bad, it all starts at the top. In the high school football world- I have a three pronged culture playbook to a successful program: administration, community, and parents. If the administration is on your side your program will properly funded, able to get coaches on campus, and schedules will be worked around to get every football player into a weight training period. It’s as simple as that.

If the community is behind you- they’re fundraising for you, finding new revenue streams, and they aren’t out rabble-rousing at The Wildwood talking trash about the program after a loss. Instead they’re saying they have your back, and proving it through intensified fundraising and support.

The parents have to be the kind that produce hard working, selfless, and committed young adults that can join your program and make it better. The parents can’t jump the hierarchy and go to admin or social media with every complaint, they have to come to you directly.

The college playbook

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

I’m not sure if the culture playbook at the college level is all that different from the high school level. The university administration has to have the program’s back. They have to provide resources, allow for the best facilities and staff to be hired and work towards getting the program modern needs and wants. They also have to support you after a tough loss.

The community (read: the boosters) needs to keep generating funds in order to keep the program going through any situation. Whether that’s a coaching change, COVID, or whatever gets thrown a program’s way. The community has to create new revenue streams and keep the money flowing into the program. They also can’t go around to the media and stab the coaching staff in the back.

The parents still have a major role on the college program. College coaches are dealing with parents more than the average fan would assume. Parents, street agents, and half uncles twice removed all have their hands in the cookie jar looking for ‘what’s best’ for little Timmy or Jamal. If Timmy or Jamal doesn’t earn playing time right away, is their parent figure in their ear about the transfer portal or about sticking it out and overcoming adversity?

Clemson folklore

The story of Dabo Swinney’s meteoric rise to the top of the college football world is an epic tale. Swinney, only a wide receiver coach for the Tigers, was named interim head coach after Tommy Bowden resigned and hand picked Swinney as his successor. That’s a story that has been floated through time, Tommy Bowden told the admin that Swinney would be the best pick for the job. Clemson’s admin listened and the rest is folksy history.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 ACC Championship Game Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coach Swinney, who sat out the 2001-2002 football seasons after being fired at Alabama, was an ACC head football coach only four and a half short seasons later. After winning the ACC Championship but being demolished by West Virginia in the bowl game, Swinney saw the cards fall his way with the Oklahoma Sooners firing defensive coordinator Brent Venables. OU’s defense has never been the same, and neither has Clemson’s.

Venables has called the defense for 104 of Swinney’s 133 victories as Clemson head football coach. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has been on staff for all 133 wins for Mr. Swinney. Head strength and conditioning coach Joey Batson has also been on staff for all 133 of Dabo’s victories as head coach. That continuity has created a family atmosphere at Clemson that is unmatched at other programs. Nick Saban’s mercenaries have had great success, but they don’t stay with Bama like coaches stay with Clemson.

The best

Whether you’re reading Urban Meyer’s Above The Line, Eric Kapitulik and Jake MacDonald’s The Program: Lessons From Elite Military Units... or Bertollo et al’s Advancements in Mental Skills Training they will all agree that an elite culture is created and sustained from the top down. Culture has to be more than a page on a website, a credo on the wall or signs in a break room. It has to permeate throughout the building and resonate throughout the community.

The person in charge, whether the head coach, commanding officer, or CEO, has to live the culture, Core Values, and Purpose every single day in every decision they make for the organization. No decision can be taken without the culture in mind, and at the forefront of the decision making process. If bringing in an assistant coach, a salesperson or a new five-star goes against the culture- the best leaders won’t pull the trigger.

The 10-80-10 Principle works in all facets of life. Think about your friend circle. I have a feeling 10% are elite, 80% are compliant and 10% are resistant. In the school setting, I’ve come to define them as elite, found and lost. It’s the job of the leadership council in the program to help elevate their peers from lost to found, or found to elite. It’s the job of the coaching staff to admit when they’ve hired or recruited a poor fit and eliminate the issue as quickly as possible. If one of the resistant is resistant to their leadership council, it’s time to go.

There would be a case to be made that your locker room can never consist of 10% resistant. When Dabo Swinney built the Clemson football program he did it by taking the “best” players, not the most talented. In order to get a compliant and elite locker room he passed on some of the most talented players to take the best fit culturally. Urban Meyer was known for running off the players that were resistant to his coaching. Meyer believes in the old adage, you can’t spend 90% of your time on 10% of your people.

Miami Hurricanes football practice Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Every once in a while a coach gets lucky and can land their D’Eriq King, Tim Tebow or Deshaun Watson- an elite athlete that’s also an elite leader. That’s the secret sauce to creating a national champion, the four or five star player who is also a five-star leader. When that combination is present great things can and usually will happen.

Once the culture is set, like it is at Clemson, the head coach can take a few risks on players that might not fit into the locker room culture. The culture is so deep and embedded at a place like Clemson that Swinney and his staff can take someone with a blemished record and hope the culture smothers that person into being ‘found.’ It’s either that or the five-star running back transfers out of dodge as soon as they can.

Winning culture

CFP National Championship Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Four teams have won the College Football Playoff National Championship in six seasons. Those teams are Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Louisiana State. Clemson and Alabama have both also lost a CFPNC Game, as have Oregon and Georgia. Two of the champions have come out of the SEC, and three have come from the south, with only OSU breaking the trend in 2014.

All four champions have broken the 50% barrier on the Blue Chip Ratio data, meaning that their rosters are at least half filled with elite level prospects. How do the numbers look? OSU was at 68% in 2014, Alabama was at 77% in 2015, Clemson was only at 52% in 2016, Alabama was at 80% in 2017, Clemson was at 61% in 2018, and LSU was at 64% in 2019. The lowest BCR’s to win the CFP were both from Clemson. Coach Swinney has valued best over most talented for years and it has created a sustainable, successful culture for the Tigers.

Jimmy’s and Joe’s matter, but culture matters even more. However it is done, Clemson manages to keep players around for their junior or senior season when they could easily bolt for the NFL like so many players at Miami, Alabama, and other programs seem to do on an annual basis. Clemson kept quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne not only playing and risking injury, but also from opting out during COVID. The Tigers star players and elite coordinators agree to stay at Clemson long after they could depart for greener (NFL or head coach money) pastures.

So can Miami win this thing?

Absolutely. Tulsa just knocked off UCF, again. FSU almost dropped a game to JSU. Mississippi State beat LSU and turned around to lose to Arkansas a week later. Iowa State beat Oklahoma. Anything can happen in college football and Miami beating Clemson is no different. The ‘Canes have elite talent on the field from King the quarterback, to Cam Harris, Brevin Jordan, Quincy Roche, Nesta Jade Silvera, Al Blades Jr, Bubba Bolden... the list goes on.

Miami can absolutely beat Clemson. Lashlee’s offense has provided enough big play spark with explosive plays and the gear shifting of tempos to keep Venables guessing, Clemson struggled with a mobile QB against UVA, and Miami is finally making field goals and PAT’s in 2020.

What needs to change? Miami’s defense can’t allow explosive plays against a Clemson offense that thrives on them. Miami can’t afford penalties or dumb turnovers. And most of all, Miami has to be secure in the kicking game. Clemson can not only break a touchdown of their own, but the Tigers will feast on a fumbled punt if given the chance.

It’s now time for Miami to culture-up to the big boy table. I’ve loved how Coach Diaz has toned down the bush league antics and focused his program on the task at hand, producing a winner. Miami is recruiting really well at 10th in the country for 2021, and the team is 3-0 so far in 2020. I’ve been outspoken about the change in the character of the players brought in through the transfer portal in 2020 compared to 2019: Jarrid Williams, King and Roche are more K.J. Osborn than Tate Martell and it shows.

Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Miami Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Much like Swinney, Manny Diaz has made the hard change over time and eliminated coaches. Swinney immediately fired the OC at Clemson when he took over, and eventually fired Kevin Steele as DC for Venables. Diaz rid himself of Mark Richt’s offensive staff and then made another cut with Dan Enos and replaced him with Rhett Lashlee. Change is hard, but boy can it be sweet when it works out.

Fans will learn a lot about the culture of the Miami program with how the game at Clemson looks. Diaz struggled with idle weeks in 2019, the team didn’t come out focused and played like a team instead of a program. An off week, a road game, College GameDay, another primetime show but this time against top-rated Clemson- this has all the makings for an unveiling of what type of program Miami really is: contender or pretender.

If Clemson gets up early do the ‘Canes start to quit or freelance? Do the young men veer off of the game plan at the first sign of adversity? Or do they fight back like Syracuse and UNC have done to Clemson in the past and give the Tigers are ride or even an upset on their win-loss record?

It’s Clemson week. Culture is King.