May 19, 2019

Clemson needs seismic shift in college football landscape to thrive

It might be the longest funeral in history, but the ACC is all but done and won’t exist in 10 years. At least not in the current configuration, with the current teams and continue to be relevant in college football.

As Brad Senkiw of wrote last week John Swofford had no update on an ACC Network and believes it’s a joking matter almost a year after having no update on an issue that’s likely to determine the ultimate fate of the conference he leads.

Swofford’s making jokes as the league dies a slow, painful death.

What’s not a joking matter is that of the 5 power conferences the ACC is 5th in payout to its members, coming in at almost $12 million per year less than SEC teams.

This gap puts the ACC closer to being the Big East than the SEC. $12 million a year adds up rather quick and at this rate between 2016 and 2025 the Vanderbilts, Kentuckys and South Carolinas will have garnered $120 million more (assuming the gap stays the same, though it’s likely to grow) than Clemson and Florida State. One.Hundred.Twenty.Million.Dollars.

Let that sink in. Over the next 10 years Vanderbilt will receive $120 million more than Clemson.

In the short term, Clemson and Florida State can compete as we’ve seen over the last 3 seasons, but eventually a $12 million a year deficit is going to be too much to overcome. This isn’t Leicester City vs. the Premier League, this is Google vs. DuckDuckGo. Sure, you can hang on and survive in some form or fashion, but you’re not going to be talked about and you’re not going to be relevant. To use a soccer term, you’re going to be relegated. As in not in the picture for the big championship trophy.

While Stuart Mandel’s vision of college football in 2026 is a pipe dream, it may be the best option for Clemson and Florida State. The Tigers and Seminoles need a seismic change in the college football landscape to escape the death sentence of the ACC. Sorry John, adding another Big East-ish basketball focused college for the “TV market” ala Syracuse or Pittsburgh would be akin to putting a band aid on a severed arm.

It’s not all Swofford’s fault of course, it’s hard to sell Boston College football to the masses and just try and get a network to buy into the epic Wake Forest-Syracuse gridiron battles that are sure to happen in the next few seasons. You get my drift.

The ACC has 2 or, in good years, maybe 3 or 4 good college football teams. That leaves a lot of dogs and a lot of crappy games on the schedule. Honestly, who would you rather watch on a Clemson off week Auburn and Texas A&M or Syracuse and Pittsburgh? Thought so. The rest of the country agrees with you.

The timing is not optimal and as Brad pointed out ESPN has cut staff and they also broadcast basketball games with announcers in a studio instead of on site to save pennies in order to pay the SEC teams 10s of millions.

One thing I do know though, is ACC teams can’t continue to be paid $12 million year a less than their competition and survive long term.

Maybe not tomorrow or next week or next month or even next year, but make no mistake about it the ACCs days as a relevant football conference are numbered.

I was against the Big 12 move that was rumored a few years back (baseball road trips to Lubbock, Texas and Manhattan, Kansas?), thought the semi-deal with Notre Dame was a good thing (try to get 80,000 fans to show up in a hurricane for any other team, I dare you) and believe Louisville was a nice addition (good football, championship basketball, top 10 baseball). I’m not someone who thinks every Swofford move is a disaster.

On the other hand, Swofford and crew brought us Pittsburgh and Syracuse football while the SEC was grabbing Texas A&M and Missouri.

There was a time when Swofford and the ACC had an opportunity but couldn’t get it done for whatever reason and in today’s world not getting an ACC network (or equivalent TV deal) is a conference killer.

Mandel’s vision or some version of it may come true or perhaps the ACC turns into the Big East Part II and acknowledges it’s a basketball conference that happens to have a couple of good football teams.

It’ll be a long good bye because guys like Swofford hang on, tell you everything’s OK, ask for patience and understanding and tell you a network will happen when the “time is right” or the “fit” is right.

For some reason the “Remain calm, all is well” scene from Animal House with Swofford as Chip Diller runs through my head when I think of Swofford’s “leadership” on this issue.

Hey, John? The time was right about 5 years ago.

Opinion: Monte Lee right man, Clemson will be back in Omaha

In 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Elvis was inducted into the army, a B-47 accidentally dropped an atom bomb on Mars Bluff, South Carolina and Bill Wilhelm coached his first baseball game at Clemson.

Thirty-six years, 1,161 wins, 17 ACC titles and 6 College World Series (CWS) appearances later Wilhelm handed the keys to Jack Leggett, who remained in the position for the next 22 seasons and racked up 955 wins and 5 CWS appearances of his own.

When the first pitch is thrown on February 19th the Clemson Tigers will open the college baseball season with a different head coach for only the third time in 59 seasons and 2,897 games.

This is not a program that takes change lightly.

Yet, a change was needed.

Since reaching the brink of a College World Series final in 2010, Clemson began a slow backslide that saw the Tigers fail to get out of a regional 5 consecutive seasons, culminating in being eliminated in 2 games in both 2014 and 2015.

There’s an old saying that goes, “You never stay the same, you’re either getting better or getting worse.”  It’s clear the Tigers weren’t getting better.

More than numbers though, a malaise seemed to surround the program and fan base.  Fans that once expected occasional trips to Omaha and certainly Super Regional births, slowly, but surely settled for hosting a Regional and then just making the tournament.

Fans that once expected to win, now just hoped to win.

As we’ve seen in many programs and in many sports, it would have been easy to retain the Hall of Fame coach that made the playoffs (or March Madness or Bowl Game, etc.).  It’s more difficult and uncomfortable to make a change  when the program is listing, but not yet at the bottom of the sea.

An old joke about change may fit here. “I’m all for change as long as it doesn’t affect me.”  That applies to a lot of Clemson baseball fans, too.

Making a change, recognizing that not everyone is going to be happy with that change and being willing to put your name and reputation on the line when it would be easier to remain with the status quo takes leadership and vision.

By all accounts Monte Lee is the man to lead Clemson baseball into the future.  Young, but experienced. A players coach whose former players rave about and recruits flock to, aggressive, enthusiastic and focused.

Lee seems to check all the boxes and has the pieces that need to be fit together to make the the Tigers relevant again. He has support from the administration up to the president, new and improved facilities, top notch assistants and most of all, he has Clemson University.

There will be hurdles, both on the field and in the heart of some fans.  The first comment heard after the Tigers were picked 5th in their division was, “Did that ever happen under Jack?”  As if being picked 5th before he’s ever coached a game was somehow Lee’s fault.  There will be doubters, those that don’t like change or had an “in” with the previous staff.

Make no mistake, it won’t be easy and this team will be a work in progress.  What you see in 2016 is not what you’ll see in 2017 and beyond.  While the team has some bats, it appears the pitching will be young and inexperienced and even Lee is not sure what to expect in the field.

Yet, there’s a different feel around the program, something in the air.  Optimism and hope.  Anticipation and excitement and perhaps a little curiosity.  After all, a new coach for Clemson baseball happens only slightly more frequently than Halley’s Comet appears, or so it seems.

In a few days the season will begin with a lot of unknowns and open ended questions that may take a while to answer and it may not end with a Regional.

On the other hand, if Clemson fans show patience, give Lee time and support through the growing pains ahead the Tigers will return to Omaha sooner rather than later.   

Friday Night Lights is a Bad Look for ACC Football

Before branding me as an old man screaming “Get off my lawn!”, hear me out.  Clemson playing Boston College on a Friday night doesn’t effect me personally in the least.  I don’t have to change travel plans, my kid doesn’t play high school football, I don’t go to bars, I’m not going to miss work or school or any of the other myriad of things that people do on a Friday night.

On the contrary, it actually benefits me. A Friday night game enables me to get game related work done, either late that evening, or, more likely, early Saturday before the real conferences take the field at noon eastern.

So, this is not personal.  It’s practical and its common sense.  If you want to be a major conference in football, act like a major conference in football.

During my brief Twitter rant on Tuesday afternoon, my buddy Brandon Rink at pointed out that Michigan State, Baylor, Stanford and Southern Cal all played on Friday nights last season.  Along with the AAC, Mountain West, BYU and other “Group of 5” teams.

Brandon was correct of course, but the Michigan State and Baylor Friday games were season openers (and non-conference), which makes it slightly different in my mind.  Stanford and Southern Cal play in a conference that routinely struggles to get media attention outside of the Pacific Standard time zone and generally plays on a channel that few can find off the top of their head, so it makes sense that they would try whatever they could to attract attention and play a stand-alone game.

Not only is Clemson playing a Friday night game, but Florida State is playing a Friday night home game, which begs the question how long till Clemson is forced to play a Friday night home game? If ESPN and the ACC can force Florida State to play a home game on Friday, they can force Clemson to play a Friday night home game.

Teams of Clemson and Florida State’s stature typically have 7 home games a year.  Seven days to bring in recruits (who typically play games on Friday night, by the way), seven times for fans to tailgate and congregate and enjoy the atmosphere of college football on campus.  Florida State now has 6.  Clemson’s time is coming.

The bigger issue to me, bigger than losing a Saturday game, hosting recruits and perhaps some attendance, is the message it sends to the rest of college football world. Bush League, Minor League, irrelevant, a joke. Take your choice or come up with one of your own.

One Friday ACC game in 2015 turns into 5 this year.  Watch out Swoffy, in a few years the entire ACC schedule might be played on Thursday and Friday, leaving Saturday clear for the properties that ESPN really cares about.

Make no mistake, ESPN owns the ACC.  That didn’t happen with the release of the 2016 schedule, but we sure were reminded of it Tuesday.  In a big way.  ESPN wanted college football on Friday.  ESPN wanted Clemson and Florida State on Friday. ESPN got what they wanted.

Spare me the “nobody would watch it on Saturday” line.  In 2015 Clemson vs. Boston College was good enough for prime time on Saturday, but 2016 Clemson vs. Boston College is relegated to a Friday night “so more people will watch”.

Spare me the “more people will watch it” spiel.  Sure, a few people will trip over the game while flipping through the channels and tune in.  But nobody, outside of Clemson and Boston College fans, in the key demographic for college football viewership (young males) are going to change their Friday night plans to watch the Tigers and Eagles.  Ludicrous.  “Sorry babe, we can’t go out tonight, Clemson and Boston College are on!” Stupid.  “No son, can’t take you to the father/son movie we talked about tonight, the Tigers and Eagles are about to duel!” Ridiculous.

An ACC team won a national championship after the 2013 season and another played for one two weeks ago.  The ACC has had a Heisman Trophy winner, an Outland Trophy winner, oodles of high draft picks and star players all over the field in the last 3 seasons.

And the ACC is treated like the WAC by ESPN.

Maybe it’s part of the contract, maybe it’s Swofford’s master marketing plan.  Either way it’s a horrible look for the conference.

Is Alabama playing on Friday?  That would be a sure way to increase viewership.  Clemson’s not at Alabama’s level you say? How about Vanderbilt or Kentucky, are they playing on Friday?  You get my point.

ESPN and Swofford have decided the two high profile teams should each lose being part of a Saturday of non-stop college football games, highlights and replays of about 16 hours and relegate them to being an afterthought barely mentioned after the Friday news cycle. Brilliant.

Playing on Friday night damages the conference’s reputation and the Clemson and Florida State brands.  The two institutions should be outraged.

Swofford talks a big game about the ACC being a power conference and deserving of being viewed as such, but his actions speak much louder than his words.

His actions scream the ACC is a sideshow not worthy of better time slots – or any time slot on Saturday – you know, the day that the big boys of college football typically play.

Swofford has two marquee teams, a recent national champion with a national brand and another that spent the last 4 months on the cover of Sports Illustrated, leading off SportsCenter and has become perhaps the fastest growing brand in college football.

Their reward? Each gets to play on a Friday night with the dregs of college football.


Respect for Clemson was hard earned, but could easily be lost

The morning after Clemson’s loss to Alabama I woke to something I hadn’t felt in a long time: Clemson football had earned the respect of the College Football World. Except for college football’s lunatic fringe, the Tigers were almost universally praised for their performance in Phoenix.

As I tweeted at the time, it’s incredibly ironic that Clemson earned respect for a game they ultimately lost and not for the 14 in a row they won and that speaks volumes on how different college football teams are viewed nationally.

Post CG Tweet

The Tigers will begin the 2016 season at or near the top of the rankings with the requisite publicity accompanying the lofty ranking. Players will be named to preseason All-Conference, All-American and all of 73 “watch lists”.

There are teams across college football that get the benefit of the doubt. Teams like Stanford, who lost twice as 10 point favorites in 2015, yet somehow remained in discussion for the college football playoff up to the end. Or Oklahoma, Clemson’s trash-talking playoff opponent, that lost to a 5-7 Texas team as a 16 point favorite, beat every team with a backup quarterback and played no conference championship game, yet was awarded a playoff spot, which in retrospect looks suspect at best.

Clemson won’t get those advantages despite their 2015 season and the post championship game respect bestowed upon them. One loss likely dooms the 2016 Tigers playoff hopes.

If that loss comes in the opener at Auburn the respect that was so hard earned slowly and incrementally over the last 4 years will disappear into thin air. The masses will utter worn out catchphrases so as to not tax their brains with analysis and turn their attention to the next big thing or, more likely, to the Stanfords and Oklahomas that continuously underperform and are rewarded handsomely for doing so.

College football is a “what have you done for me lately” proposition, at least for most teams. There are teams that can lose repeatedly as favorites, deflect those losses like Teflon and “impress” with 50 point wins over undermanned teams and end up in the playoff because of their name, coach or conference.

Clemson isn’t one of them.

Tigers Tampa hopes begin and end with Deshaun Watson

Every team that plays for a championship and comes up short of the title believes they’ll be back.  They are almost always wrong.  A championship season takes an incredible confluence of coaching, talent, luck and karma to win the title.  Like almost every team before them the Clemson Tigers believe they’ll be back, though there is some skepticism, even among the Tiger faithful.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if the Tigers will, in fact, be in Tampa next January.  There’s more than 200 days between now and opening day of 2016 and, as last off-season showed, a lot can happen between now and then.

But there’s reason to believe that Clemson has a fair shot at returning in 2016 and here are a few:

Deshaun Watson
The day after the championship game was an eye opener for me and proved that a lot of the talking heads around the country don’t watch the games, not even the ones played by the team that hold the top ranking.  “Wow, Deshaun Watson is good!” was the consensus.  Clemson fans and those that actually watched the games knew Watson was special and it didn’t start in 2015. The second pass of his college career zipped by the ear hole of a Georgia LB for a touchdown.

My deep analysis for the championship game was, “Clemson has Deshaun Watson”.  That goes for 2016, too.

Dabo Swinney
Swinney is a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing Swinney is not is complacent, even with his team placing ahead of 126 others.  He will not rest on his laurels.  He will not let his team rest on their laurels.  If it’s true that a team takes on the personality of the head coach, the Tigers will want it more in 2016 than they did in 2015.

Turnover Turnaround 
Each season Phil Steele opines on turnovers and how a major component of turnovers are luck and how generally, if you are bad at turnovers one season you’ll be better at them the next year.  It’s obviously not a scientific certainty, but the theory is that some of the bad luck of the previous season tends to shift to good luck the next season. That’s bad news for the rest of college football because the Tigers were bad at turnovers during their run to the title game coming in at -2 in 6 games.  In full disclosure Clemson wasn’t bad at turnovers in “big” games, but in games that were closer than expected the Tigers stunk at turnovers.

Expect fewer turnovers for Clemson and more blowouts in 2016.

Mike Williams
All year we heard about teams playing without their best wide receiver or other injured star, yet little was made by the national media of Mike Williams’ injury that cost him all but 12 plays of the 2015 season.  Deshaun Watson threw for 4,100 yards and 35 touchdowns without his best wide receiver and deep threat. Let that rattle around in your noggin for a while.

Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster
Wayne Gallman had a breakout season, breaking the Clemson single season rushing record and runs with a passion and violent streak rarely seen in college football.  Gallman and Watson shouldered almost all of the load on the ground.  2016 will see the return of Adam Choice and the debut of 5-Star back Tavien Feaster.  Maybe Watson will carry the ball less and Ed Cunningham will be at a loss for words.  I doubt it.  Either way the addition of these two will make the Clemson running game even more dangerous, which in turn makes Watson….even more dangerous.

Front 7 on D
Is it possible that the front 7 can be a strength when Clemson loses Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd D.J. Reader and B.J. Goodson? Christian Wilkins, Scott Pagano, Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin, Albert Huggins and 2015 redshirt Clelin Ferrell, among others, say yes. Already on campus are three 5 star talents:  Rivals #2 overall recruit Dexter Lawrence (DT) and #6 recruit Rahshaun Smith (LB) and Tre Lamar Rivals #16 recruit (LB).  The Tigers will be younger, but an argument could be made that the overall talent level will be similar, if not better.

Losing the bookend defensive ends is a hit, but the interior will be solid and the talent and depth at linebacker will be solid.

Addition by Subtraction
There is no doubt the Tigers will miss the cover skills of Mackensie Alexander and also lose safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse from the defensive backfield.  That’s 3/4ths of a group compiled a very stingy pass completion ratio.  The problem was when a pass was completed it often went for big yards. This group took chances, which worked out spectacularly for Clemson at times and horribly at other times.  This likely means that in 2016 the completion percentage may increase, but I expect fewer big plays against the defense.

None of this, of course, guarantees a return to the title game for Clemson.  Road trips to Auburn, Tallahassee and Atlanta await, as do home games with Louisville, Pittsburgh and N.C. State.

Plenty could change between now and and next January and even if it doesn’t, chemistry is a huge variable in the evolution of a team and college football is the greatest reality show on TV.  Just ask Ohio State.

The cupboard isn’t bare, not by a long shot.  This is closer to a reload, not a rebuild, but only 2 teams will make it to Tampa.

And the Tigers have Deshaun Watson.

Defining Season for Leggett & Clemson Baseball

Editor’s Note: This page contains occasional opinion pieces on a variety of topics that are of interest to the author.

2015 is as an important, perhaps legacy defining, season for Jack Leggett at Clemson.

After nearly climbing the mountaintop in 2010 the Tigers have disappointed the last 4 postseasons and had a string of trips to Omaha every four years snapped, not to mention the embarrassment of last year’s regional in Nashville.

At the end of the 2014 season many Tiger fans felt the time was right for a change. The team had grown stale and underperformed for a team that entered the season ranked 13th and brought back a solid nucleus of players including several that are now playing professionally.

One of the most difficult decisions an athletic director has to make is to determine when it’s time to make a change when the current coach is a well-respected Hall of Famer who has over two decades on the job.  Firing a guy four years into his first job is different than firing a coach 21 years into it with a Hall of Fame plaque with his name on it.

There’s no easy answer as loyalists point to past accomplishments, some more distant than others, or the next recruiting class that will be disrupted if a change is made.  Some even go with more opaque reasons such as “class” and “loyalty”.

Those in the other camp point to embarrassing losses to Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Oregon and Xavier, the latter two in the regional, as evidence that something needed to change.

It hasn’t helped Leggett that Clemson fans saw back to back National Championships in Columbia, not to mention series domination by the Gamecocks in recent history.  No longer being a national power is one thing.  Not being a national power while your in-state rival wins 2 national championships and dominates you on the field is another.

Change shouldn’t be made for the sake of change.  It should be made when it’s apparent that a team isn’t progressing, playing to the expected standard, appears to underperform consistently and there’s not an acceptable plan to fix the issues.

The college athletics landscape is littered with once proud programs in various sports that made a change because of some need, whether real or perceived, and ousted a long time, successful, coach in favor of change only to find out the grass is not always greener.  Decades have been lost trying to get back to the level at which the “legend” was fired.

On the flip side, letting past accomplishments obscure the current malaise can also set a program back years as other teams fill the void with facilities, recruiting and on field performance.

Once lost, momentum is a difficult thing to regain and rarely does a coach recapture the fan base once the relationship begins to decline.

It’s not always a simple equation of wins and losses, Super Regionals and CWS appearances when making decisions of this type, especially for a non-revenue sport, and many factors were weighed in the decision to bring Leggett back.

The players support their coach and I expected nothing less than loyalty to the man that decided he wanted them on his team.  That’s an admirable quality.

Dan Radakovich opted for cosmetic changes versus the overhaul many feel necessary. Time will tell if that was the correct decision, but come opening day when the Tigers run out to their positions Clemson baseball fans will cheer, pull for the Tigers and hope they win.

Not long ago they expected to win.

Tigers on precipice, next two years huge for long term success

Editor’s Note: This page contains occasional opinion pieces on a variety of topics that are of interest to the author.

Six plus years into his tenure Dabo Swinney has the Clemson Tigers on solid footing.  The last four years have seen 42 wins and 11 losses, an ACC Championship and consecutive bowl victories over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Swinney has pretty much nuked the ACC teams north of Clemson going a combined 33-4 against the North Carolina and Virginia teams, Boston College, Maryland and Syracuse while struggling against those to the south with a combined 6-11 record against Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami.

After breaking through in 2011 to win their first ACC title in over 20 years the Tigers have remained remarkably consistent over the last 3 years – 11-2, 11-2, 10-3  – and now celebrate their fourth consecutive 10 win season.

There have been bumps along the way for sure as Swinney has learned to be a head coach and lead on the fly. Losses to Georgia Tech and West Virginia in 2011 were embarrassing and put a damper on the long-awaited conference title. Five consecutive losses to South Carolina and imploding against Florida State in Death Valley in 2013 led many to question their belief in Swinney.

Overall though, when Swinney takes stock of what’s been accomplished and the fashion in which it’s been accomplished he’s right to be proud, as are most Clemson students, alumni, supporters and administrators.

There’s no doubt that Swinney has grown as a coach and administrator in the last six seasons, but there are truths to big time college football in today’s world of monster salaries and massive budgets.  It’s not enough to be consistent, if consistent doesn’t mean conference championships, major bowl wins and now playoff appearances.

Swinney isn’t just a coach, he’s also a salesman.  He sold himself to most Clemson fans, including me, at his introductory press conference.  He sold or helped sell C.J. Spiller, Tajh Boyd, Nuk Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mackenzie Alexander to name a few.

He’s also sold hope and patience to the Clemson faithful.

Sooner rather than later second place in the ACC Atlantic and Russell Athletic Bowl type wins won’t be enough.

Gruden Quote

There was a time when Clemson fans wanted Swinney to “just win the games we’re supposed to win”.  He’s done that as almost every D-1A team losing at least once and combining for 300 losses as favorites in between Clemson losses when favored.

There will come a point where that’s not enough.  At some point the dynamics and momentum changes and a tipping point happens.  The Tigers have playmakers and momentum, but how long will that last without conference titles and playoff appearances?

The next two years are important for the long term success of Clemson football.  An offense littered with real and potential superstars awaits co-offensive coordinator and play caller Tony Elliot in 2015, while the defense needs some rebuilding.

Are there questions that need to be answered before Wofford rolls into Death Valley next September 5? Absolutely.  There always are and always will be, but without the next step being taken the Tigers risk a tipping point in the wrong direction. A division and conference title are a must. A playoff appearance is highly preferable.  In 2015 both Florida State and Georgia Tech, two of the most recent biggest stumbling blocks, visit Death Valley.

At the end of 2016 Swinney will have been at Clemson for 8 full seasons.  At some point the building has to be complete or supporters will only see a lack of progress.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that two more 11-2 or 10-3 type seasons without a championship will be seen as a failure.  Those of us who have lived long enough to see the peaks and valleys that a team goes through over time understand that cycles occur for every team.  We enjoy the seasons like the one just past more than most.

That doesn’t change the fact that two years from now supporters will be looking for something more than a second place finish in the ACC Atlantic and a win in a mid-level bowl game over an underperforming team.  Hope and patience becomes a more difficult sell when there aren’t multiple championship trophies and perhaps a playoff appearance.

Swinney has set the bar high, higher than many believed possible in 2008 and he deserves credit for that.  The Tigers have climbed many hills in the last six years under Swinney’s lead and the last four have been a fun ride.

Now it’s time for the next step and the next step involves eliminating the remaining obstacles that have prevented this team from reaching the top of the college football world.

The next two seasons will tell us a lot about the future of Clemson football.   By the end of 2016 we’ll know if the Tigers have already peaked short of the summit and are enjoying the view before heading back down the mountain or if the summit still awaits.