The stakes change when coaching a major Division I program.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows full well what can happen in the coaching community in a short span in a BCS conference without the necessary results.
“I was hired December 1 of ’08,” Swinney said. “May of ’09, Bobby Bowden is sitting in there and I’m last from a tenure standpoint, and now I’m fifth (in tenure) in four years.”
By 2010, Bowden made way for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, while Virginia brought an end to the Al Groh era and hired current coach Mike London from Richmond.
The next year, Maryland, Miami and then North Carolina all made moves.
Last season, UNC settled on a permanent replacement for Butch Davis in Larry Fedora and then N.C. State (Dave Doeren) and Boston College (Steve Addazio) made moves for ’13.
Going into his fifth full season, Swinney trails just Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe (13 years), Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer (nine years), Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson (six years) and Duke’s David Cutcliffe (six years).
Finding his place in that group isn’t easy for the Tigers’ head man.
“(That’s) four very established and very proven consistently winning type of people,” Swinney said. “It’s a scary, humbling thing when you look at it from that perspective. It’s a volatile field. I don’t focus on that and just try to focus on the best I can do.”
His best has been pretty good so far.
The Tigers have owned at least a share of the Atlantic Division crown three of his four seasons — topped by the school’s first ACC Championship in 20 years back in 2011.
Last season, Clemson put together back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1989-90.
Clemson is 16-2 at home in conference play under Swinney, which ranks second all-time by winning percentage in the ACC (.889). That trails only former Tiger coach Ken Hatfield (.893, 12-1-1).
Preseason ACC favorites with a pair of bona fide Heisman contenders, the usual expectations for a storied program like Clemson have been raised.
Swinney says the key behind the success is staying on edge.
“You have to constantly reinvent so that you don’t plateau. So that you don’t decline,” he said. “You just consistently keep getting better. That’s the mentality of the best of the best. Always striving to be better. I hope that as long as I’m here we’re always striving to be better.
“I hope that will resonate to the coaches and the staff because that’s what it takes to be consistently great.”
The roles have certainly reversed from his predecessor Tommy Bowden, but that’s not all been a good thing.
Bowden failed to grab even a share of a division title in 10 seasons, but he kept the locals happy in one key area: beating South Carolina in seven of nine matchups.
To close 2008 as an interim coach, the Clemson “birthright” seemed preserved as chants of Swinney’s name fell like the rain pouring that day in Death Valley to the tune of a 31-14 triumph over the Gamecocks.
Beating South Carolina, however, has turned out to be Swinney’s white whale. If it loses in Columbia come November, Clemson will own its first-ever five-game losing streak in a series stretching back to 1896. The games haven’t been close either — an 18-point average margin.
The overall series? Well, it’s still lopsided in favor of Clemson (65-41-4), but the winning percentage would see a 27-point drop from when Swinney started full-time with another defeat.
Clemson’s 2013 campaign is bookended by gigantic ACC-SEC clashes: at home versus Georgia and traveling to South Carolina. The next step — a step more and more in the vocabulary of Clemson’s staff and players — again reaching national championship glory.
Albeit a rough road to title site Pasadena, they can likely survive a loss to Georgia and stay in the conversation. The same can’t be said for a late-season loss down in Columbia, and that’s really the catch for this season.
Is it successful with a second ACC title in three seasons — and no victory over the rival? Of course it is, but it won’t necessarily feel like it.
The “volatile” college football world, as Swinney says, really keeps any coach on the precipice of two fronts.
If Swinney’s program can close with wins in Columbia and Charlotte, we’re talking the ushering of a new era in Clemson.
At the same time, combine another loss to South Carolina and falling short in the conference, and that’s a road unfriendly to any top-tier coach.
The Tigers haven’t closed a regular season with more than five wins a row since 1991, and that’s exactly what they need to join the elite.