By Scott Rhymer
I love Clemson University and Clemson football.
I hate losing.
I hate losing far away from home when it costs a good amount of money to go to the game.
I hate losing far away from home in a bowl game where we are in the eyes of so many people.
I hate losing far way from home in a bowl game when we get our brains beat in.
But the reality is we did lose, our brains beaten in. Far away from home and while the nation watched it.
Almost 10 months ago, I stated in writings and on the radio that it was time to have a very singular focus. That singular focus was to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship, something we had not done at Clemson in almost 20 years.
Every ounce of fluff that surrounds a football season, finally, became irrelevant to me. Winning some big games and going to nice bowl games was something that we had done many times since 1991. And while I suppose I should be appreciative of that considering some schools don’t earn that type of success on the football field, I was not satisfied.
I wanted a championship. End of discussion.
I think our entire program felt very much like I did 10 months ago. The albatross around the neck of this program for James Barker, Terry Don Phillips, the Athletic Department, Dabo Swinney, and all of our players was the elusive ACC Championship.
What we wanted was a title. That title, we said, would be a dignifying moment for this program that would ring in our return to dominance (or at least relevance) in the ACC and on the national football arena.
Decisions were made last offseason with the singular purpose being to not accept mediocrity, but to demand championships. We signed a recruiting class that we said was not to be good, but that needed to be great. And we played a football season with the idea that success would only be determined by winning a championship.
And we did it. We got what we wanted.
Then we found it wasn’t what we wanted.
On either end of our ACC Championship we had a humbling loss to our rival and a humiliating defeat in the Orange Bowl. Neither of those two had anything to do with the original goal, to win an ACC Championship. Neither of those two games factored into all the coaching decisions we made last offseason. Neither of those two games were written about in preseason blogs by me or others that follow Clemson football. Those two games (or events) were not a part of winning a championship and, therefore, were not part of our singular focus.
But both of those losses have now defined the 2011 season.
When I mapped out an expectation of this season, my tunnel vision was focused squarely on the ACC Title. I did not add strings to that. An ACC Title was it…the Grand Poobah. Getting blitzed by South Carolina and West Virginia never really factored into my thought. Now, in hindsight, I realize it that thought process was a bit shortsighted.
A good season of beating South Carolina and winning a bowl game but falling short of an ACC Title leaves a omnipresence emptiness to the season. We know that because that has been our existence for most of the past 20 years of Clemson football.
We have also learned a hard lesson this year, even if it was not a part of our thought process 10 months ago when we set forth our goals for the 2011 season. Winning an ACC Championship but having a couple of embarrassing losses to the Gamecocks and in a bowl game leaves a similar sense of emptiness of not winning the title at all. Similar, but not equal.
You should know and understand that I don’t care about our “national perception”. What people say on the outside is beyond control. Many of the college football fans that took joy in watching our dismantling in Miami were sitting at home with their teams playing the 2011 season without winning a title and participating in a mid level bowl game that nobody in the world cared about. To be honest, I spent the better part of 20 years poking fun at conference championship teams that fell flat in a BCS bowl game just like those are dong to us now. And because I have been on both sides of that joke, I now realize that it is more pathetic to laugh at someone who accomplished more than you did in a football season, specifically winning a championship. Let those that did not earn a championship snicker all they want to.
I also don’t believe in belittling the ACC Title by saying that the ACC is a 3rd rate football conference. The ACC today is no worse than it has ever been, and I could argue with data that it is better than at any time in the history of the conference. To diminish the ACC Title by saying the ACC is not a good conference would be diminishing Florida State’s success in the ’90’s and Clemson’s success in the ‘80’s and Maryland’s success in the ‘70’s. Those runs by those programs were no less impressive then than anyone that is able to do it now.
I also don’t care what the South Carolina Gamecocks think or say about us. They have a nice run against us going right now…a run that we have compiled many times over the course of our program’s history. The run they have right now on us is just as hollow as many of our runs over them. Their wins each of the past three years against us have served as a solace to their fans for not winning anything significant…meaning a championship. I know that to be pathetic, mainly because I have been in their shoes and now see how petty that looks now that we have a championship on our belt.
What I care about is Clemson University and the Clemson football program doing something significant. And what I thought was a singular vision on the road to that significance is really not that simplistic or that easy to quantify. What I thought was the goal was really just another step.
Winning an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship was a hump that needed to be overcome. But it is not the last hump between mediocrity and a National Championship. There is another step that needs to be taken…a step I did not know existed 10 months ago.
Having lived through it, I now believe there are four dimensions to a football program instead of three.
The first dimension was to waddle through average seasons and a pitiful bowl game (or no bowl game). See Clemson the past 19 years for examples of this.
The second dimension, which I thought was the next stop to a National Championship opportunity, was to win an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. That is why several coaches lost their job last year…because we were fed up with not winning the title and changes needed to be made. At the time, I thought this was the place we were searching for.
But the new third dimension is winning an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in conjunction to winning the secondary goals (State Championship and Bowl Game).
And, of course, the final dimension is to win the National Championship.
We won a conference championship. That is what we wanted. Until we found it that is not what we wanted. What we want is relevance and respect and a complete sense of pride for a football season. Winning a championship gets you closer to that level, but it does not get you there all the way.
There is another step between winning a conference championship and winning the National Championship. And that needs to be our singular goal for 2012. And the decisions that are made in the next few weeks need to be made to ensure that we move towards accomplishing that next dimension.
Then, when we get what we want, it will be what we really wanted.
Scott Rhymer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org