Clemson’s Path to National Dominance, and How Virginia Tech Can Attempt to Follow

The scheduling changes of 2020 are once again giving Virginia Tech visions of what could be.

The Hokies are hosting Clemson this Saturday, the second time the Tigers have traveled to Blacksburg in Justin Fuente‘s tenure as head coach. In 2017, Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tigers showed Fuente just how far he had to go in order to get Virginia Tech on a nationally relevant level, winning 31-17 in a game that wasn’t that close.

This time around, Fuente is even further from that level. And even though Clemson is likely to exorcise Virginia Tech into the shadow realm on ESPN in primetime, it could serve as a blueprint for how Virginia Tech can restore their brand.

Returning to glory

Clemson is a proud football program. They have a storied football tradition and peaked (or so we thought) in the 1980s with a national championship under head coach Danny Ford, a former Virginia Tech assistant.

Ford’s teams bookended the decade with stretches of dominance, winning nine or more games in six different seasons. Ford’s Tigers won five ACC Championships and might have won more, had Ford’s alleged recruiting missteps not come to light.

When Ford resigned after the 1989 season, Clemson in turn resigned themselves to “just good enough.” The Tigers made a bunch of bowl games but didn’t win the conference from 1992 to 2011. By the Clemson standard, it was subpar.

That all changed with the hiring of Swinney, who assumed the head coaching role on an interim basis midway through the 2008 season. Swinney was the receivers coach at the time and by 2011, Swinney had coached his team to a conference championship. Fast forward to the present, and Swinney’s won six conference championships with a seventh possibly coming in December.

Growing your own talent

As notable of a program as Clemson was when Swinney took over as head whistle, the Tigers were not a dominant force on the recruiting trail. Clemson placed 16th and 12th in Rivals’ team rankings in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

The Class of 2009 wasn’t great either, as Clemson placed 37th. In fact, Swinney’s classes didn’t break into Rivals’ top-10 until 2011, the year his Tigers captured the ACC crown. Swinney’s early success derived from elite coaching and player development.

The Tigers’ leading rusher in 2011, Andre Ellington, was a four-star prospect in the 2008 class and his only other offers were Kentucky, Maryland and South Carolina. Clemson’s second-leading receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was barely a top-150 prospect. The Tigers’ top three tacklers in 2011 were all three-star prospects or lower.

Obviously, the Tigers had a couple of known studs that were elite-level recruits. Tahj Boyd was one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the country and Sammy Watkins was a five-star freshman in 2011. But the core of Swinney’s early success came from developed players.

Clemson’s trend of solid recruiting continued for most of the decade. Here’s how the Tigers ranked in 247Sports’ Composite rating, which was becoming the industry standard around that time.

  • 2012: 20th overall, 3rd in ACC
  • 2013: 15th overall, 3rd in ACC
  • 2014: 16th overall, 3rd in ACC
  • 2015: 9th overall, 2nd in ACC
  • 2016: 11th overall, 2nd in ACC
  • 2017: 16th overall, 3rd in ACC

By this point, Clemson had established themselves as a competitor on the national stage. Clemson won 10 games in 2011 and hasn’t won less than 10 games since then. The Tigers won another ACC Championship in 2015, later losing in the College Football Playoff final. It wasn’t until the 2018 class, when Clemson signed five five-star recruits, that the Tigers began competing with Ohio State and Alabama for the nation’s best class.

Investing in the business

Whilst Swinney was working magic in the weight room and on the field, the administration was building on his on-field successes to gather more resources. The financial boost came shortly after Swinney’s on-field success.

In 2009, Clemson’s athletic expenses were $61.8 million. After the Tigers’ conference championship in 2011, Clemson’s athletic budget grew to $67.8 million. By 2015, the Tigers’ budget was more than $82.8 million and as of 2018, their budget was just shy of $119 million.

Look closer at the numbers and you’ll see that investing in the football program was the driving factor. In 2009, Clemson allocated $19.4 million for football-specific spending. By 2018, that number had exploded to over $46 million. Once in line with the median ACC spending level, Clemson soon left the rest of the conference in the dust.

Data and table courtesy of the College Athletics Financial Information Database, a project of Knight Foundation.

Football coaching salaries at Clemson were below the ACC median until 2012. Since then, the Tigers have been at the forefront of the increase in coaching salaries. The Tigers increased their football salaries by $11.7 million from 2009-2018.

Data and table courtesy of the College Athletics Financial Information Database, a project of Knight Foundation.

It’s important to note that Clemson hasn’t just thrown money at the football program, expecting it to magically get better. They’ve made sound investments. Raising assistant salaries to keep coveted coordinators like Tony Elliot and Brent Venables around helps the program in numerous ways. Investing $55 million into a state-of-the-art football facility goes a long way, not paying three head basketball coaches like Virginia Tech did in Buzz Williams’ first season.

Closing the financial divide

Virginia Tech is at a financial disadvantage, relative to the teams they are competing to topple from the college football hierarchy.

Going back to 2018-19, which is the latest data available in USA Today’s NCAA Finances database, Virginia Tech ranked 42nd in athletic revenue. Sure, the Hokies brought in more revenue than programs like Oklahoma State, NC State and California, but they brought in less money than Penn State, Florida State, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia — all regional competitors.

That lack of revenue translates directly into a gap in football funding.

Data and table courtesy of the College Athletics Financial Information Database, a project of Knight Foundation.

Virginia Tech not only trails Clemson by almost $14 million in football spending, but they trail the median numbers from both the SEC and Big Ten.  Florida State, Ohio State and Penn State were included for context.

The gap is present in coaches’ salaries, too.

Data and table courtesy of the College Athletics Financial Information Database, a project of Knight Foundation.

Virginia Tech has made efforts to increase funding for assistant coaches and support staff in recent years, but they are still well behind programs they are trying to beat on the field. Once again, Virginia Tech is trailing the median in both the SEC and Big Ten when it comes to coaching salaries.

These funding gaps put Virginia Tech behind the 8-ball. It affects recruiting, coaching, ability to attract future donors and ultimately, winning. This discrepancy in financial resources shows clearly on the football field.

Finding Virginia Tech’s Dabo

Of course, these gaps can be made up for in different areas. That’s the route Clemson took with Swinney, and it’s likely the road Virginia Tech will have to take if they are to reemerge as a football powerhouse.

Swinney has a high football IQ, but it’s his intangibles that set him apart. Swinney has a rare ability to rouse young men into a frenzy, getting them to play for another and to work together. His teams have almost always been greater than the sum of their parts — a true sign of a coach’s value.

Virginia Tech fans are familiar with that ability. Frank Beamer regularly scared the living daylights out of elite programs with two and three-star prospects that had developed into legit studs on the field. Beamer’s teams punched above their weight class, even if they did lose a lot of contests against heavyweights.

Heck, Fuente showed some of that ability in 2016. He inherited a roster that was fresh off a 7-6 season and turned them into ACC Coastal Champions. After losing many of their contributors from 2016, Fuente engineered a nine-win season in 2017.

Fuente’s teams have been less than the sum of their parts since then, a deficiency Virginia Tech cannot afford. Programs that are lacking in resources, infrastructure and overall talent need a magician who can whip up a kick-ass concoction with so-so ingredients. Swinney has done that for years, and the Hokies need someone in that mold.

It starts with the head coach

For Virginia Tech, the quickest and most likely path back to football glory is to find a head coach who can create something worth more than the parts he starts with. They need a master CEO capable of getting players to reach their potential more often than not.

The Hokies cannot expect to recruit at an elite-level without a strong track record of winning. Even then, there are inherent obstacles to recruiting in Blacksburg — the weather is cold, the beach is far away, the town is small and it’s far from Virginia’s population centers.

With that said, a coach’s ability to develop talent and build a strong culture are keys when Virginia Tech makes a move away from Fuente. It’s going to happen — the question is only when. And when it does, attempting to follow the Clemson route is the Hokies’ best shot at revival.

One thought on “Clemson’s Path to National Dominance, and How Virginia Tech Can Attempt to Follow”

  1. No. 3 Clemson can clinch an ACC Championship Game berth with a win over Virginia Tech. However, that’s far from the only thing on the line for both of these teams. The ACC is showcasing many meaningless games over the course of the next three weeks in an attempt to make up several postponed games in the pandemic era.

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