10 years of Dabo's not-a-rivalry rant: Its legacy and mysteries
Why the rant happened the way it did and how subsequent events have changed its meaning.
It was not always so, but “Dabo Swinney rant” is now, in the dying embers of the year 2021, a search query that returns a rich bounty of results. One could while away the hours watching Dabo’s rant about the word “Clemsoning,” Dabo’s rant about allegations his players used racial slurs toward opponents, and Dabo’s astoundingly ahistorical rant about Martin Luther King.
As Clemson’s profile rose over the past decade, so did the news media’s interest in covering Clemson and, by extension, its coach. This rise coincided with increased attention to coach rants more broadly, aided in no small measure by the proliferation of streaming technology. Press conferences once existed mainly to provide fodder for the next day’s newspaper articles, but by the middle part of the last decade, that paradigm had changed. Media companies noticed that there was money to be made in quickly clipping and excerpting the most newsworthy quotes.
If a coach or player says something controversial during a press conference, it is common nowadays for a clip of his comments to appear on social media in a matter of minutes. A “trending news writer” will then embed the clip in an article and package it with an image and a headline that will set it up to generate engagement on Facebook and Twitter.
The end result looks something like this:
Nick Saban BLOWS UP on reporter who asks question about transfers
Nick Saban reacts to epic transfer portal rant going viral
10 times an epic Nick Saban rant went viral
But on Dec. 1, 2011, the infrastructure for creating and distributing such content was still in its infancy. In the hours immediately following Dabo’s post-practice media interview that day, reactions to his comments that day were contained to Twitter, message boards, and a couple of local sports radio shows still on the air into the early evening. Until TigerNet uploaded the full video clip a few hours later, USC and Clemson partisans had to subsist on the snippets of Dabo’s tirade that Tiger beat reporters managed to tweet out in the in the immediate aftermath.
The first five questions reporters had asked Dabo that day were utterly banal.
“How was practice this week?”
“How’s [injured left guard] Phillip Price?”
“[Another coach] said he was concerned with [Price’s] kickouts?”
“So who will start at left guard?”
“Any other injuries?”
Just as it seemed the press interaction was losing steam and Dabo might wrap things up, TigerNet reporter David Hood asked the question that launched a thousand tweets:
I wanted to ask you about — after the game this past Saturday, Steve Spurrier had a comment that said, “We ain’t Alabama, we ain’t LSU, but we ain’t Clemson.” In kind of a derogatory tone. I wondered if you had a comment on that.
From there, Dabo vaulted into a four-and-a-half minute soliloquy about Clemson’s historic superiority to South Carolina. This, even though the Gamecocks had just defeated Dabo’s Tigers for the third consecutive season. This, even though Clemson wasn’t scheduled to play South Carolina for another 360 days but was set to play in the ACC championship game in 48 hours. This, even though Steve Spurrier had not actually uttered the words that had caused Dabo to take offence.
Dabo’s rant became perhaps the most infamous moment in the history of the Carolina-Clemson football rivalry — even though it had nothing to do with the football rivalry and everything to do with Todd Ellis paraphrasing Steve Spurrier in a confusing way and South Carolina’s social media manager, consequently, misattributing Ellis’ ad lib to Spurrier himself.
“As Steve Spurrier says, ‘We may not be LSU, and we may not be Alabama.’ But we sure ain’t Clemson.”
Since you, the reader, can see where my interior quotations begin and end, it’s clear which parts were said by Ellis and which were said by Spurrier. But without this visual aid, it would have been much less clear to anyone listening to the radio broadcast — including, apparently, the USC social media manager. The way the quote came to Dabo’s attention was through a tweet from @GamecockFB, which read:
“We may not be Alabama, we may not be LSU. But we sure ain’t Clemson.” - Steve Spurrier.
The miscommunication was immediately diagnosed by the South Carolina beat.
The incident was a microcosm of the Spurrier-Swinney dynamic during USC’s five-year winning streak: Dabo flailing his arms impotently while Spurrier held him at a safe distance by extending his palm against Dabo’s forehead. The point was further driven home the next day when Spurrier brushed aside the controversy by saying, “Smart people don’t believe everything they hear, and they don’t believe hearsay … I guess Dabo believed it.”
Over the course of the next morning, Dabo became the subject of national ridicule. Even on TigerNet, opinion was split down the middle. Half of the commenters loved to hear Dabo saying words that sounded so much like the kinds of diatribes they themselves had authored on the message boards. Others noted that these comments would have felt much more satisfying were they not the punctuation mark on a three-game losing streak — and besides, shouldn’t Dabo be more worried about winning Clemson’s first ACC title in 20 years?
Why Dabo chose to say these words at this particular moment is not an unworthy question. And we should not foreclose the possibility that perhaps he was just reacting irrationally in a moment of genuine frustration. But to the extent that his actions might have been calculated in some way, it’s worth remembering the situation Dabo found himself in December 2011. After being promoted from interim head coach to full-time head coach, largely on the strength of beating South Carolina in 2008, Dabo had proceeded to drop three in a row to the Gamecocks. He’d also lost 12 games across his first two full seasons in charge. And after climbing as high as No. 6 n the AP poll in 2011, the Tigers dropped three of their last four regular season games, including defeats against unranked N.C. State and Georgia Tech.
One thing Dabo said, in particular, was especially revealing of his state of mind.
“After five years, I think [Spurrier] had 35 wins, I think — and a new contract and all that kind of stuff. You know, after five years, if I’ve got 35 wins there’s going to be a new coach at Clemson. And you know what, there should be. Because there’s a different standard.”
At that precise moment, Dabo had won 59 percent of his games at Clemson. Averaged out over a 12-game season, that’s seven wins a season. Across five years, that’s 35 wins. He was entering the offseason before his fifth season as Clemson’s head coach, and understood himself to be fighting for his job. Many Clemson fans had begun to worry, not without reason, that the decision to hire him in the first place was undertaken in a bout of overexuberance at having beaten South Carolina at the end of an otherwise unexceptional trial as interim head coach.
Set against that context, Dabo’s rant could be read as an attempt to save his job by rallying support among the most diehard Clemson fans. Among South Carolina fans, an even more conspiratorial notion took root: perhaps Dabo, or some agent of the Clemson athletics department acting on his behalf, planted the question that inspired the rant. Given the often too-chummy relationship between Clemson and the local media, it’s an accusation that people were primed to believe.
But what’s the actual evidence to support this conspiracy?
“Besides it being obvious from watching the video?” replied one friend I put the question to this week.
The argument in favor of the conspiracy is that Dabo’s answer seems so rehearsed. That he seems too prepared with arcane rivalry statistics for the outburst to have arisen organically. That it’s weird he should have waited to address this issue on a Thursday, five days after the alleged offense. That, despite himself not having Twitter, Dabo was asked a question about the content of a nearly week-old tweet and happened to already know exactly what it said.
The thing that I think persuades most people is the way he chides the reporter for asking the question in a way that doesn’t come across as terribly convincing. Dabo says, “It’s ridiculous that I’m getting asked about that on a Thursday before a championship game,” and then — instead of refusing to answer the question — recites a short essay on the topic. It recalls the moment in Anchorman when Fred Armisen’s character invites Ron Burgundy up on stage to perform at a jazz club. Even as Burgundy feigns embarrassment in front of his date and insists, “Honestly, I’m not prepared,” he pulls a flute out of the sleeve of his jacket, delivers precise instructions to the backing band, and performs a 90-second solo that culminates in him blowing a literal burst of flame out of the end of the flute.
But I think there’s a pretty compelling argument against the question-planting conspiracy, too. For one thing, the reporter, who asked the question denies the charge.
“Yes, I was told to ask the question,” TigerNet reporter David Hood told me in an email, “but that was by my boss. He called my cell when we were on the way to practice and suggested I ask the question. But he also said that it was up to me and to kind of gauge how things were going. There were only a few of us out there that night from the media, and I thought it might make for good audio.”
Twitter controversies did not cross over into mainstream news coverage as quickly as they do today. It’s conceivable to me that Dabo’s Sunday and mid-week press availability could have come and gone before reporters would have thought to ask the question. Then, Thursday would have been the last possible day the question would be relevant. According to a 2012 article by Ed McGranahan in The State,1 “Swinney had been prepared to respond to what he thought were Spurrier’s remarks the Tuesday after the game, but none of the reporters raised the matter because it was common knowledge2 that Ellis was the culprit.”
As to the degree to which Dabo seemed rehearsed, that doesn’t click into place until a minute or so into his diatribe. The first minute is meandering, filled with umms, ahhs, and pregnant pauses. But one minute into the answer, Dabo finds the connective tissue between the question and the rant.
“I guess I’d have to say I agree with him,” Dabo says, a wry smile washing over his face. “They’re not Clemson. And they’re never going to be Clemson.”
There’s no denying that what comes next seems like it’s been practiced. The differential between South Carolina and Clemson’s total wins. The number of victories Steve Spurrier had through five seasons at USC. The crisp line about the real Carolina being in Chapel Hill and the real USC being in California. It’s all quite specific.
“If you've ever covered him, he is always that way,” Hood told me. “He will recite series histories and numbers and stats and back in the day. [Sports information director] Tim Bourret kept him apprised of everything.”
Indeed, this quality makes Dabo quite like his (perceived) adversary in this quarrel. South Carolina fans will recall that it was not uncommon for Steve Spurrier to rattle off precise statistics, records, and even the details of individual plays — sometimes from many decades ago.
And there’s at least one notable example of Dabo reacting in a strikingly similar fashion to a question that we can be certain was not planted. In 2015, with Clemson off to a 5-0 start and a game against unranked Boston College coming up, David Hale of ESPN asked Dabo about how the team was handling the still-present “Clemsoning” narrative. Despite expressing his intense displeasure at the question being asked in the first place, Dabo nevertheless endeavored to answer it in great detail. In the process of his three-minute-long reply, he rattled off a series of series of arcane statistics.
“We ain’t lost to anybody unranked since 2011. But I have to come to a press conference in 2015 and get asked that. And that’s all media bullcrap … This football team has shown up. What else they gotta do? We’ve beat Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia, Auburn. We’ve beaten 33 unranked opponents in a row. We’re 7-3 versus top 10 teams.”
Here’s where I’ll lay out my cards: I don’t think the rant was staged. At a minimum, I think the argument that it was staged is less convincing than it’s often given credit for. And to get abstract for a moment, it’s worth considering what it means for a press interaction to be staged. I would contend that a great percentage of the “insider” information consumed on football message boards is, in some way, staged. That is, the information is provided by someone in the football program to a reporter in the hopes that their publicizing it will achieve some desired end. And it works in the other direction, too; glowing articles about, say, the new strength and conditioning program are written in the hopes that the reporter’s fawning praise will be rewarded with inside scoop.
But focusing on whether or not it was staged draws attention away from the fact that the rant itself — however it arose — is completely embarrassing and incoherent.
Dabo begins, “I was taught that you win or lose with class,” and then unleashes a campaign of childish insults against the team to which he just lost. While Dabo may indeed have been taught to win or lose with class, this incident offers little evidence that he learned the lesson. Dabo then goes on to claim credit for Clemson’s all-time record in the USC rivalry despite himself being 1-3 to that point in the series. Suggesting that we pay more attention to recent results rather than the results of Carolina-Clemson games from many years ago is exactly the same argument Dabo would later make, quite angrily, to David Hale when he asked about “Clemsoning.”
Of course, it is not Dabo’s job to mount a logically sound rationale for the superiority of his program. It’s his job to say what needs to be said, in that particular moment, to properly inspire and motivate his team. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to find his behavior extremely annoying.
The most annoying part of all is that events subsequent to Dabo’s 2011 rant have changed its meaning.
Once, at least a percentage of Clemson fans had the good sense to feel ashamed of Dabo’s behavior — heck, in 2014, Tahj Boyd himself said that the “it’s not a rivalry ‘rant’” was a “mistake.”3 But because Clemson won that ACC title game and would, three years later, begin a rivalry winning streak of their own — a winning streak which, you might be aware, is still active — now Dabo’s 2011 rant is, among Clemson fans, universally beloved. The seven-game losing streak to Clemson has allowed Tiger fans to re-cast this moment as though Dabo were Aragorn delivering his speech before the Battle of the Black Gate.
A characteristic comment on a 2018 TigerNet thread reads as follows:
This one was so special. He could have just said some coach speak, and kept it PC, but we needed that. In a lot of ways I felt like that speech lit the fire. Thank You DABO.
This is the part where I should be winding this post down. Where I might even suggest a path out of the darkness and a return to a world where we can mock Dabo’s boorish nature without having to also begrudgingly acknowledge his success. But I can offer no such hope.
Maybe Brent Venables leaving his defensive coordinator position will finally be the thing that brings the Clemson dynasty down. Or maybe not.
Maybe the unseen forces that will turn the tide of the rivalry have already taken root — as they likely had in 2011. Or maybe they haven’t. Maybe they never will.
The most optimistic thing I can say is to borrow a line that Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary after a bout of deep depression and amid the slaughter of World War I, “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”
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McGranahan, Ed, “We actually get along: Clemson coach doesn’t believe Spurrier remarks are personal,” The State, Nov. 21, 2012
Hood told me that he did not know about the quote’s origins until his editor called him and suggested asking the question. Despite having a Twitter account since 2009, Hood was not, in 2011, an active user. A check of his Twitter feed reveals no tweets published in the month before or after Dabo’s rant.
Kendall, Josh, “If Clemson’s offense has no offense, what’s the plan?” The State, Nov. 28, 2014