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Behind the bling: The story of Clemson's epic championship rings

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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney wanted the moment to be special, not the typical cattle call for free stuff. So he planned an event befitting the prize that would come at the end.

This was during spring practice, and his Clemson team met for a nice dinner in the cavernous new cafeteria in the opulent new football facility. On the TVs, a video played. Swinney had sent staff to Texas, to the facility where the Jostens company makes championship rings. The coach wanted his players to see the craftsmanship that went into the rings -- three hours of labor per ring just to set the stones, with jewelers hunched over a magnifying glass, tediously placing each piece -- and understand what each detail meant. The video compared the process to Clemson's epic final drive, which toppled Alabama for last season's national championship.

On each ring is, of course, an image of the championship trophy with the iconic tiger paw embedded overtop. Five stones are offset, representing the five straight bowl wins for the Tigers. There are 89 stones total, a nod to Swinney's 89 wins as Clemson's head coach and a reminder that the players who came before had earned a part of that championship, too.

"Everything we do here is with a purpose, and if we're ordering a ring, we're not just going to wing it," Swinney said. "It's got to be representative of what that season was all about."

When the movie ended, Swinney led a countdown, and then, at the same time, each player opened the box containing his rings. This was, after all, a team effort.

There were three rings total -- one for the ACC title, one for the national semifinal bowl win over Ohio State, and one for the national championship. It was an instant celebration.

"We all put on the rings and were taking pictures and calling parents," tight end Milan Richard said. "It was a big deal -- as it should've been."

Of all the photos taken of the rings, one stood out: a close-up of former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware's right hand displaying the myriad rings -- all gaudy and sparkling -- he'd won with the Tigers. There were seven in all, two on each of his first three fingers, and the national championship ring on his pinky. He clicked the photo, uploaded it to Twitter and sent a message to the masses.

In the four months since the photo hit social media, it has been retweeted more than 4,100 times and has racked up more than 11,000 likes.

If the ring was a symbol of the team's work and determination and success, the photo was something else. It was brilliant marketing.

"It's become so recognizable that it's being utilized for schools to really embrace their brand and make their brand more prominent," said Chris Poitras, Jostens' national director of college and sports accounts. "There's no more pinnacle state than a championship ring. It says, 'We're the best.'"

To be sure, the bling has evolved. While the idea of a ring as a symbol of a championship is an old one, the ability to market that jewelry as a storyboard for a program, as bait for recruits, and as some audacious attire for the players is a relatively recent development.

Former Alabama center Barrett Jones has a hefty stock of rings, including three from national championships. Truth be told, he rarely wears any of them. They're just not utilitarian jewelry. They're gaudy and cumbersome and, while they might make an impression at a charity event or a school function, they're not ideal for lunch at Chipotle or a trip to Home Depot. They mostly sit in a drawer in his house, making rare appearances upon the requests of guests.

"They're incredibly big, almost unwearable," Jones said.

That's not to suggest the rings aren't meaningful to Jones. It's just they're not entirely his style.

When he was a freshman on Alabama's 2009 title team, the rings were bulky but understated. By his senior season, players got more of a say in the design, and plenty of Jones' teammates preferred some serious bling.

That's the trend across the sports world, Poitras said. One year's opulent design is replaced, usually just a year later, by something even more lavish.

"I can guarantee you that the team that wins the national championship in this coming year will ask us to do something new and something more prominent than Clemson did this year," Poitras said. "So it's on us to figure out what is next, what will be bigger and better."

The beauty is, no matter the size or ostentatiousness of the ring, everyone can find something to like. Maybe you appreciate the style. Maybe, like Jones, you're simply drawn to the meaning behind it.

"As a competitor, if you want to be the best," Jones said, "you see something like that and it's a reminder that, at Alabama, we compete for rings."

Of course, there are other rings, too. Two years ago, Florida State bought rings for its players as a reward for winning the 2015 in-state championship - with victories over rivals Miami and Florida. If it was meant as a nice reward for the team, the optics didn't quite play out that way. Coming off back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, the 10-3 2015 Seminoles felt like a disappointment to many fans, and the idea of handing out rings to a team that lost to Houston in its bowl game seemed a little like a participation trophy.

FSU is hardly alone in giving out rings that represent something less than an elite performance, however. After all, if a garish piece of jewelry can help with recruiting, why not buy one for any taste of success? There's a ring for all seasons.

"The amount of rings that are made, it seems it's out of control," Jones said. "But that's up to its own interpretation."

Still, looking back at Boulware's tweet, it's not just the seven rings on his hand that made the statement. The tag he provided for the photo was part of the story, too, and it set those rings -- conference titles, bowl wins, a national championship -- apart from the rest.

"If you knew what it took..." he wrote, leaving the sentence unfinished.

That's the point, after all. The rings come at the end, and coaches such as Swinney have made it fashionable to tell the story of the journey in stones and engravings. But what it really takes to get some of that bling -- that's what makes the jewelry so precious.