MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Shortly after Dabo Swinney was promoted from Clemson's interim coach to head coach on Dec. 1, 2008, he talked to the Tigers' players about what was wrong with their program.
Among Clemson's deficiencies:
Clemson hadn't won an ACC title in 17 years.
The Tigers hadn't won a national championship in 27 years.
Clemson hadn't won 10 games in a season in 18 years.
The Tigers had never won the ACC's Atlantic Division after the conference split into two divisions in 2005.
"It was like a mountain," Swinney said.
But the Tigers' biggest problem, according to Swinney, was that the Clemson family was divided. He was the Tigers' fifth football coach in 20 years, and none of the previous three -- Ken Hatfield, Tommy West nor Tommy Bowden -- had been able to replicate their success under legendary coach Danny Ford, who guided Clemson to its only national championship in 1981.
After Ford was forced to resign during an NCAA investigation in January 1990 -- the Tigers were previously banned by the NCAA from playing in bowl games and on live TV for two seasons in 1982 and '83 -- the Clemson family essentially split into two factions: those who supported their popular, tobacco-chewing head coach and those who supported the Tigers.
Only now, as Swinney has No. 1 Clemson one victory away from playing for the second national championship in school history, does it seem like those wounds have finally healed for good.
"Clemson was missing a lot," Swinney said. "First of all, I didn't think we were together. I didn't think Clemson was unified and it didn't have a unified spirit as a program. I think there were a lot of different camps and a lot of different opinions. There were a lot of different reasons why people thought Clemson wasn't where it needed to be. Some people wanted to go this way, and other people wanted to go that way."
Now, nearly everyone associated with Clemson football seems willing to follow Swinney's lead. The Tigers are 13-0 heading into their New Year's Eve showdown against No. 4 Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl. If Clemson beats OU, it will play in the Jan. 11 College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.
"It's been a long time," Ford said. "I wasn't sure if they'd ever get back there again."
Neither was Hatfield, who replaced Ford in 1990 after successful stops at Air Force and Arkansas. He guided the Tigers to a 32-13-1 record in four seasons, including a 10-2 campaign in his first season and an ACC title in his second. For whatever reason, it still wasn't good enough for many Clemson fans.
"To be honest, there were a lot of things I didn't know about," Hatfield said. "I think with the way everything came down with [Ford], it fractured the whole Clemson family big-time. Whoever was coaching there [after Ford] wasn't going to have it easy. There was definitely a divided house. But whoever came in there had to do it their way and not the way Danny did it."
Clemson slipped to 5-6 under Hatfield in 1992, and then he resigned after guiding the Tigers to an 8-3 record during the 1993 regular season. At a news conference announcing his resignation, Hatfield famously criticized the school's fan base and administration for their lack of support.
Hatfield told reporters that he and his wife "leave behind much disappointment, disappointment in so-called fans who did not support their team." Attendance at Clemson home games dropped from 76,789 fans in 1992 to 66,845 in 1993.
"There weren't a lot of folks going out there and supporting the team," Hatfield told reporters at the time. "That's what burned my butt. We're also disappointed in several people who work here at Clemson who worked hard against us."
The Tigers hired Tommy West to replace Hatfield, and he was a bit of a curious choice after going 4-7 at Division I-AA Chattanooga in 1993, his only previous season as a head coach. But West was one of Ford's former assistants and seemed like a compromise for many Clemson fans. West went 31-28 in five seasons and guided the Tigers to three straight bowl games before he was fired after going 3-8 in 1998.
Not even Bowden, who was a red-hot coach after guiding Tulane to an 11-0 record in 1998 and had a famous pedigree, could restore what Ford built at Clemson.
Bowden went 72-45 in nine-and-a-half seasons as the Tigers' coach and never had a losing season. But Clemson never won the ACC and failed to win 10 games in a season during his tenure. He was fired midway though the 2008 season, and Swinney was named interim coach.
"It was hard," Ford said. "Florida State ruled the conference forever. They won so many championships in a row it was unbelievable. When we were at Clemson, Florida State wasn't in the conference. I think Florida State had a lot to do with why Clemson couldn't win the ACC."
From his first days on the job, Swinney worked hard to reunite the Clemson family. Before his first game as interim coach, he introduced the "Tiger Walk," in which Clemson's players walk about 200 yards through a sea of fans from their buses to Memorial Stadium. During an open week after his first game, Swinney invited Clemson's students to attend practice and nearly 1,000 showed up.
On Dec. 7, Clemson hosted a pizza party for nearly 30,000 fans at Death Valley to celebrate its 13-0 season and berth in the College Football Playoff.
"It was certainly a school I thought could compete for a national championship when everybody came together," Hatfield said. "I couldn't be happier for Dabo and his players. There has been a lot of good and a lot of joy and a lot of heartache to get to where they are today."
Swinney also worked hard to bring back Clemson's former players -- and even Ford. He still lives near campus on a farm in Pendleton, South Carolina, and attends nearly every home game. He'll watch the Orange Bowl from his farm on Thursday.
"I think everybody that has coached at Clemson has contributed to the success that Clemson is having today," Ford said. "Coach West started rebuilding, and Coach Bowden get better facilities. Coach Swinney worked hard and started to win a lot of football games."
Certainly, winning has cured a lot of Clemson's ills. Under Swinney, the Tigers have won at least 10 games in five straight seasons for the first time in school history. Swinney is 74-26 overall and 47-14 against ACC foes in seven-plus seasons.
Clemson's donors have opened up their wallets for him. In 2009, the school completed a $60 million expansion of Memorial Stadium, which added new locker rooms and luxury suites to the west end zone. In 2013, a $10 million indoor practice facility was built, and the Tigers broke ground on a $55 million football complex earlier this year. Donations to IPTAY -- the Clemson athletics department's fundraising arm -- reached a record $60.1 million last year.
"We're committed to being the best we can be," Swinney said. "I don't think that commitment has always been there. I think over the last seven years we have slowly built a commitment and trust, and we have commitment from all areas. It's been fun climbing that mountain."
The Tigers are only two victories away from reaching the mountaintop, after spending far too many seasons tripping over themselves.
"What can people say?" Swinney said. "They're going to try to come up with something else to say, but there's nothing else to say. We're at that point now we're definitely one of top programs in the country. We're not going away because we've done it the right way. We've built an infrastructure and foundation that can handle adversity. It's not always going to be 10-win seasons. We'll have a [rough] season along the way, but we'll be back. That's the way our program was built and that's our culture."