Swinney coaches first bowl game

Published 10:18 pm Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla., is a familiar destination for Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney.

The Pelham native marked the start of 2009 by coaching his first bowl game as a collegiate head coach in the same place he coached his first bowl game as an assistant 15 years ago — the Gator Bowl.

“For me it is a special moment,” Swinney said when the bowl selections were announced Dec. 5, four days after being named the head coach of the Clemson Tigers.

Thursday’s game was similar to the one Swinney coached in as a University of Alabama graduate assistant in 1993, hard-fought to the end. Only this time, Swinney’s team came up just short, falling to Nebraska, 26-21.

“I am extremely disappointed and frustrated that we did not win. You come down here, and the main goal is to win,” Swinney said after the game. “I am proud of the kids. They competed down to the last play and handled themselves with class. We just didn’t quite perform well enough to win.”

Clemson (7-6) led 14-3 at halftime, but Nebraska led 23-21 after three quarters of play. A late fourth-quarter field goal forced the Tigers to search for a touchdown in the final minutes of the game. Clemson moved inside the Nebraska 10 with just under two minutes to play, but was forced to a third-and-goal from the 26 after a sack of quarterback Cullen Harper. The next two passes fell incomplete, turning the game over to Nebraska.

“There is no question that when two good teams play, the difference in winning and losing is always four to five plays,” Swinney said. “Our guys fought hard but we came out on the short end of the stick today. We just did not make enough plays in the end, but you have to give Nebraska credit.”

Swinney led Clemson in its ninth Gator Bowl appearance after taking over in October as interim head coach when Tommy Bowden stepped aside with a 3-4 record.

“(Making this bowl) is a great honor for us and a great tribute to our team for what they have accomplished over the last seven weeks. When we were a 3-4 football team, we could only dream about a New Year’s Day bowl and for that to be a reality is a very special thing. You have to give all the credit to the players because they got it done,” Swinney said.

His 4-1 record through the end of the regular season earned him the program’s top job fulltime Dec. 1.

During his time as interim, he won milestone games over Boston College for his first win of his head coaching career and Clemson’s first time in 50 years. He also defeated rival South Carolina the Saturday before interviewing for the job.

One of Swinney’s starting wide receivers and captains for Thursday’s game was Spain Park graduate Tyler Grisham, who had one catch for six yards. He finishes his career in Orange and Purple with 1,388 yards and as one of the Top 15 in Tiger history with 132 receptions.

Quotes provided by Clemson University sports information.