During this series on culture, we have considered the definition of culture, the perception of the Clemson fanbase on the teams culture, and then reviewed other fanbases from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, PAC-12, Big 12, independents & the Group of Five to see how they all compared.
We learned that Clemson’s fanbase clearly sees a well-defined culture for the Tigers, based primarily on family-values, and reinforced by class, faith, loyalty, integrity, and love. While we learned that this is not completely unique – there are some programs that were quite similar – we also learned culture sets Clemson apart from several blueblood football programs that have large followings, but very generic, poorly defined cultures.
This has led to a few other questions.
Is the culture the fanbase perceives the same culture that exists within the athletic department & it’s programs?
We obviously aren’t allowed to witness all the goings and comings of the athletes and coaches within the privacy of the locker rooms, but some insiders are given more information about the internal workings of Clemson athletics, and they have always indicated that we see represents real-life at Clemson behind the scenes. Additionally, when things aren’t the way they are marketed to be, it inevitably becomes public. Look at what has happened at Auburn this offseason, and other schools like Tennessee and Florida State over the last decade. When the inside of the apple is rotten, it will eventually make its way to the surface for all to see.
Has this well-defined culture benefitted the football program as much as we perceive?
There are plenty of examples we can look at to demonstrate that Clemson’s culture is a big draw for a lot of people, both coaches and players. Just recently, Tiger alum Nick Eason elected to leave a job on Auburn’s staff to join Clemson’s staff as the defensive line coach. Soon after, Eason tweeted this:
The points Eason makes in this tweet speak to why he was a good fit for Clemson’s culture. Coach Eason played football for Clemson long before Coach Swinney began to build the culture we see today. He didn’t fit because he was an alum – he fit because he believes in the same concepts that the program promotes.
For an example of a recent recruit, consider this quote from 2022 signee Myles Oliver: “”I really like the culture. It’s family-oriented and I really like that. It’s not far from home, only two and a half hours. Those are all reasons why I committed.” Oliver wasn’t a highly rated recruit. His other offers were Georgia Tech and Charleston Southern. Those schools were close to home too. He could have said the Tigers were his best chance to play for championships. He could have said Clemson gave him the most exposure to be seen by pro scouts and maybe one day play in the NFL. Instead, he went out of his way to point out that it was a family-oriented culture.
In a world where NFL possibilities and NIL opportunities are jumping out to a lot of high school recruits, Clemson’s ability to sell the family-oriented atmosphere gives them a bullet point that many blueblood schools can claim but aren’t likely to be able to demonstrate. Is this a major draw? We have seen plenty of highly regarded recruits put Clemson in their top-schools lists. A Clemson scholarship offer has been considered an exclusive honor by many recruits. Many of those same recruits end up choosing other schools. After their announcements, they usually point to the conference the chosen school plays in (often SEC) and the ability for the program to get them to the NFL. Many of them are also awed by the sheer amount of support schools like Alabama and Ohio State receive. Some of those recruits do choose Clemson, however, because the Tigers have demonstrated that they can get players to the NFL & they also have a passionate fanbase. They may not play in the SEC, but they do end up appealing to some players who are more attracted to the culture.
Another component of Clemson’s culture that separates it from most others is the way faith & religion resonates in the program. As we saw in our survey of schools, religion does figure into the cultures of schools like Notre Dame and BYU, but those are private universities directly affiliated with religious organizations. Clemson is a state-funded school. The Clemson program does nothing to violate federal laws governing the affiliation of government and religion. Rather, Coach Swinney has created an environment where people are free to express their Christian faith. People prefer to be in environments where they feel comfortable. Coach Swinney has done that by being open about his own faith and how it guides his life and career. This is an attractive quality for the program, but it is also a two-way street. Some recruits are very drawn to this kind of environment. Others aren’t. This aspect will help Clemson with getting commitments from some recruits. Trevor Lawrence, Cade Klubnik and DJ Uiagalelei have all mentioned how their faith is important to them. It won’t appeal to all recruits, and there is nothing wrong with that. Different strokes for different folks. One important point to consider is if a player does not feel comfortable in Clemson’s culture – if they prefer secular instead of nonsecular – we aren’t likely to hear about it. Recruits and their families aren’t likely to talk about what they don’t like about a program publicly. They will simply focus on their preferred programs, so it is difficult to gauge how often this aspect of Clemson’s culture helps it in recruiting against how often it is a disadvantage with recruits.
I do think Clemson’s culture will continue to help set the program apart from other national contenders, but I don’t think culture alone will ever get Clemson to the top of the recruiting rankings on an annual basis. Clemson only reached that pinnacle once in Coach Swinney’s tenure, with the Class of 2020, and even then, all the recruiting services weren’t in lockstep agreement. Culture helped achieve that class, no doubt, but Clemson’s place in the national mindset was the quality that got them over the top. Most of the recruiting for the Class of 2020 occurred during calendar year 2019, following Clemson’s 44-16 victory over Alabama for their second national title in three years. Clemson isn’t a program that sells itself as a perineal contender like bluebloods such as Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia. The Tigers must reinforce to recruits that they are contenders annually.
For example, take three of the recruits who de-committed from Clemson after Coach Venables elected to take the Oklahoma head coaching position. They de-committed shortly after his departure, but they didn’t hold out to see if Coach Venables would offer them scholarships to play for him. They all quickly announced new commitments, all before Early Signing Day, to Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia – all teams in this past season’s College Football Playoffs. They may have used Coach Venables exit as a reason to change their commitment, but we can’t ignore that Clemson missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. At least one of the players had already started visiting Michigan during the season, something Clemson typically does not permit their verbal commitments to do. This was well before we had any indication that Coach Venables would be leaving for another position. While I don’t doubt that Venables’ departure was the last straw, I suspect Clemson’s “down” season had each of them questioning their commitment.
There are other factors that can override Clemson’s culture too. Use the fourth de-commit from this past class, Jaren Kanak, as an example. Kanak committed to Clemson as a linebacker who would play directly for Coach Venables. Once I started following him on Twitter, it became clear that Kanak was Christian and his faith was important to him. This led me to believe that the culture of Clemson was a strong factor in Kanak’s desire to play football for the Tigers. It would seem like this kind of factor would override changes in the coaching staff, but in the end, Kanak wouldn’t sign with Clemson on Early Signing Day. We soon heard from beat reporters and recruiting analysts that Kanak was likely going to follow Venables to Oklahoma because his primary reason for committing to Clemson was the opportunity to play for Venables. The culture may have been a draw for Clemson, but it ultimately played second fiddle to the coach.
While Clemson’s culture is a draw that many other schools don’t have, it is hard to say that culture stands out as the most important thing to recruits in the big picture. It appears that the most important factors across the board are things like upward mobility to the NFL, the ability to challenge for national championships and to play on the biggest stage, the appeal of playing for certain coaches and now NIL opportunities. Clemson has appeal in several of these categories as well, but some programs like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State & LSU are going to dominate based on these factors, and we have seen that their cultures are generic. They may lack a well-defined culture, but that certainly does not appear to hold them back in recruiting.
Ultimately, we must accept that the attraction to culture from recruits is a niche. It has a particular attraction to a core audience, but not necessarily widespread popularity. Think of it in terms of music: Getting to the NFL is Rock, winning a championship is Pop and NIL is Country. Culture is Americana. Americana sells a lot of records. People that love it support it strongly. It’s just never going to be a mainstream genre.
In conclusion, Clemson culture obviously benefits the program, but it does have its limits. Other factors will always be important to recruiting, and a lack of culture won’t hold other dominant programs back. Clemson will best be able to use their culture to launch ahead of bluebloods who dominate recruiting when they have had notable achievement on the field.
Does this culture flow across the other athletic programs, like basketball and baseball?
This is a harder question to answer. One of the details of the football team’s culture that we haven’t touched on is the limited use of the transfer portal. The case has been made that bringing in players from other programs hasn’t been a popular option with Clemson because they prefer to recruit high school players that they can develop. One of Coach Swinney’s popular sayings that helps create Clemson’s unique culture is “Bloom where you’re planted.” This isn’t a luxury that basketball and baseball have been able to utilize. Clemson basketball has had several transfers out of the program in recent years which necessitated using the portal to fill open roster spots, and baseball has always had different rules which have made it easier for players to move between programs. One argument that can be made is that Clemson is a football school, and it is the leader at the university. Naturally, many of the concepts that help define Clemson football culture will influence the other sports too, as well as the entire university. In turn, leaders in the athletic department are responsible for bringing in coaches and employees who fit in with the big picture culture. Logically, if leaders are making wise decisions, the people in charge of other Clemson programs exude the same influence on their programs as we see with Coach Swinney and the football program. We just can’t lose site of the reality that football has a lot of resources at Clemson that the other programs do not enjoy. It also isn’t fair to question the culture of the other programs due to a lack of success – as we discussed earlier, culture can help, but it isn’t a magic wand. Coaches and their staffs can do things the ‘right way’ or the ‘Clemson way’ and still be challenged to find success.
I hope you have enjoyed this series. I started this little project because I knew what culture was as a concept, and what it was supposed to mean, but what I had observed so often was that it was just a front, or a generic catch-all term. I heard a conversation on Sirius XM radio recently that really resonated. I actually heard it after I had done most of the research for this and had begun writing the articles, but it was a great example of my thinking about culture in the big picture. One of the hosts, Jason Horowitz, was in a discussion with a co-host who referenced a program’s culture, and Horowitz asked (paraphrased): “What does that mean exactly? What is culture? I think it’s just a word.”
That summed up my experience exactly. I don’t think culture is ‘just a word’, but I also don’t think most people really understand it, especially when the culture involves ‘family’. Businesses love to say they have a family-oriented culture, but they have no problem initiating a reduction in force to balance the budget, telling employees they aren’t part of the ‘family’ anymore. Others would describe a family culture, but if pressed to explain what defines it, as opposed to a generic culture, they would struggle to explain how it is achieved. You can’t just speak a culture into existence. You must be able to point at tangible things. Does the company promote teambuilding exercises to create camaraderie and build understanding between employees? Does the company hold social events where not just employees but spouses and children can get to know each other? Does the boss mandate that employees get out of the office by a certain time each evening to be with their families, otherwise known as ‘turning off work’? Does the company assist with childcare? Or elderly care? Paid maternity leave? What about paternity leave?
‘Family’ is an easy answer. Whether it is a business, a social organization, or an athletic team, I think a lot of people view the term “family” as a positive, and thus “family culture” is a good thing. I think people naturally want to think of a company or group they love as family-oriented.
Think about it: if you were to ask someone “Is this a family-oriented business?” and they responded “No.”, would you have a favorable impression, or a negative one?
What I really wanted to know is if all fanbases automatically think of their own school’s athletic program’s culture as “family-oriented”. I would not have been surprised if every program’s fans automatically assumed their team’s culture revolved around family. When I looked at the word clouds, some strongly featured ‘family’, but most did not. That said, the word was usually included somewhere, even if it was small and didn’t stand out.
Was I wrong to assume that the most common go-to answer for culture is ‘family’?
Time for one more test: if I create a word cloud from all the responses I received, from all fanbases combined, what does it look like? What was the most common response from all the fans across college sports that I surveyed?
The most common word used, through all the answers across 96 pages of a Word document, from 22 different fanbases, was ‘family’. It may not have been the most common term used in most clouds, but it was still used often enough that it reigned as the king of the hill when it was all added up.
Maybe I am seeing what I want to see, but this demonstrates to me that it was fair to be skeptical about a fanbase’s belief that they are family-oriented. I think everyone naturally wants to believe that. I think when a person is asked, it is just one of the first things that tends to come to mind. It’s an easy answer for a lot of people because it is perceived as an ideal. ‘Family’ rolls off the tongue as long as you don’t have to handle the question “Why is it Family?”
I think the overall project has also demonstrated that ‘family’ won’t dominate the responses of a specific school unless it is truly embraced by the program as important. If it isn’t a pillar of the culture, it can easily become a secondary consideration behind concepts like ‘winning’, ‘football’, ‘excellence’ and others, which are also easy answers, and I tend to think they become the focus of passionate fanbases when the program lacks an emphasis on family-oriented culture. P