Just got off the phone with Dabo and Brian Kelly. At the end of the call, Kelly said to Dabo, "Leave me some recruits down there, would you, Dabo?" Lol I asked them both for their recollections of that epic game in 2015 with ESPN College Gameday in town during the hurricane, and it was good to hear them relive it briefly. Kelly said what stood out to him the most about that meeting was the collegiate environment and traditions at Clemson because it was his first time to Tiger Town and Death Valley.
I'll have the audio and transcript posted for you in a bit!
CHARLIE FISS: Thank you, JP. And good afternoon, everyone.
Those participating on today's teleconference are, from the University of Notre Dame, Head Coach Brian Kelly and, from Clemson University, Head Coach Dabo Swinney.
A quick matchup note on this game: This is Notre Dame's first visit to the College Football Playoff semifinal. And from a Goodyear Cotton Bowl perspective, this will be the first appearance in the classic in 25 years for the Fighting Irish, dating back to the 1994 game. For Clemson, this marks the fourth consecutive year for the Tigers to play in a College Football Playoff Semifinal. And it's been 79 years since Clemson last played in our game, going all the way back to 1940.
Let's begin our teleconference with Notre Dame and turn to Coach Kelly first.
Coach, congratulations to you and the Fighting Irish for earning a berth into the College Football Playoff Semifinal here at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. And now you begin putting the wheels in motion to head to North Texas.
KELLY: Well, certainly on behalf of our president, Father Jenkins, our athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, and our entire staff and football team, we're so excited to be part of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl and the College Football Playoffs.
I just would begin by saying congratulations to Coach Swinney and the Clemson football program. They've been a model of consistency. We'll have a great challenge but one that we're excited about. We've been on a journey here the last couple years to put our football team back in this position. So we're certainly excited for the challenge that's in front of us.
We know very well about the Cotton Bowl and its great history and tradition, and we're excited about being part of this and look forward to a great week in the greater Dallas metro area.
CHARLIE FISS: Thank you, Coach Kelly. Appreciate that.
Now, we'll go to Coach Swinney.
Coach, I would like to extend our congratulations to you as well and the Tigers for winning last night's ACC championship game. And we ask for your thoughts as the team now turns its attention toward the Playoff Semifinal.
DABO: Thank you. On behalf of our Athletic Director, Dan Radakovich, President Clements, it's an honor for us to be a part of this. Me personally, I'm super excited to come to the Cotton Bowl. I've been in college football for a long time, and I've never had the opportunity to experience the Cotton Bowl, but know a lot of people who had and said what a great experience it is. And just to be a part of this Playoff, the players work so hard to achieve something. So we're thrilled to be in the final four.
And all these teams are amazing. To play one of the undefeateds in Notre Dame, one of the best programs in college football history, it's a special opportunity. And I know it will be a great week for both teams, an incredible challenge, but I know one that both teams will be excited about. I don't have any doubt it will be an unbelievable game. So looking forward to spending some time in Dallas and meeting everyone there. We just appreciate all the hospitality and all the hard work that goes into making it such a great event for our players.
CHARLIE FISS: Thank you, Coach Swinney. We look forward to having you with us here in just a few weeks. Coach Kelly as well.
Let's turn things back over to the operator, who will poll the media now for questions for the remainder of the teleconference, which will be about 15 minutes.
For both coaches, Dabo, first of all, I realize you have rookie players, freshman players, and even a freshman quarterback. You've had several years to go through this and some veterans on the team. How much of an advantage is that, that these guys have prepared for this stage before?
DABO: Well, I think the experience is not a negative. It's definitely a positive when you have some guys that they have an understanding of the pace and can maybe bring up some of the younger players. At the end of the day, you've got to create on that and you've got to play well. These are four great teams that are left in this thing. And Coach Kelly and the job he's done at Notre Dame this year and this team, they've had a special season.
So experience is great, for sure, but you got to play well. What it all comes down to is four quarters of good football. I do love our team. I think we've got a bunch of veterans that have a good visual of how they got to prepare and get themselves ready.
And then, you know, we got those young guys, like you said, a freshman quarterback and some other young players on this team that, hopefully, will kind of jump in line and follow the lead of these veterans that we do have as far as how we go through our preparation process.
Brian, do you think it is somewhat of an advantage for Clemson having guys that have been on this stage for several years before?
KELLY: I do. I think it's important that they've been in those kinds of games and that venue. I don't think there's any substitute for that. What follows is the hype and the distractions that are easy to happen unless you've experienced it.
You know, we're fortunate in that we play all over the country, from the L.A. Coliseum to Yankee Stadium. Obviously, our football team has experienced that just by its travel and being all over the country. So, in a smaller degree, we have to deal with it week in and week out. But there's definitely an advantage when you've been in this before. And I think, you know, Coach understands that, at the end of the day, that certainly is a piece of it, but you got to go out and you got to perform and you got to execute. So I would agree with him on that.
Coach Swinney, congratulations on winning last night.
DABO: Thank you.
I know it's a business trip going to Dallas. What are you looking forward to in Dallas for your first time there?
DABO: Well, just, first of all, that stadium. What a great venue. I've never been there. I've obviously seen it on TV. So I'm looking forward to playing a game in such an incredible environment and spending some extended time in Dallas.
When I've been to Dallas, it's been kind of in and out. But just all the things I've heard about the Cotton Bowl in general, the hospitality and the wonderful committee folks that they have there.
But just having a chance to compete against a great team and again on a great stage and representing Clemson the very best we can. That's what I'm looking forward to, and seeing our players just continue to enjoy their journey.
Coach Kelly, what are you looking forward to for your trip to Texas?
KELLY: I would agree. Look, what happens when you're involved in this, you get another chance to be with your guys. I mean, that's why we coach. We do more than just stand on the sideline. It's an investment that we have with our team and the relationships that we build with our guys that we get one more chance to be with them.
So just getting that opportunity to prepare and see them through their process for hopefully a couple more games, and then to be in a great venue like AT&T Stadium. It's a great environment.
We played there a few years back, one of our Shamrock Series games against Arizona State, and you just got to catch yourself from looking up at the scoreboard all the time. It's just a great environment.
Brian, you mentioned earlier how this is different prep because it's not like a true bowl game, because you could still play another game after this. But what do you maybe take from that 2012 experience when you were getting ready for a championship-level game, how you guys did in 2012 against Alabama? Do you take anything from that experience?
KELLY: Well, I mean, you know, as a coach, you do. We built our program off of the experience of 2012, in that we had to do some things differently in terms of development and recruitment. So that's been in a process over the last few years. And the moment is really big playing in a championship game. So preparing your guys mentally for that kind of environment. They've got to get into a good place emotionally for that game. So you take some things from it.
I'm sure Dabo would agree, when you play in that game, you learn some things, and you use that as you prepare for the next one.
Dabo, what are the things you might have learned in the last four years of going to the Playoff and being through this process before?
DABO: There's a lot of distractions. There's a lot of things that come with being a part of this, a lot of things that you have to manage that aren't in kind of a normal game. But, at the end of the day in championship football, you're playing teams where there's just such small margin for error; it's a few plays. It just comes down to a few plays that make the difference. So, you know, you've got to have unbelievable precision with what you do to have a chance to be successful.
And then you got to handle the adversity. I mean, you're – this is going to be, like I said, a few plays. And so there's going to be a lot of adversity. You just got to – you just got to hang in there and keep playing and believe that you can get it done down the stretch. But it's awesome to be a part of it. You try to just not make it a huge, bigger moment than what it is, try to minimize the distraction. And just the same things that have won will win this game. Just don't have the room for error that sometimes the four teams that are in this might have had in some other games.
Obviously, it was an epic game three years ago in Death Valley between your two teams. I'd just like to get your recollections of that game. Obviously, a lot of players from those teams are gone, but I know Clemson has several guys in that senior class that remember it well. And just curious how much each of you think that your guys – those who are – who were in that game are looking forward to this rematch.
DABO: For me, it was an unbelievable game. I'll never forget that game. Just like I said earlier, just a minute ago, it was just a few plays. I mean, two, three plays that, you know, that went our way. But it was an amazing game. Both teams truly left it all on the field. We played in a hurricane, literally a hurricane. It was just horrible conditions to try to – but we both tried to do what we had to do to win the game, and it just came down to a couple of plays.
They were an amazing opponent. And I think, you know, both teams walked away from the game with great respect for each other. And we were very fortunate to win the game. But it was definitely one of those moments that I think everybody – you know, one of those things that makes college football so great is people watching that game, because you just saw two teams that wouldn't quit all the way down the stretch.
KELLY: Yeah, I would agree. I think what I took away from it is just a great collegiate environment. I had never been to Clemson. We've been to so many different venues, but to never be on their campus and to just see the tailgating and the pregame and the team run out, I mean, there's a lot of traditions at Notre Dame, but I had never seen the traditions at Clemson. And it was just such a collegiate atmosphere. And it was loud, and it was one of the louder environments that we had played in. And to watch those kids battle, it was – you know, it was one of those games you remember because it was college football at its best.
And they battled through all the elements as well. And, again, it will be similar, right? It will come down to a couple of plays. And, in every great college game, somebody has got to make a play, and Clemson made a couple more plays in that game. But great collegiate environment.
Dabo, have you checked on Tim Bourret to make sure he's okay after this matchup was announced?
DABO: He already texted me three times.
I figured as much. Secondly, I wanted to ask, both of you guys made a decision midseason to make a change at quarterback from veteran guys who had won a lot of games for you last year. I'm wondering how difficult that decision was for you, and how much were those decisions made partially with an eye towards this part of the season, where you wanted your team to be at a certain level for these types of games.
KELLY: Well, certainly, when you make a decision that's that difficult, you're doing it not just at the quarterback position but for your entire program. And Brandon Wimbush, he won 11 games for us. So it's never easy when you're pulling a guy out and he was undefeated at the time.
But we were looking at the long term. We were looking at how many plays our defense was on the field. We were looking at November. So, absolutely, there was the vision of how can we get to the College Football Playoffs. So all of those had to be part of the decision-making process. It couldn't be how could we just score more points? It was how could we find ourselves as a better football team in November?
And so those aren't decisions that are made by the quarterback coach; those come to the head coach. And they're difficult decisions because they affect people. And that was hard on Brandon Wimbush, and it was difficult because I love him. But it was the right decision to make.
DABO: Yeah, it is tough. And same thing, Kelly took us to the Sugar Bowl and to the Playoff and 12 wins. But when we came in the spring and Trevor [Lawrence] was here in January, as I say every year, you start over every year. You don't – you have to earn it every year. So we had a quarterback competition. And I was very up-front with that in the spring. They competed all the way. And Kelly [Bryant] came out of camp ahead, but it was close enough to where we said, look, we're going to play them right out of the gate. We're going to play both guys, and we're going to see if it settles on the field.
And I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but after four games, after that Georgia Tech game, it was obvious that Trevor was the better player. And it's hard, but that's our job. At the end of the day, it's to position our team to have the best possible chance to win.
And I just felt like that, you know, where we were after – we had a competition, and, after four games, he pulled ahead. And I didn't anticipate that Kelly would leave, but that was the decision he made. So we had to move forward.
But Trevor has done an amazing job. We've scored more touchdowns than ever in school history, and he's been a big reason for that. So all we can do is play the best player. And sometimes that's tough because you have personal feelings for a lot of these guys as individuals, and they all work so hard. But, at the end of the day, you got to do what's best for the team.
Dabo, first of all, I know you obviously don't need any vindication as far as Trevor Lawrence's performance. But Jesse Palmer from ESPN said earlier today that you guys getting to the Playoff with a true freshman at quarterback was one of the greatest stories of his 12 years covering football at ESPN. He said he went through the experience himself, and he knows how tough it is. Just your reaction to hearing that kind of response to Trevor's performance.
DABO: That's why we recruited him. We knew he was a great talent coming in, but you never know until you start coaching a guy how they're going to process things, how's their transition going to be. And it was pretty clear in the spring that this guy is going to be special. But, again, you got to see it on game day. And I'm really proud of him. He's an amazing talent. He's a very humble young man. He's an excellent leader. He really prepares like a veteran. And I think that's given him the opportunity to be successful because he's not just talented physically; he's mentally talented. So I'm really proud of him.
And then we've got good people around him. You know? He's not had to – it's not like he's got to do everything himself. He trusts his teammates. Our offensive line has done a great job for him. We've got great skill. And we've been able to support him with a good run game and a defense.
So it's been a complete team effort, but Trevor has certainly done his part and gone above and beyond, being the rookie of the year and so forth. He's as good as I've ever coached, that's for sure.
Coach Kelly, you've got a guy that's made a great impact on your program in his three years: Troy Pride, from roughly about 40 miles down the road from Clemson. If you could maybe just tell me a little bit about what he's meant to the program. We all know about his great speed and athleticism, and it always seems like he's got a good head on his shoulders as well.
KELLY: Yeah, it's been a process of development from, you know, a young man that really had great raw traits and has developed them to be a top-notch cornerback. You know? It's one thing to run, as we all know, but to play the cornerback position, to play out there one on one, you've got to develop a short memory, obviously, the ability to certainly tackle and play the ball in the air. A lot of credit to him in his physical development in the weight room.
He's just a great kid and one that our guys really cheer for. I mean, his physical development and his ability to play both sports. He's obviously somebody that runs track for us as well.
But I think this is a classic case of, you know, just making sure that you take the time to develop your players. And he's developed in our program to the point where now we feel like we've got two really good corners with him and Julian Love, who is a finalist for the Thorpe.
CHARLIE FISS: I think our teleconference has pretty well come to an end. We are out of time. We will now say goodbye to our head coaches and let them hang up. We appreciate you being with us today, and we look forward to welcoming your teams to North Texas in just a few short weeks. We can't wait. Thank you to both coaches.