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Clemson takes home another ACC championship in meeting between Swinney, Brown

On Saturday night, both teams' head coaches shared the quest to become ACC champions when they clash in Charlotte. But only Dabo Swinney nabbed the championship.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At the conclusion of his news conference Friday at Bank of America Stadium, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney turned to walk away from the podium when he saw North Carolina coach Mack Brown approaching with a big smile on his face.

The two men greeted each other with a huge bear hug.

They exchanged laughs and posed for pictures ahead of Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, where Swinney’s 10th-ranked Tigers (10-2, 8-0 ACC) are favored over Brown’s surprising No. 24 Tar Heels (9-3, 6-2).

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But this game reached beyond the gridiron.

It's the story of two coaches who formed a tight bond out of one act of generosity.

Back in 2009, Brown, then the head coach at Texas, invited Swinney — who had just been hired at Clemson — and his staff to Austin to observe how he ran the Longhorns' football program.

For Swinney, the lessons learned from Brown over the course of that three-day visit were instrumental in jumpstarting his own successful college coaching career.

And he said he's eternally grateful.

Swinney at the time was craving advice on how to run a high-profile college football program, and the lighthearted, outgoing Brown was more than happy to oblige, even taking Swinney to dinner.

“This is why I love Mack Brown and always will,” Swinney said. “I reached out to four or five coaches ... He was the only coach that would let me come visit.”

Swinney had never met Brown prior to the visit.

But Brown spent a good portion of his free time showing Swinney and his staff around, patiently answering numerous questions and giving insight into the decision-making process at Texas.

“He was so accommodating,” Swinney said. "I couldn’t even hardly get a question out of my mouth and he had all the answers. He’d read my mind. I’ve still got all my questions and all my answers, I’ve got just pages of notes that I took from him.

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“It was such a helpful visit for me, and to be able to see Texas and kind of where they were. They were just pretty fresh off a national championship, new facility, you name it, staffing, recruiting. It was like a CliffsNotes version of being a head coach," he added.

Brown said he decided to invite Swinney to Austin at the urging of former Alabama and Texas A&M head coach Gene Stallings, a mutual friend of both men in the business.

Since then, Swinney had won 10 ACC division titles, seven conference titles and two national championships in Death Valley.

“I'm very, very proud for Dabo and all that he’s accomplished,” Brown said. “He’s kind of at the point now where I was at Texas. You win so much that if you ever lose people are shocked, and I can’t believe it and the world is coming to an end. You’re 10-2. A lot of people would like to have Dabo’s problems.

"But he handles it and he handles it right, and he’s just done a great job.”

Brown said recruits often tell him that North Carolina and Clemson run their programs in a very similar fashion.

“It’s not that he came to me and asked me what we did; it’s what he’s developed into,” Brown said. “But we share so many things.”

On Saturday night, they shared the quest to become ACC champions when their teams clash in Charlotte. In the end, Swinney and the Tigers took it home.

Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn't the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC's first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins — who had struggled in Clemson's 51-45 win over Wake Forest — returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye's fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run — Clemson's second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.


This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.


North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn't transfer — and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina — the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.


Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.

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