MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Chad Morris had a glint of a tear in his eye as he stood outside the victorious Clemson locker room on Friday night.
"I'm emotional," the offensive coordinator told Yahoo Sports. "I'm excited for him. He's ready."
Morris was speaking about senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who is leaving school after breaking just about every passing record at Clemson. But he could have said the same thing about receiver Sammy Watkins, a junior, who is likely gone to the NFL as well. After his 16-catch, 227-yard showcase in a 40-35 win against Ohio State, Watkins said he wanted the Orange Bowl to help "finish off my legacy here." He did that with an array of swift cuts and soft catches that went a long way toward proving he's the best receiver in college football.
Soon they will both be memories at Clemson – the greatest passer to wear the uniform and the greatest pass-catcher to wear the uniform. What they leave behind is beyond statistics, and perhaps beyond measure.
Head coach Dabo Swinney told a story about Boyd after the quarterback threw for five touchdowns and rushed for a sixth here Friday. It was about his recruitment of Boyd five years ago. Swinney was in the living room with the Virginia prep star, as he told it, Oregon's Mike Bellotti was in the backyard and Ohio State's Jim Tressel was in the front yard.
"It wasn't very sexy to come to Clemson," Swinney said.
No it wasn't. Clemson had a reputation for either losing quietly or losing loudly. Swinney needed a leader to drag the program past that anchor of an image.
"If you believe in me," the coach told the quarterback, "we'll change Clemson."
Boyd believed, and five years later Clemson is changed. The Tigers have won 11 games two straight seasons for the first time. The team started in the top 10 with a win over rival Georgia in August, and ended in the top 10 with a win over the very school that waited for Boyd in the front yard. Swinney stood on the makeshift stage at Sun Life Stadium after Friday's victory and announced that his school is the only one in the state of South Carolina to win a BCS bowl game. Yes, Swinney and his two superstars have brought Clemson to a place where the Tigers can lose to Steve Spurrier and then clown him on national TV a few weeks later.
"We didn't quite get to the top of the mountain," Swinney said, "but we can see it."
The top of the mountain would have been a win against Florida State – one of the most dominant teams in ACC history – and a win over the Gamecocks. But Boyd and Watkins got the Tigers close enough to earn national respect that is rare in Clemson's long history. Clemson will remain in recruiting conversations, preseason rankings conversations and playoff conversations as long as Swinney is there. This is a landmark season because Boyd and Watkins were landmark players.
Players and coaches spoke of this Orange Bowl victory as one not just for the program, but for the university. Boyd evokes pride for both the way he plays football and the way he carries himself. That has filtered down to the rest of the team, and outward toward the rest of the school.
"They are incredible ambassadors for the university," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said after the game. "Their faith, their toughness. Their great chemistry. I don't think there can be a better group for the school."
That emerged from losses as much as wins. The Tigers could have spiraled after getting whipped by the Seminoles on national television. There could have easily been anger and resentment after such a disappointing loss.
It didn't happen.
"Not once did our guys flinch," Venables said.
That, again, was because of Boyd. Morris said his favorite memory of the quarterback came not on the field, but at team meetings.
"That smile," he said. "When he comes into every meeting room, that big smile on his face."
Morris got emotional again for a moment. "I'm sad," he said. "He's raised the standard of what it means to be quarterback at Clemson. He's raised the bar." Morris knows every special college player has to move on. Even the coach himself might eventually move on. Morris said he is "extremely happy" at Clemson, but "I do want to be a head coach one day." That one day may be coming soon.
Boyd's one day is here. That smile won't be lighting up any more team meetings. Instead there will be freshmen coming into those rooms, looking up on the walls and seeing huge photos of Boyd and Watkins, wanting to be just like them, wanting to get to where they got on this Friday night.
Those freshmen will be coming to a place much different from where Boyd and Watkins entered. Clemson is now a place where greatness is expected, and where winning big games is the norm. That's Clemson now. Boyd and Watkins have made it so.