CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Bronco Mendenhall had only said a few words and Clemson's Dabo Swinney realized the new Virginia coach was more than a colleague: this was someone who understood how to lead a team to success.
Mendenhall and the 22nd-ranked Cavaliers (9-3; No. 23 College Football Playoff) will square off against Swinney and No. 3 Clemson (12-0; No. 3 CFP) Saturday night for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Swinney remembers the first ACC coaches gathering after Mendenhall took over Virginia four years ago. He hadn't really crossed paths with Mendenhall, who came over after a successful tenure at BYU,
“A lot people when he came and took that job thought, ‘What is he doing?' He's in a tremendous situation" at BYU, Swinney said. “But at the first meeting I was in, I thought. ‘That guy gets it.’ He's going to be successful.'"
Mendenhall has the Cavaliers playing in the ACC title game for the first time and vying for the team's first-ever outright championship after sharing crowns in 1989 and 1995.
It's been a steady, relentless climb with some backsliding, much like Swinney's path the past decade as he was building the Tigers into ACC and national champions.
Swinney was a high energy receivers coach at Clemson before being elevated to interim head coach when Tommy Bowden was let go in 2008. Swinney won four of six games the rest of that regular season and landed the full-time job.
Two years later, Swinney had to fight to keep his position after the Tigers went 6-6 in 2010 and some thought the so-called “coupon coach” — he earned about $900,000 when he was hired, less than a 10th of the $9.3 million he made this year — could not take Clemson to the top.
Swinney is getting the last laugh.
His Tigers are on a historic run with a program-record 27 straight wins, nine straight seasons with 10 or more wins and five ACC titles. If Clemson is successful this weekend, it will become first school to win five straight conference championship games.
“And if we do that, we've got a really good chance to make the playoffs," Clemson linebacker James Skalski said with a grin.
Skalski said Swinney has long fought for his players and never lets them forget they're playing a game where the “fun is in the winning."
Swinney certainly wasn't the first coach to show off his post-victory, locker room dance moves. The 50-year-old coach, though, has taken it to a Studio 54, dance party level amid happy — and sometimes horrified — cheers of his players.
Virginia players also like winning, and they also have a strong belief in what they can achieve under Mendenhall.
The Cavaliers ended a 15-game losing streak to rival Virginia Tech with a 39-30 victory in the regular-season finale last week to wrap up the Coastal Division and bounce back from a disappointing finish a year ago when they were in position to win the division but did not after a pair of overtime losses down the stretch.
So when Virginia completed its rivalry win, players chose Mendenhall for the tradition of breaking a rock with a sledgehammer after victories.
“In that moment, it just felt so right,” Cavaliers linebacker Charles Snowden said. “He's been our leader since day one. He's gotten us here. Sacrificed so much for us.”
Mendenhall understands Clemson is the benchmark for teams not just in the ACC but across the country.
“I think he’s done it within his personality, within his philosophy and I think it’s been authentic to not only him but the institution," Mendenhall said. “ would love to have similar success in an authentic way that fits not only myself but this institution."
For now, Mendenhall is managing the emotions of Virginia's first championship game with continuing the journey to the top.
“That's all a new place for us," Mendenhall said, “which is an exciting place to be."
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz from Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
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