Raiders

Raiders

Two thousand five hundred and ninety-four miles separate Clemson, South Carolina, and Oakland, California.

The gap between the Raiders and Dabo Swinney's Tigers feels even larger.

Since Swinney had the interim head coach title lifted at the end of the 2008 season, he has transformed Clemson into college football royalty. Since 2009. Clemson is 112-27. The Tigers have won seven ACC Atlantic Division titles, five conference championships and two national titles in that span.

Swinney is an ace recruiter, yes. But the growth of the program from college football punch line to standard-setter comes from the culture Swinney has created, nurtured and grown in Death Valley.

"Well I wanted to build a culture of toughness, of commitment, but more importantly I wanted to build a culture that serves our players' hearts and not their talents," Swinney told NBC Sports Bay Area. "A culture that truly used the game of football to build men and to impact our players' lives and to equip them with the tools that they need, not just on the field but off the field as well.

"That’s what we set out to do. You build a culture and you change a culture, in my world, through graduation and through recruiting. "

That culture is partly what attracted the Raiders -- who have won one playoff game in 16 years -- to draft three of Swinney's players in this year's NFL draft. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock set their sights on a trio of Tigers -- Clelin Ferrell, Hunter Renfrow and Trayvon Mullen -- who are not only talented players but come from the kind of culture the Silver and Black hope to build following last season's 4-12 record.

 

Swinney had lead Clemson to the top of the college football food chain with a charm, swagger and jovial nature that makes it easy to see why players like Ferrell, Renfrow and Mullen chose to spend their formative years under Swinney's detail-oriented eye. They chose to be shaped in an intense cauldron that demands the best of them rather than starring at programs with less structure and accountability.

To quote Jon Hamm in "The Town," Clemson is the definition of "the not-f--king around crew."

"I always say fit first, ability second," Swinney said when discussing his approach to recruiting for culture. "It’s easy to see if a guy can play or not, it’s a lot tougher to see if he’s the right fit. Because not everybody is a good fit for our culture and who we are. And the way we do things. Because this place is tough man, this is no-nonsense. Not everybody values education the way we do. Not everybody values discipline and accountability the way we do."

[LISTEN: Full interview with Swinney on The Raiders Insider Podcast]

Accountability. Trust. Maturity. Competitiveness. Talent. All are things Swinney focuses on, and all are things the Raiders have praised their three rookies for.

"They know how to win," Gruden said of the Clemson trio after Day 4 of training camp. "They know how to prepare. They know how to listen, and they know how to compete and they expect to win. They are not intimidated. They are quality people. I can trust them on a player's night. I can trust them ... with just about everything."

Gruden's return to Oakland last offseason gave way to wide-sweeping roster changes that saw him remake the Raiders into what he believes is a team that can compete for a playoff spot. Gruden and Mayock have talked about molding this team into something resembling the tough Raiders of yesteryear.

But trying to replicate the present or the past is antithetical to the Clemson DNA already instilled in Gruden's rookies. It runs in stark contrast to the culture Swinney built in Death Valley, where the goal is to create the standard for excellence, not meet someone else's.

"For me, I feel like a championship mindset is the same at every level," Ferrell told the media after Day 3 of camp. "Even though in the NFL the play rises, the biggest thing is it starts with the culture, the foundation. That's the biggest thing. You got to do the common things in an uncommon way. Everybody is out here practicing, you can't just go out here and just practice. You got to do it in a way that makes yourself better and do it in a way where you elevate yourself above others.

 

"It ain't just about winning. It's about how you win. We're not just about winning one championship. You want to do stuff to make it last. Multiple teams have won Super Bowls, right? But if I ask you who the greatest dynasty ever? You'll have your own opinion about it. Because you know one team has been consistent, done things the right way and that's how we want to be here. We not trying to be like the Raiders of the old, even though they set the standard. But this time right here, we want to elevate that. We want to set our own new heights, have a chance to be better than those guys.

"Everybody keep talking like, 'Make it like the old Raiders,'" Ferrell continued. "How about we set the standard for the new Raiders? And that everybody wants to be like us. Somebody asked me the other day, 'They brought you in here, how you going to make us like the Patriots of the day? The Seahawks or the Rams of the day?' I thought about something my coach in college told me. I was like, 'I don't want us to be like them at all. I want the Patriots of the world -- I want the Seahawks, the Cowboys, those guys to be like us. I want them to say, 'Dang, I want to do it how they do it. Because they built to last.'"

The idea to become the gold standard was a vision Swinney always had in his mind as a cornerstone for the team culture he would build if he was given a head-coaching job.

“I’ve always had a clear vision," Swinney told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I think to be good at anything, you've got to have a vision for it. I’ve always had a vision if one day I got to be a head coach how I would want to do it. And the type of program that I would want to run. From Day 1, that was my message to my first team. ‘Listen, we don’t want to be like someone else. Let’s build the model program.'

"That’s the most gratifying thing to me is we’ve become -- we’ve eight 10-plus win seasons in a row, only us and Alabama, eight out of my 10 years we’ve been top 10 academically -- we’ve become incredibly consistent along the way, but that was something that we sought out to do, we wanted to become the model program and we wanted to do it the Clemson way."

During their three years together at Clemson, Ferrell, Renfrow and Mullen helped lead the Tigers to a 41-3 record and two College Football Playoff National Championships. That winning pedigree certainly was a factor in the Raiders' plan to use the Tigers' triumvirate as the foundation for their future.

 

While winning titles is the ultimate goal, Clemson taught Renfrow that capturing championships starts with achieving small goals first.

"Just the little things," Renfrow said. "It's really not about winning the Super Bowl, it's about getting collective goals as a team and trying to go accomplish those. So I know at Clemson we wanted to win the opener, win the division, we had like five goals that would lead us to a national championship. So same thing here, we just want to accomplish our goals and get better on the practice field every single day.

"... If we can have competition every single day and feel like we are going up against the best then at the end of the day we're going to get on the field on Sundays and we're not going to be overwhelmed, and we're just going to go out there and have fun because we know we are prepared."

Renfrow, who caught the game-winning touchdown with one second left in the 2017 title game, knows how special the culture was at Clemson.

"It was just a belief that we were going to do what it takes to win," Renfrow said. "Everyone knew what it took and just had a genuine care for one another. It starts with coach Swinney, he does a great job of that and coach Gruden does as well. He really values the guys on his team."

Mullen echoed the idea of the team, not just the coaches, caring for one another being an important factor in developing that championship mentality.

"At Clemson, we had a lot of good people," Mullen said. "The culture, it all starts with the players first, all coming together and wanting to achieve one goal of going to the Super Bowl. Just loving each other, playing with each other, just creating that family atmosphere."

[RELATED: Exclusive: Dabo explains what makes Raiders rookies special]

Aside from a talented quarterback, to be successful in today's NFL you need a pass rusher, a lockdown cornerback, a slot receiver who can make drive-extending catches and a winning locker room culture.

By drafting Ferrell, Mullen and Renfrow -- three champions who were forged and molded in the Clemson cauldron -- the Raiders look to check every box and inject some of Swinney's unique formula into the Silver and Black.

Swinney, after all, doesn't mind if his ethos escapes Death Valley.

"I tell our players we’re not trying to keep all this here," Swinney said. "You take it with you. Take it with into your careers, your marriages, your churches, your communities and if you get a chance to go to the NFL, take it to your next locker room. You know what it looks like. Take it with you.

"And I know that those guys will do just that. And they’ll buy into the way they want to do things there and they’ll do it with great commitment and accountability and you know keep those core values that have made them successful."

 

Those core values helped mold Clemson into the crown jewel of college football, and Gruden hopes they will be the foundation for a new age of Raider football.