The Clemson Tigers Have Mastered a Legal Form of Stealing

Clemson is a college football powerhouse. Under head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have two recent national championships under their belts and eight division titles. The elite recruiting organization has had a slew of players enter the NFL. But with all of that success comes rumors of shady tactics — ones Clemson and Swinney seem to be known for.

Clemson’s history and the arrival of Dabo Swinney

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The Clemson football program was formed in 1896, but much of its success is in recent times. They were one of the founding members of the ACC and hold the most titles at 19. When Swinney took over in 2008, things started to turn around. In his first full year coaching the team, they delivered a 9-5 record and qualified for their first ACC title game berth.

His overall record with the Tigers is 137-32, leading them to four National Championship appearances, winning twice. Although Swinney is always the source of rumors, the most recent involving speculation he may leave Clemson to coach in the NFL, he’s currently the highest-paid college coach. Swinney would be hard-pressed to find a sweeter deal in the NFL. But even with the rumors, he and the Tigers find ways to be a threat year after year.

Are the Clemson Tigers sign stealers?

One of the unspoken truths about football is that teams sometimes steal their opponent’s offensive signals. While it’s not illegal, some see it as bad sportsmanship. Recently, Rhett Lashlee, Miami’s offensive coordinator, spoke out about sign stealing and put on the table what the rest of college football already knew: The Clemson Tigers are mighty good at it.

Lashlee told Sports Illustrated, “Clemson is known well for doing it. That happens everywhere. It’s just part of the game. We have to be aware of it, but at the same time, we have to go play. There’s nothing in the rules against stealing signals. Just like in baseball—if you can catch on to a signal that a guy is stealing second, you might as well throw him out.”

So while this might be a common occurrence in college football, it seems Swinney and his staff are at the forefront and use it to their advantage. Another coach told SI, “They really utilize it on the defensive side of the ball. They are really good at it. One time we got in a formation that is 90% run, and they dropped eight [defenders in coverage]. They knew it was a pass call. It was like, ‘Are they listening to our headsets?'”

How it’s done

Brent Venables of the Clemson Tigers
Clemson Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables | Tyler Smith/Getty Images

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Clemson employs a massive amount of time and money for its football program. This means they have the staff to trace the opposing team’s signals. It starts with studying video of the opposing team before facing them. Sources also claim teams may have spies at the game, on the sidelines, or in the coach’s box, complete with binoculars.

Clemson’s Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables is a notorious late defensive play-caller and many attribute this to waiting on his sign stealers for action. Teams have caught on to Clemson’s antics and have used wristbands with plays on them or huddled up, trying to combat sign snitching. It seems like teams that have used these actions have foiled Clemson’s group of spies and kept games interesting.

One thing’s for sure though, college football teams and coaches will work to find any advantage they can, if that includes the fair, but maybe shady act of sign stealing, they’ll try it. If the talk about Clemson is true, four recent National Championship appearances and the highest-paid coach in college football may be worth it.