For nearly 30 years, Daniel Shirley has reported on, written and edited stories about college football. He has been a fan for much longer, attending his first game aged five. His father, his sons and he are all Clemson fans. It's a family affair.
Daniel's career has taken him through his home town paper in Anderson, South Carolina, the school paper at Clemson to his birth town of Valdosta, to Albany and Macon, all in Georgia. He is currently the Senior Editor for College Football for The Athletic.
I'm fascinated to talk about and uncover people's stories, memories and passion for college football. Daniel was generous enough to spend an hour with me. In a follow up piece, he talks more about his career and offers advice for aspiring writers. In this first article, he recounts his memories, favourite traditions, games and a look ahead at the storylines going into next season, all in his welcoming Southern tone. He was a delight to listen to, here's what he had to say.
You grew up in South Carolina, how far were you from Clemson?
"About 20 minutes away. My dad didn't go there but we had several people in my family who went to school there. We also have a bunch of South Carolina Gamecock fans in our family...we don't talk about them that much" (he laughs).
On the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry...
"They were similar back then, South Carolina wasn't in the SEC, this was in the Seventies. They were an independent program but then Clemson won a national title in 1981 and that changed that program for a long time."
"It was a given I was going to go to Clemson, I was going to games since I was five years old. You know, that was just a thing we did and that's where I always wanted to go to school."
I shared that I had seen Clemson in my first game. Brandon Streeter was the starting Tigers quarterback against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. "Now he's the offensive coordinator at Clemson," Daniel added, "he just got promoted this year."
What is it you love about college football?
A big smile breaks on Daniel's face and he laughs.
"You love football, right? So the NFL is the NFL and the NFL is a monster. For sports fans in our country, the NFL is it. It's the number one."
"College football's different. I had a guy that worked for me at two different newspapers who was from Rochester, NY, and the first time he went to a Georgia game, he said (his eyes widen) this is different to college football in the North. This is how we watch the NFL. There's tailgating and there's just the pageantry. In college football, it's passed down from generation to generation."
"My dad took me to games from the time I was very little and we went to games together until I graduated. Even when I could sit in the student section at Clemson, I sat with my dad most of the time."
"An NFL game for me, you watch the game, you leave, you go home. College football... you show up three or four hours before and you tailgate with your friends and you watch other games on the big screen TV at their tailgate, you eat fried chicken or ribs or whatever it is, and then you go to the game. After the game you come back and you hang out at the tailgate a little bit more, if you want. If you lose, you pack up and you leave, right?"
It's the occasion, isn't it? You're able to go with your dad which makes it all the more special. It's as if you had no choice but to be a Clemson fan...
"And I've passed that down to my sons. My eldest son, Ben, goes to Clemson and works as a student manager with the team. He's a junior and has been doing it since he was a freshman. Both my sons are Clemson fans, it's pretty cool to be able to pass that along too."
I love the great tradition "Skipper" at Virginia Tech, I jumped out of my seat when they fired the cannon behind our stand.
"Clemson's got one when they score touchdowns, a little cannon that goes off. That's another thing, when you mention traditions of college football, Clemson, they're kind of goofy. Their players rub a rock for good luck and run down a hill to come in to the stadium. If you told somebody off the street, they'd think 'how goofy is that?'. Every team has those that they lean on, and the fans love them."
What's your favourite tradition?
"It's where you went to school that has to be your one. Growing up in Clemson, it's hard to beat when the team comes to the top of the hill, rubs the rock and runs down."
"Georgia has Uga, a real life bulldog and Georgia Tech has the Ramblin' Wreck. Georgia Southern's got a cool one. Their program really started in the Eighties. Restarted, I guess, and they didn't have a whole lot so they rode old yellow school buses over to the stadium. There's a lot of them across the country that are pretty awesome."
Old yellow school buses, Uga and the Ramblin' Wreck are great college traditions in the state of Georgia. (Image credits: Pinterest and kccollegegameday.com)
What's your favourite game that you've watched?
"Growing up, I was there when Clemson beat Nebraska for the national title so that was a big one. It was cool for me to see my sons get to see Clemson win the national title in 2016."
"The Texas-USC game a few years ago with Vince Young against Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. It's hard to say the greatest of all time because it's hard to compare eras but as far as games I've watched, that one was right up there. In the Rose Bowl that year, they went back and forth. Vince Young scores a late touchdown to win the game and win a national title. Not being a fan of either team, that one was fun to watch."
In your line of work, I'm sure you have to be as objective as possible and you're clearly a Clemson fan. Are there any teams that you secretly support?
"We have a radio show here in Macon that we do every day so it's easier to talk about teams that are winning. You don't want a team that loses, that's no fun to talk about. Georgia, Georgia Tech, we talk about Georgia Southern as well as they have a tradition of winning. They were a national championship program before they moved up to FBS level. Back then it was Division 1-AA, now it's FCS but they were winning championships a lot.""
"You want the teams you talk about a lot to win. It makes the show a lot easier to do than if they're losing all the time."
Who are the real characters of college football you've engaged with?
"Character-wise, Mike Leach, the head coach of Mississippi State now. He was the offensive coordinator at Valdosta State which was a Division II program when I worked at the newspaper there."
"He was on that staff, Guy Morris was on that staff, he later became the head coach at Kentucky. Dana Holgorsen was on that staff, he's now the head coach at West Virginia. Hal Mumme was the head coach and he later was the head coach at Kentucky. That was an interesting group to be around and just see those guys at a small Division II program and they were all together."
"To see the genius of them working together was kind of fun and it wasn't a big city so you got to know them a little more than if you were working at a larger newspaper and they were coaching at a big program. You got to know them up close and personal so that was a lot of fun."
Valdosta State launched the careers of Mike Leach and Kirby Smart
(Image credits: cdispatch.com and dawgnation.com)
"You know, Kirby Smart, the head coach at Georgia, he was later an assistant at Valdosta State. They've had a good run there. Seth Emerson, who works at The Athletic, wrote a story about all the coaches who've come from Valdosta State, seeing them before they became big names in college football."
I've watched Mike Leach and Kirby Smart's post-game interviews. Both seem to be big characters and hugely competitive. Are they much different now to how they were then?
"I think they're the same, I really do. They're genuine. You can tell when somebody's faking it and they're not who they are. They're pretty much that way when I was getting to know them. They were just assistant coaches at Valdosta State, they weren't even head coaches at that time. Kirby was a few years later than Mike and the other guys I mentioned, but I think they're the same because it's genuine. I think you have to be that way if you're going to be a successful coach.
If you're a little more playful, a little more personality driven that's fine, be that person. Or if you're more serious, like a Nick Saban or some of those coaches, that's fine too. I think you have to be genuine or the players will realise, and I don't think those coaches will be successful."
Having got to know Kirby Smart, it must have been great to see him win the national title, and a huge lift for the state of Georgia...
"It was, yeah. There's been a 'sports curse' (Daniel makes the air quote with his hands) on Georgia for a while and then the Braves win the World Series baseball and Georgia wins the national championship all in four or five months. For a lot of Georgia fans, it was 1980 since they'd last won a national title so they had lived their frustration and gotten close a couple of times. A lot of my friends are Georgia fans and it was a big relief not to have to hear about it."
"Since they last won it, Clemson had won a national title, Georgia Tech had won a national title, Tennessee, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn. All these teams that you compete with on almost a yearly basis had won a national title, and you hadn't. I think they were relieved to get out from under that and not have to talk about that any more."
What was the origin of the "curse"?
"It's Georgia not winning it and the Falcons coming close. The Braves 'only' winning it once when they had been there several times in the Nineties. Georgia Tech had won it in '90, the Braves won the World Series in the middle of the Nineties and it had been since then. We did have our soccer team (Atlanta United) win it, and we did have a parade but they weren't as ingrained in the community as these other teams, or sports were. And the Super Bowl. You're up 28-3, you're supposed to win that game. Georgia in the national championship game had a big lead and didn't get the job done."
"To see the Braves and Georgia win it within four or five months of each other was pretty special for our state."
Do you think Georgia will repeat?
"They lost a lot of their defense, and they've got talent. Kirby is stockpiling talent on that roster, I don't think there's any doubt about that, but it's hard for me to see them losing that much off that defense and say they'll repeat."
"I do think they'll be in the mix but are they better right now than 'Bama or Ohio State, I'm not sure. I do think they have a chance to be right back in the SEC Championship game and if they do that, they'll be right back in the hunt."
What are the storylines you're keeping an eye on for next season?
"Nationally, I can't wait to see what Lincoln Riley does at USC. I'm interested in Michigan. Can they do what they did, was that a one-year blip or was that the start of something? I'm interested in Oklahoma with Brent Venables (former defensive coordinator at Clemson), my son Ben actually worked for him as an equipment manager. People are always thinking Texas is going to 'be back' and the same with Miami. They've got a new coach (Mario Cristobal), so I guess a lot of it is tied to the new coaches."
I'm actually going to the Texas-Alabama game in September...
"That'll be fun! I've never been there, but that's one where if you were saying where would you go to watch college football, Texas is one of those. You picked a good one!"
Which game would you love to watch as a fan?
"I'd love to go and see the Iron Bowl. At Auburn or Alabama, either one. That rivalry takes over the whole state. You have to pick a side. I hear some people say 'I'll cheer for Alabama unless they're playing Auburn'. You can't do that. You have to pick a side."
"Texas-Oklahoma would be one too. They play at a neutral site. I've been to Georgia-Florida which is played at a neutral site. The stadium is split down the middle and you have red on the one side, blue on the other. I'd like to see that with Texas-Oklahoma too, that would be really cool."
I'm interested to see South Carolina this year. Shane Beamer seems like a really bright young coach and it will be interesting to see how Spencer Rattler develops this season...
"South Carolina won seven games last year with pretty terrible quarterback play. What can they do with a young man who's really talented? I liked the Beamer hire. One of my friends is a huge South Carolina fan. I told him I really liked this hire. It wasn't one that jumped out at people, but I think Shane did a really good job last year. He's been really aggressive in the portal."
"We saw Michigan State use that last year. Mel Tucker used it and became an 11-win team. they won two games that COVID year when they only played seven."
"I'm really interested in seeing what South Carolina can do. That second team right now in the SEC East is kind of up for grabs. If you look at it, it's Tennessee and South Carolina. Florida has a new coach in Billy Napier, Kentucky is really good, so who's going to be that second team in the SEC East is going to be fun to see."
If you were a top high school athlete, which school would you pick?
"It's hard not to pick Alabama, with what they've done and the talent they've put in the NFL. I really like what Marcus Freeman is doing at Notre Dame, the new head coach, so I could see playing for him, I really like him a lot."
What do you like about him?
"First off, you can tell he's a heck of a coach by watching his teams at Cincinnati, at Notre Dame when he was the defensive coordinator at both of those schools. I like his personality. He really embraces those young players and tries to help them, not just as football players, but growing as young men as well. I think he's going to do a heck of a job, he could really add some lustre to that Notre Dame tradition."
Who are the best and most underrated players you've seen?
Calvin Johnson is one of the best players Daniel has seen
"I watched Lawrence Taylor at UNC growing up, he was a phenomenal athlete. Also in person, Herschel Walker, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Trevor Lawrence."
"I didn't see Tom Brady in person, but you have to say the most underrated. You see guys who were good players in college who were amazing in the NFL and great college players who didn't make it."
Discussing head coaches, Daniel talked about the need to be genuine. I'd like to thank him for generously sharing his genuine interest, passion and excitement for the game he loves, and I continue to love listening to and learning about.