How Joe Maddon and the Cubs inspired Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

How Joe Maddon and the Cubs inspired Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

Joe Maddon and the Cubs may have a hand in another championship.

As Clemson gets set for a rematch with Alabama in the college football national championship game Monday night, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney reflected on a day he spent at Wrigley Field that changed the course of his season.

[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Swinney and Clemson assistant coaches Brent Venables and Marion Hobby were in Chicago for the NFL Draft in April and decided to check out a Cubs game.

Swinny explains the rest:


This is a true story. Joe Maddon would kill me for saying this because we've kind of become buddies and we text a little bit.

But I called my agent and I said, 'Hey, man, we're going up to the Draft' and I said, 'Would you happen to know anybody that could maybe get me and Venables and Hobby some tickets to the Cubs game?' He goes, 'Well, I know Joe Maddon.' And I go, 'Who's Joe Maddon?' He went, 'He's the manager.' I go, 'That's a pretty good guy to know.' 

So Joe Maddon hooked us up with [Cubs traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani] and so we ended up going in. So there was this rain delay. Next thing I know, Vijay gave us a tour, and then he takes us into the locker room and I really didn't know many of these guys, but as it turns out, man, these guys are huge football fans.

Jon Lester comes right up to me and they're all like, 'Hey coach, how are you doing?' And Jon Lester's wife is a Clemson grad and he's from Georgia. Just kind of sat around and talked to all those guys. It was really neat to meet him. That shortstop [Addison Russell], he looked like my son. He was like this young kid and watching those guys get ready for the game. What's that pitcher's name? Arrieta? Arrieta was on the mound but he was off doing Zen somewhere getting ready.

So there's this rain delay, not sure if they're going to play, so I'm walking around, I've got a chance to kind of see the culture there and I was like, "Man, this is really cool. These guys are loose, they know they've got a good team.' And so I ended up going around and they take me to meet Joe. So I go meet Joe and I walk in his office and he's got his baseball pants on and he's got this shirt on that says 'Try Not to Suck' and I'm like, he's big. I'm like, this is Joe Maddon.

So we talked for a minute and he's like, 'Hey man, I watched your team and watched you guys last year' and we kind of have an instant connection. It was really neat. I told him, 'You need to know this' because I had met his players and been around, 'You guys have a great culture. I'm telling you, you've got a winning culture here. You've got a good - just feel - in this building. You can smell it.'

They knew they had the best team and I think they embraced that. They embraced that. Don't run from that. It kind of resonated with me and when I came back and I kind of got off this summer and had a little time, that was one of the things I came back and I told the guys Day 1: 'Listen, everybody has been telling us we're this target. Well, we are the target, but let's embrace that. For us at Clemson, best is the standard. So if Clemson is the target, best is the standard. So let's focus on being the best we can be. Let's be committed to that and let's embrace that. Let's run right to it.'

Our guys bought into that and then I've always told the guys, my message has already been, 'Hey, don't lose to Clemson. If we don't lose to Clemson, we've got a chance here.'

(h/t Chicago Sun-Times for the photo)

That is some story, and crazy how connected the sports world is.

Also, Swinney's story is rife with awesome little nuggets, like how he didn't know who Joe Maddon was and how Arrieta was "off doing Zen somewhere" before his start.

Just more proof the 2016 Cubs will be remembered forever.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."