Dabo Swinney tries to keep life simple. Family. Faith. Football.
The complexities that come with running a program of Clemson’s magnitude are made easier by keeping the things that matter most ordered and consistent.
Football was always there. Faith came later after the family was fractured. Hard work and the lessons learned from a father who lost his way serve Swinney to this moment. His father died last summer as the prelude to Clemson’s special season began. Those final weeks together were special, and Swinney thought of him virtually every day through that night in Arizona.
Success hasn’t changed him even with the increasing demand for his time and the visibility that came with winning 14 straight games and coming within five points of legendary Alabama in the national championship game.
Money — now at nearly $5 million annually with room to grow — affords him the opportunities to secure the future for his wife and three boys, help the extended family and finance the foundation that has grown from a nice idea to something that’s become meaningful to dozens of charities.
Yet when the cameras are rolling he’s the same guy as when they’re nowhere in sight. He glides easily from silly and loud to serious and emotional. Swinney isn’t embarrassed by the dance videos or bumping chests with the university president. The fun is in the winning, and only two coaches have won more games at Clemson. The one just ahead of him won a national championship, and Swinney intends to have one, too.
A former colleague, miffed that Swinney was named interim coach after Tommy Bowden resigned, mocked his name as if he were a caricature. The obvious shame was that in their time together he didn’t care enough to know Swinney because they had much more in common than football. Strangely, it’s a common misconception. Either they don’t know his story or they never listened closely enough to take it seriously.
Swinney is driven, relentless. He came into college football with so little that he cherishes and savors every morsel. An undersized walk-on receiver for one of the most celebrated programs in the game, he eventually earned a scholarship, played on a national championship team and graduated with honors.
Coaching wasn’t his first choice, but it allowed him to earn an advanced degree and, like so many former athletes, he couldn’t tear himself away from the game. As with anything in his life, he embraced coaching with the same fervor he did in becoming a player at Alabama. Swinney took notes, eventually tucking them between the flaps of a loose-leaf notebook that grew until he needed another.
Married with children, he stepped away briefly and made more money in a couple years as a real estate developer than in his entire time as an assistant coach. But when Bowden called, he didn’t need much convincing.
Bowden knew he was bright and saw the potential through the boyish, eager façade that served him as a recruiter. A substantial raise and the promise for growth helped keep him from going back to his alma mater. Some on the staff would roll their eyes when Swinney launched into hyperbole on another undersized receiver from a high school in his home state. And they virtually laughed in his face when Swinney insisted he could land the Florida high school All-American with world-class speed.
Tyler Grisham and C.J. Spiller helped put Clemson back on the map, but that was only the beginning.
Swinney needed to change the culture and revive the expectations that were harbored during the years that followed the Danny Ford Era. His eternal optimism and tireless spirit — All In — spread like wildfire through the Clemson fan base, and gradually, a genuine optimism returned.
Some of the nation’s top recruits began to buy into his vision. The first was quarterback Tajh Boyd, who hadn’t considered Clemson until eight weeks before signing day. High school players see the proof on Sundays in Spiller, Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington, Vic Beasley, Chandler Catanzaro and Nuk Hopkins. Then Swinney could sit down in their living rooms and sells their parents on the promise of an education, a spiritually nurturing environment and a future for their sons even if they never play a down in the NFL. When three starters in the secondary opted after the championship game for early pro careers, Swinney and his staff reloaded in less than a month.
Fans flocked once again. More than 80,000 for games with Wofford and App State. When he promised a party to celebrate the invitation to the playoff, more than 30,000 appeared. Challenged to break the attendance record for the spring game, they shattered it with more than 50,000.
Practice this year began more than three weeks before spring. A quirk in the calendar was the impetus, but Swinney said the team was eager to get back to work. In 50 games, his teams had not lost after carrying a lead into the fourth quarter. He sleeps better — now — though the onside kick followed by the busted coverage then the kickoff return made it rough for a few days to close his eyes.
The team flushed the disappointment quicker. Having Deshaun Watson — probably for only one more season — and an extraordinary stable of offensive skill has Swinney, his staff and players believing they can immediately contend for the national title.
“I think we’ve recruited well. We’ve got great personnel,” he said. “I think we’ve got the makings.
“Absolutely, we’ve got a chance.”
Acknowledging the potential for a dynamic offense with a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback means fixing the things that can make it even more efficient. Watson, already looking stronger and additionally confident, wasn’t without flaws.
“From a mental standpoint, you took six sacks that were on him. Let’s understand why and eliminate that. The interceptions he had, some of them weren’t his fault, but those that were, what led to that decision. Ball-handling, being fanatical with fundamentals and footwork,” Swinney said. “He did a great job in the run game for us decision-making wise, but there’s still room for improvement there, where he got a little greedy or where he got outside the system just a little bit.”
Still, Swinney understands it’s imperative to allow Watson the creativity that makes him a coveted weapon, a Steph Curry in shoulder pads.
“I’d be disappointed if we weren’t one of the best offenses in the country,” Swinney said. “That’s our expectations.”
Consistency and simplicity are the empirical characteristics that will guide him when he reminds them that all the hype was predicated on what happened before them. At the core are football, family and faith.
“This is a new team. This team hasn’t earned that,” he said. “We won’t have a hard time keeping these guys humble and focused. They understand that we’re not going to sneak up on anybody. We’re going to get everybody’s best. They’ve kind of gotten used to that.
“That wasn’t our first year of being a good team. We’ve been a good team for a while.”
Everybody took a step forward during the spring, Swinney said. “I know we got better as a football team.”
There are reasons for to be cautious. For the second straight year, the NFL took a huge bite from the defense, but recruiting and coordinator Brent Venables give Swinney a better-than-even chance of being pretty good again.
“I’m still disappointed that we didn’t finish. We finished with some regrets. I don’t want to do that this year,” he said. “I felt there were four or five plays that were in our control.
“Those are the things that keep me up.”
Undoubtedly they learned from the experience. By keeping things simple, working hard and relying on the things that got them this far, Swinney believes it wasn’t just lightning in a bottle.
“It’s an opportunity for us to drive this team as we get going. From a coaching standpoint, it’s always what’s in front of us,” he said. “You move on; the players move on a lot quicker than any of us do.
“It’s fuel. It’s just part of our journey. We’ll get it done.”
—This is an insert from TCI’s preseason magazine “Unfinished Business — An insider look at Clemson’s 2016 season.” If you did not get an issue of “Unfinished Business” you can order one here.