Entering his third full year as Clemson’s head coach in 2011, Dabo Swinney was in the process of hiring a new offensive coordinator after firing Billy Napier at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.
After narrowing his coordinator search to three coaches, Swinney met with two of them in Clemson.
One of those coaches was Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was eventually hired by Swinney and called the shots for a record-setting Clemson offense from 2011-14 before becoming the head coach at SMU in December 2014.
The other candidate for the job was TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente.
Five years later, Fuente is in his first season as the head coach at Virginia Tech, the team Clemson will face in the ACC Championship game on Saturday night in Orlando, Fla.
“My wife and I came down and spent a day and a half down there,” Fuente said on Sunday during the ACC Championship coaches teleconference. “We really enjoyed coach Swinney and his wife’s company. I was very impressed with him and his personality. Obviously I didn’t really know him, but really enjoyed the conversation.
“Through the years, we have continued to stay in touch, whether via text message or the occasional phone call, and I’ve enjoyed our relationship ever since.”
Swinney opted to give Morris the gig because he felt the hire would make for a smoother transition. Morris had more experience than Fuente, and Morris’ terminologies and verbage offensively matched up well with what Swinney and Clemson were accustomed to. Also, quarterback Tajh Boyd was going into his redshirt sophomore season at the time, and Swinney believed it would be easier for Boyd to build on the foundation he had previously established with Morris as his new offensive coordinator.
But Swinney knew Fuente had the makings of a future head coach after spending time with him. And a year later in 2012, Fuente became the head coach at Memphis, staying there four years before being named legendary coach Frank Beamer’s replacement at Virginia Tech on Nov. 29, 2015.
“We’ve kept up with each other, we’ve talked several times, we’ve talked on a couple recruits here and there, and he’s a class guy,” Swinney said of Fuente following Clemson’s 56-7 win over South Carolina on Saturday. “It was fun in the (ACC) spring meetings to have a chance to visit with him and be around him a little bit because I hadn’t been around him much other than talking to him on the phone.
“But I’m definitely a fan of him, and he’s going to do a great job. He already has.”
Fuente has the same type of respect for Swinney, as well.
“We just got along well,” Fuente said of his meeting with Swinney in 2011. “We certainly didn’t spend two days talking about how he runs his program. We talked a little about offensive football, but I just enjoyed being around him, enjoyed having conversations about different ways to do things. We could have a discussion back and forth and both listen to each other’s points of view. It was a pleasant experience.”
Saturday’s game will mark the second time Swinney and Fuente have faced one another as opposing coaches. The two last met on Sept. 26, 2009, when Fuente was the co-offensive coordinator at TCU and Swinney was in his first full season as Clemson’s head coach. Led by current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, then-No. 15 TCU beat Clemson 14-10 in Death Valley.
Heading into the ACC Championship game, Fuente has led Virginia Tech to a 9-3 record and the program’s first appearance in the title game since 2011, when the Hokies lost to Clemson, 38-10.
Fuente hasn’t had the chance to watch Clemson except when coming across the Tigers on film against the two teams’ common opponents — Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech — but he knows the type of challenge his team will face on Saturday.
“They are very talented and very well coached,” Fuente said. “Coach Swinney, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s done a fantastic job down there. They have athletes all over the field on both sides of the football, and they play together. They’ve been in some close ball games and have found a win to win them, and came darn close to winning the whole thing last year.”
If Clemson wants to make the College Football Playoff again this season and win it all this time, it will first have to take down Virginia Tech, and Swinney expects a big challenge from Fuente and the Hokies.
“Our goal is to win this conference, and we’ve got a great opportunity to do that,” Swinney said. “So, big opportunity, and obviously a tough team in Virginia Tech that we have to get ready for. They’re a champion, as well.
“We’re both champions. Saturday night, there will be one champion, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that’s us.”