ORLANDO, Fla. — Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney held a press conference at Camping World Stadium on Friday afternoon as the Tigers prepare to battle for the ACC Championship. A transcript of the press conference follows:
DABO SWINNEY: Okay. Well, glad to be here and not on the road recruiting this week. It’s always an awesome opportunity anytime you get a chance to compete for your championship and have that opportunity in back to back years is special for us. It’s been a long time since we’ve won it back to back and certainly even had a chance to compete for it. So we’re excited to be here. Appreciate Orlando and all the people that probably had to do double time to set up all the logistics of being able to host this championship. So very thankful for the Citrus Bowl sports folks and all the people at the ACC in pulling this all together. But we’re excited to be here represent the Atlantic, have a tremendous amount of respect for Virginia Tech, always have and, you know, just really happy for Justin and proud of him and the job that he’s done and I don’t have any doubt that they’ll be a fixture in that division and in this game for many years to come under his leadership. He’s a great one, but for us, you know, our guys are on the way down right now and they’re excited about playing. It’s going to be a great ballgame, great venue and we know that we’re going to have to play very well. This is a very good football team. They’re a champion. We’re a champion. And tomorrow night there will be one champion. So we both want the same thing and, you know, it’s all about playing your best four quarters tomorrow.
Q. Dabo, going back from last year and playing in the game, what did you learn from it and what have you maybe done this week to prepare your team for playing in this year’s game?
DABO SWINNEY: You know, I think the experience for our team last year was tremendous. You know, we don’t really do anything different. It’s just it’s the next game. I mean, it’s the championship game. There is no next Saturday, but as far as our preparation, we don’t really do anything different. It’s the same as far as how we get ready. We truly believe every game is a championship game. That’s how you get to these type games, you know, is you have that mentality all throughout the season because if you don’t, then you have a hard time getting to this spot. But the biggest difference is, you know, these guys know that truly, every play Saturday night is a championship play and somebody’s going to hold the trophy up when the game is over. There is no game next week. These guys are going to be off for a little over a week, well deserved break for them, and, you know, we know we’ve got to earn it. And I think the experience that they’ve drawn from last year of playing in this 13th game is, you know, priceless. I mean, I think experience is your greatest teacher and we’ve got great leadership that is doing an unbelievable job in leading our young team, because we’ve got a bunch of young guys, bunch of guys that didn’t play last year, a bunch of freshman that are helping us and these seniors and juniors have done an outstanding job.
Q. Coach, when it comes to preparation, especially with Deshaun, what set him apart from other quarterbacks you’ve coached and how he prepares for a football game?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah. He’s relentless about it. He’s he just never shuts it off. I mean, you know some guys, they come over and they’re there in the meetings and they’re engaged in the practice and then they don’t really think about much football again until they come back again the next day. Deshaun, when he shows up on Mondays, he’s already got three pages of notes. He’s already watched, you know, all the games. He’s already got his questions. He’s already got his suggestions. He’s already got, Listen, these are problems, how are we going to handle this? He’s just an unbelievable preparer. He’s obviously talented but his will to prepare and his consistency in that, you know, sets him apart.
Q. Could you speak to the matchup of Virginia Tech’s wide receivers on the edge with some of the athletes you have on the secondary? How do you see that? And how important will that be in this game?
DABO SWINNEY: It’s important for both sides. There is going to be some 50/50 balls. That’s just the way it is. The ball’s going to go up for us and for them. And you’ve got to win those matchups. Easier said than done for both sides. They got a great quarterback. So do we. Their quarterback is surrounded by excellent skill, guys that can go make plays, body control type plays, back shoulder plays, run by you plays, one handed plays, I mean, a little bit of everything. I’ve seen it all. And our quarterback has the same thing. So it’s it’s going to be a fun matchup for both sides, their secondary and our secondary going against both of these sets of receivers.
Q. Five years ago when you beat these guys for the ACC championship right here, Coach, back left corner for you. When you beat these guys for the ACC championship five years ago, the program was coming off of a losing record. What do you remember about being carried off the field by your guys? And what did that mean for this program at that time?
DABO SWINNEY: It was huge. You know, it was we might have played our best game of the season in those four quarters. And, you know, we had started off, gotten off to such a great start. And we were such a young team that year. I think we were seven and zero or eight and zero or something like that. And then we got beat, and then we were kind of up and down to finish the season. Didn’t really know how to handle the success. I think that’s probably harder to handle than the adversity, to be honest with you. We didn’t really know. We were just kind of in the early stages of developing it. And so it was our second championship appearance in three years there, you know. So those guys, they got beat in Tampa in that first year. You know, they were eager to get back to the championship game. And but that team I’ll always be so appreciative of because, you know, they knocked the wall down. I mean, because it had been 20 years since we had won a championship at Clemson, an ACC championship. So somebody eventually has got to break through, and they were the road pavers, if you will. You know, they paved the road or at least they laid the path down. And maybe that team last year paved it for us, but just you know, appreciative of them. It was an awesome night. It was an incredible experience. I remember getting back home late. We must have had 3,000 people at the West Zone. It was just a sheer joy and excitement because it was something that hadn’t been done in a long time. And even winning ten games for the first time in 20 years. So that was special. And then getting back last year with the enormous amount of pressure that was on that team, being Number 1 for so long, playing ten straight, we were a tired football again but kept finding ways to win. That was pretty special last year, being a part of that. And that was my hundredth game. I mean, it was just a great moment last year. But to get back here this year again, 28 years since we’ve had a chance to be back to back champs, and with the type of pressure and expectations that these guys have had all year long coming off of that season, I think, has been very special. It’s been a lot of fun to watch these guys put in the work.
Q. You were without Austin Bryant for several games earlier in the season. Now you’ve got another defensive end. Richard Yeargin is out. How much more difficult would those injuries have been on your defense if you didn’t have a guy as versatile as Christian Wilkins? And how unique is that for a player to make that transition so seamlessly?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s the difference in our team this year and last year. Last year, we were really lucky. I mean, we had no competitive depth on our defense. We had Shaq and we had Dodd and everybody else was a freshman and it was just an enormous drop off, especially early part of the season; whereas this year, from day one, we’ve had more competitive depth out of the gate. And then losing Austin, you know, it was very disappointing and a difficult loss for us going into the Auburn game, but it turned out to be a blessing because it allowed us to get Dexter emerging. It allowed us to slide Christian out there and to really develop him as an end. He can go play deep tackle tomorrow. And so it just made us more versatile. It gave us the we’ve had the competitive depth this year that we didn’t have last year. That’s made our practices better, our meetings better, the morale better, to be honest with you. So it’s been really good. We’ve got a good rotation there as well as inside, so we’ve just been able to sustain an injury or two this year; whereas, last year, we were really lucky. We didn’t have any injuries until we lost Shaq in the Orange Bowl. But by that time, Austin was kind of ready to go play a little bit, but earlier in the year, we lost him, like we lost Austin this year, we would have been in trouble; whereas, this year we were much more prepared from a depth standpoint to withstand an injury.
Q. This is the second year for you guys, but can you talk about managing the added pressure of a playoff and kind of trying to hold your spot there while also trying to win this huge game?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I just try to relief all that from these guys, you know. They all know it’s a big game. They don’t live in a cave. I try to make sure we’re having some fun along the way. Let’s make it about Clemson. Let’s stay focused on what’s real, what’s not real. Our staff does a great job of, you know, we win games, there are still things we’ve got to correct. We lost a game, there was a lot of good. So we grow every week. We truly try to keep a windshield mentality of what’s next, all right? Let’s just lock into that and just stay keep a daily focus. We don’t really vary. We have a lot of consistency as far as how we game plan, how we get ready as a staff, and the same thing how we practice. And I think that gives our guys confidence. They really truly believe they’ll follow through with the things we’re asking them to do on a daily basis. When they leave to go to the hotel on Fridays, they’re ready and they put in the work. So we just try to stay focused on the moment and not get distracted by that and then you have a lot of communication that has to go on it within your program. You know, leadership meetings on Mondays and Fridays. We have what we call the counsel meeting on Tuesdays. And so we have a lot of communication that goes on and makes sure that we provide good leadership within that locker room and that those guys have the right message.
Q. You guys have come out of your share of tight games this season so far. Is that at all a concern for you going into this weekend? And, by the same token, how much of a concern of turnover is for Saturday?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it’s a positive because we won them. I think there’s something to be said for winning close games. I mean, I think that builds mental toughness. And this team is like I don’t know. We’re like 16 2 or 16 3 or something like that in our last 19 games. So I think there’s a confidence that you can win regardless so you don’t get tight or overwhelmed in critical, crucial situations. You win that moment. You win that play.
But the reason we have been in those tight games, a big reason, outside of playing good teams is we’ve had an enormous amount of turnovers. If you look at the close games that we’ve had this year, we’ve played Louisville a close game, pretty good team. Pretty good player. We had five turnovers. Still won. You know, they had 100 Mark Jackson had the ball 103 snaps and five turnovers and we still won. I think that builds confidence that, you know, you can beat a team of that caliber and overcome those type of mistakes. We had four turnovers in the NC State game. And we had four possessions, three inside the 5, 4 inside the 20 that we got zero points. And so it’s been a that’s a problem, but we were able to overcome that all but one game. And the same thing in the Pittsburgh game. We had 630 yards. We needed 631, literally. And we came up a yard short offensively and a couple of turnovers and defensively, probably played our worst game, but we played good people and you put the ball on the ground and you give people short fields, you know, you get beat. So I think our guys have more confidence from winning those games because they won them, but as far as the concern of turnovers, no question. I mean, for us, when we have one or less, we have played at an incredibly high level. When we’ve had two or more, hang onto your hat. So it’s a big part it’s a huge part of the game for both teams tomorrow night.
Q. Dabo, going back to the playoff discussion, I know some coaches avoid talking with the team about it. You mentioned a little bit about some of the things and plays for you. Have you changed at all how you’ve dealt with it from what you did last year to this year at all?
DABO SWINNEY: No. No, not at all. Same goals. We don’t have playoff on our goal board. We don’t have national championship on our goal board. We’ve got five goals: Win the opener, win the division, win the championship, win the ACC, win the closer. That’s all we focus on, and we just try to just be the best we can be. Every year for us it’s a quest for best. What is that? Okay. Is it 9 3? Is it 8 4? Is it 12 0? Is it 11 1? We just we just play them one at a time. Whatever result man, it can it can be very, very hard. I think it’s easier to rally, you know, when you’ve had adversity, if you’re made of the right stuff, you know, if you’ve got the right character in the first place. But when everything’s perfect all the time, I think that you start to depend on yourself a little bit. You start to lose sight of maybe some of the little things that helped you get there. So I think, again, a little failure along the way is good for the soul.
Q. Dabo, what’s the difference between building to success, like last year in clearing hurdles, and this year kind of maintaining that level?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, I think building to it is a very, very difficult challenge because you’ve got to get all the pieces in place. You’ve got to get the right people. There’s just it’s the first time for everything, as far as the philosophies, the processes, everything that you’re trying to do. You’re trying to create credibility and alignment. You know, you’re dealing with people that didn’t come there to play for you, you know, so you’re having to manage all of that. There’s a lot that goes into building it, as opposed to if you don’t take shortcuts.
If you don’t take shortcuts and you stay committed to the core values of who you are and then you get it built, then you have and then you nurture that culture on a daily basis by, you know, discipline, graduation, recruiting, bringing the right people in, then it can sustain itself if you do a great job of developing the right type of leadership.
And that’s what we’ve done at Clemson, and it’s been a very steady process. But the best leadership comes from within. And that’s been my focus from day one, was not to have a good team; have a great program, to have a very consistent program. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win the championship every year. It doesn’t mean we’re going to have a 10 win season every year. But we’re going to have a great program, and we’re going to graduate our players. We’re going to truly impact lives and build young men through the game of football, and we’re going to make sure they have fun doing it. And if we keep those as our priorities, we’ll win. We’ll win. And that’s what we’ve done. So we’ve just tried to maintain that course, not be afraid to change. Don’t change to change. But, you know, be very purposeful and smart in the things that we do and always keep trying to get better. I think that’s the other thing. Once we’ve had success, it’s very easy to say, “Well, we’ve got this. This worked last year.” And that is the worst mentality that you can have. You have to always strive to get better. You’ve got to always ask yourself, “What’s next? How do we get better? How do we do this?” You can’t get satisfied. And I think that’s what the best of the best do in anything, whether it’s a football team, a professional athlete, whatever. You just keep trying to get better. You keep challenging yourself. And I think you’ve got to make sure you have some fun along the way, because if you don’t, it’ll wear you out. And we try to make sure we keep a good balance.
Q. Can you talk about leadership, just touch on what Ben Boulware has meant to you guys as far as the defensive side? He’s been pretty impressive.
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, he just shows same guy every day, every day 365, all in, all the time. Just unbelievably committed to being the best that he can be and being a great leader. Not afraid to challenge his teammates. Nobody works harder. Nobody prepares more. When your best players are your hardest working guys and the most committed guys, makes everything else easy. You know, grew up down the street from Clemson and he lives his dream every single day that he gets a chance to come over there and put that jersey on.
Q. If you could write a headline about your team coming to this game, what would it say and why?
DABO SWINNEY: A headline? Now I’m doing your job? I’ve got enough jobs to do. If I can write a headline? You know, I would just say that Clemson’s had a tremendous season and now they have an opportunity to finish strong with another ACC Championship. I mean, that’s really the story. I think that says it all. We’ve had a great year, 11 1 and we’re in the championship game and it’s all about the finish now. I mean, that’s what everybody that’s what the last headline is everybody going to remember is that last one, and so you know, our focus is to try and finish what we set out to do.
Q. A couple weeks ago, you said some of your underclassmen after the season were going to go pro. Usually coaches don’t do that. They see it as a distraction, but it kind of seems like an afterthought now. Do you think, if you had to do it over again, would you still say your players are going to turn pro after the season, things like that, that type of distraction?
DABO SWINNEY: Our situation is different. For example, our situation this year is very different from last year. We didn’t know on several guys that they were leaving until after their last game. Kevin Dodd didn’t know. He wasn’t sure. T.J. Green wasn’t sure. I think Jayron was leaning that way and got the grade. Mackensie, same thing. I think they were all kind of up in the air. It’s a different situation. These guys are all graduated in here in a week or two. So this has been the this has been it wasn’t people just didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t new news. I mean, they were on our senior poster. They had been seniors in the media guides. They had been listed they had been seniors all year long. So it wasn’t anything new. Deshaun this is what Artavis, this is what they came to do. They came in together. They’re graduating together. Their goal was to come in, get their degree, and go play pro ball. And that’s when we honored them as seniors, it was laughable because being a senior is about academics, not eligibility. People forget that. Deshaun’s more of a senior than a lot of our seniors. All right? So called. So it’s just it was very simple. It wasn’t very complicated at all. I guess it’s just not the norm. It’s very uncommon to have a guy like Artavis and Deshaun graduate in three years. He took 20 hours this summer. I mean, it’s amazing. And everybody talks about Deshaun and Artavis. He needs like 8 catches to be the leading receiver in the history of Clemson and he got his degree in three years. It’s just unbelievable. They have been roommates and they have been incredibly competitive like that, on and off the field. I think Deshaun had a tremendous influence on Artavis as far as just his pursuit of excellence in everything that he does.
Wayne Gallman, we’ve know since last year that he was coming back and he was going to graduate in December and he’s going pro. It’s his fourth year you come to get your degree. And same thing with Mike Williams. Mike Williams would have left last year so, you know and he’s unbelievable. The guy had a broken neck and then made the Biletnikoff. Unbelievable. He’s the best receiver in the country. It ain’t even close. And he’ll be the first one drafted. There ain’t no doubt about it. So he’s getting his degree and graduating in two weeks. They’re ready to go. So, hey, more power to them. There ain’t no distractions. We’ve known that since last year. These guys have been locked in and dialed in on the finish. I promise you. There ain’t none of them guys they’re a hundred percent locked in on winning. They’re still there’s been some pain in this team that has fueled their fire all year long, and they want to finish with no regrets. They all can see the finish line, and they all know it’s coming. But they ain’t worried about it. They want to finish with no regrets. They want to win. That’s all they’re worried about, and that’s the type of leadership that we’ve had with this team all year long. So it really wasn’t even more of that. They’re graduating, and they’re ready to go.
Q. I’ve got another playoff question for you. Ohio State’s Number 2. They’re not playing in a championship game this weekend. You all are. Washington is. Alabama is. How do you feel about the prospect of them maybe making the playoff over their own conference champion or other Power 5 champions?
DABO SWINNEY: Ask me that on Sunday. Ask me that on Sunday. Right now it’s about beating Virginia Tech. That’s really all that matters to me. I could care less about Ohio State or any of the rest of them. We’ve got to focus on what we’re trying to do. I think every week they have that show for a reason, because they want conversation. They want discussion. We’ve got to fill the radio shows with somebody somebody’s got to have something to talk about or argue about, you know. Everybody’s got to have something to argue about. That’s what makes the world go round. So I think when it’s over on Sunday, I think it would be a very clear picture. I think the committee will get it right. But for us, we just want to win and be there. We want to win and be ACC champions. And if we do that, then we’ll have the opportunity to play somebody, whoever that is. I’ll let all the other people figure it out. I’m just proud of our team for earning the opportunity to be here. And one thing I know: Nobody’s going to give Clemson anything. We’ve got to earn it. So I’m glad we’re playing. I’m glad we’re playing. Let’s go get better as a football team. And I think that that is one of the things about our team: We’re still improving. And I’m excited about that. Hopefully we’ll see that growth continue tomorrow night.