Clemson coach’s genuine love for his players is what makes him unique
Even before he knew Dabo Swinney had what it takes to be a successful college head coach, Terry Don Phillips saw something in the Pelham, Ala., native that no one else did.
As a wide receivers coach with no coordinator experience, Swinney was not an obvious choice to become Clemson’s head coach when Tommy Bowden stepped aside at the midway point of the 2008 season. Phillips, Clemson’s athletic director at the time, admits had he not been able to watch Swinney coach his players and interact with them on and off the field, he probably would not have interviewed Swinney for the job.
“To get where he has gotten to, he had to work hard. He had to do extra things just to get noticed,” Phillips said. “Those kinds of experiences, that shapes you on what you are going to do in your adult life. It’s about his heart. He’s got a tremendous heart for people, and he just happens to be an excellent coach. If you take being an excellent coach away, he still has a great heart for people. That is one of the things that make him unique in his profession.”
Phillips recalled instances when he would go into the old football offices in the McFadden Building and would see Swinney’s office filled with players, and not just his position players, but other players on the team as well.
“It was evident that the kids really migrated to Dabo,” Phillips said. “He cared about them, not only as a player, but he is very genuine about their life decisions they make. To Dabo, it is more than just being a football coach. He is a mentor.”
It was clear to Phillips the impact Swinney was having on the kids in the program, and it was something he was able to witness every day.
“He just really caught my attention basically with how he dealt with the kids and his passion,” Phillips said. “Over time, it just really became obvious to me that he had the intangibles and he had the opportunity to become a very good head coach.
“I can’t say that I saw a national championship, but I did strongly believe that in time, he was going to be a very good head coach.”
Phillips saw how Swinney was able to rally his players to work hard. He coached them tough and was able to motivate his position group to put in the effort necessary, but it was his character that acted as a magnetic force to all members of the team. That characteristic is what set Swinney apart.
“He was a tough coach on the field. He’s not one who was just going to love on everybody all the time,” Phillips said. “They know where he stands, but they also know that he really cares. If they weren’t in meetings, invariably, there would be players in Dabo’s office, and he would probably be the only one that had players in his office. They just migrated to him, and I’m not talking about just receivers, I’m talking about kids of all positions.”
Now 10 years removed, and a national championship in his back pocket, Swinney still coaches his players the same way today as he did back when he was just a wide receivers coach.
“I do not coach my team any different than I coach my position. I really don’t,” he said. “I had a segment of about fifteen guys for years and years and years, and now I have a segment of hundred and twenty. I do not coach the team any different than I ran my room and how I deal with my players. It’s just more of an opportunity for me.
“I always focused on the relationships in my room, the culture of my room, the accountability of my room and who they were as people. Academics, you name it. I just do those same things with the team now, and with the staff. I treat the coaching staff the same way. I don’t really do anything any different.”
Swinney’s charisma, which carried him through the hardships of his young life, contributed to his success in coaching young people. From walking on the football team at Alabama, to earning a scholarship and winning a National Championship, all while sharing a bedroom with his mother to be able to afford the opportunity to be at college, Swinney understands what it takes to persevere in the face of adversity.
“I have great relationships with these players. That is the best part of my job, just the interaction with these guys,” Swinney said. “I love what I do and I am passionate about helping them be successful. I’m just figuring life out and I am helping them be prepared.”
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