Dabo Swinney: College Football’s Joyful Warrior
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Dabo Swinney loves his Clemson kids, and he’s not hesitant to say it or show it publicly. He’s an unabashed player’s coach, a term sometimes used pejoratively to describe a person who gets so close to his players that he permits them to run amuck. But such is not the case with Swinney, who’s deftly balanced being the boss with being the type of empathetic, energetic and compassionate leader for whom elite recruits in the region want to play.
In the seven years since supplanting Tommy Bowden on an interim basis in 2008, Swinney has done more than just win football games at Clemson—he’s built an impeccable culture and a family atmosphere modeled in his own image. One relationship at a time, he’s transformed the Tigers from a solid program to an elite one worthy of emulation.
“He’s just such a great man,” offered former Clemson RB Zac Brooks. “He’s a man of faith, and you can just see how important it is for him to turn his players into great men, great husbands and great fathers. And he does it by example, always carrying himself with the highest possible character. Under his leadership, you just know you’re going to be successful in life.”
By the conformists measuring stick, Swinney may not always look the part, quick to become excitable, showcase his latest dance moves or snap off a catchphrase that winds up on t-shirts in the campus bookstore. But those are his strongest attributes, an ability to connect—authentically—with his staff and with a generation of student-athletes longing to be heard and appreciated.
By design or not, Swinney is the quintessence of a head coach thriving in the social age, when impassioned mantras turn into hashtags and doing the Nae Nae or sledding at Memorial Stadium become ideal content for a Vine video. Above all else, Swinney is enjoying the ride, which is highly contagious to the players, both those on the roster and the blue-chippers still deciding which school to attend. And by living in the moment and remaining grounded, the coach is also improving his staying power in a career rife with burnout.
“At the front of his mind, at all times, are his players,” said former All-ACC OG Eric Mac Lain of Swinney. “Coach is the epitome of a player’s coach, whether that means getting us a bigger stipend from the NCAA or making sure that we achieve all of our personal goals. He will go above and beyond for his players. He also instilled in us that Clemson football is often more than just a game. It could be what helps a fan get through chemo or beat depression. He shares a lot of powerful stuff with his players.”
Swinney has earned the love and respect of his players by the way he treats them. He’s earned the love and respect of the program’s fans and administration for the frequency with which he wins football games.
Nationally, Swinney has never quite gotten the attaboys befitting a coach with a .735 career winning percentage. Maybe it was his youth. Or his whimsical first name. Or the fact that he lived in the shadow of Jimbo Fisher and Florida State in the ACC for a spell. Whatever the rationale, Swinney wasn’t truly considered elite … until last season, when Clemson erupted from being the next best thing to the Noles in the ACC to an unbeaten regular season, a spot opposite Alabama in the national title game and the longest run in school history as the nation’s top-ranked team.
And Swinney did all of it with a seemingly flawed squad that began the 2015 season needing to overcome a handful of tricky hurdles, such as a rebuilt O-line, the loss of many key defensive stars and the departure of linchpin offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU. Now, Clemson, ranked No. 12 in the preseason, was hardly starting from scratch, but with so many new faces in key places, the bar wasn’t set at competing for the school’s first national championship since 1981 either.
The Tigers retooled on the fly in the offseason, the residue of recruiting the right players and the right staffers, an area in which Swinney really excels. He’s the CEO of Clemson Inc., and he’s comfortable delegating to Brent Venables on defense and Morris successors Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott on offense. And since the staff was set and the players had bought in a long time ago, having to fill the two-deep with the next man up was not about to derail these Tigers.
Clemson endured a few close calls in the first half of the year, beating Louisville by only three on Sept. 17 and needing a two-point stop at the end of regulation to put away Notre Dame two weeks later. It was in these victories that the Tigers’ mettle was tested and the squad started to understand its 2015 potential. It wouldn’t be until November, however, that Clemson broke into a different stratosphere of national contention and reverence.
Florida State and Clemson. Longtime rivals and the ACC’s two heavyweights. The Seminoles, though, had the Tigers’ number of late, winning the previous three meetings, each of the wins serving as a stepping-stone to a league crown. For Clemson, getting over the hump would simply be impossible without first knocking off FSU, which is precisely what happened on a seminal Nov. 7 evening in Death Valley that launched the Tigers from college football’s hunter to the program everyone hoped to catch.
Clemson went on to sweep its regular season schedule, beating North Carolina to win a second ACC title under Swinney and Oklahoma in one of two semifinal playoff games. The quest for a perfect season ended in the College Football Playoff National Championship, a gut-wrenching 45-40 loss to Alabama, the coach’s alma mater. But the 14-1 Tigers, with their affable conductor at the helm, had already delivered a profound statement that they’re ready to contend for the sport’s loftiest hardware, year-in and year-out.
Swinney has manufactured something special at Clemson. And it’s built to last, the residue of erecting a program around the right players and coaches. Even better, Swinney is winning away from the field, too, leaving an indelible mark on the local community and graduating 114 of the 120 Tigers who stuck around until their senior year.
It took a 14-win season and an appearance in the national title game for Swinney to finally get the accolades and recognition he richly deserves, including the 2015 George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award. And with a smile on his face and sincerity in his spirit, Swinney is quickly becoming one of the most admired and respected coaches at this level.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: George Munger Award – 2015