Dabo Swinney had not yet turned 40 when he took the reins as interim head football coach at Clemson in October of 2008. Known as a top-notch recruiter, Swinney knew a few things about coaching wide receivers. Unfortunately, with a head-coaching resume that was a blank sheet, he was both young and inexperienced at the business of running a football program, a lethal combination in the high-stakes game of college athletics.
Yet any visitor to Swinney’s new office the remainder of that season was free to peruse a couple of the coach’s jam-packed three-ring binders. That is where Swinney tucked away notes from 13 years of playing and coaching at Alabama, two years of private-business experiences and another six years as an assistant at Clemson.
Those binders also included Swinney’s detailed plan for how he would direct Clemson to national football prominence. Seven years later and Swinney represents the model for what the future of head coaching in college football looks like.
Swinney is the 46-year-old CEO of a multimillion dollar business, one that is enjoying spectacular success with a 54-11 record over the past five seasons and a current No. 1 national ranking heading into Saturday’s ACC Championship Game against North Carolina.
Do not misinterpret the CEO designation as Swinney not being involved in the day-to-day operation of his team. This is not Bobby Bowden during his final decade as head coach at Florida State, when he clearly was a figurehead coach.
Swinney is involved in everything, from practice planning to scout team meetings to game strategies. During games, Swinney is everywhere on the sideline, jumping into both the offensive and defensive huddles, greeting players as they come off the field, bending the ear of officials and playing the role of cheerleader to his troops.
Also, do not be fooled by the country-bumpkin persona that comes across during his post-game interviews when Swinney seizes the opportunity to preach the gospel of Clemson football to a television audience.
Swinney is no dummy. He might be the only NCAA Division I head football coach with an undergraduate degree in commerce and business administration, and a master’s degree in business administration. That is why he sometimes morphs during an answer to the media from coach-speak to corporate-speak.
He trotted this one out during a recent session with the media:
“That’s the key to maintaining success. You look at my own business background, you look at the old bell curve of a business. You’ve got the birth. You’ve got the growth. You’ve got the plateau. You’ve got the decline and you’ve got death. Alright, those great businesses out there, those great programs, they don’t plateau. So, how do you do that? Well, you’ve got to constantly reinvent, reinvest, reset, learn, grow. You change.”
From the outset as a head coach, Swinney was out to grow the Clemson product. That meant some early head-butting with the athletic director who named Swinney the interim coach and by the end of the 2008 regular-season gave him the full-time gig. Swinney wanted more of everything in his demands to Terry Don Phillips.
The athletic director would ask, “Why?”
Swinney would invariably respond, “Well, Alabama does it.”
‘We were a mess’
If there was a blueprint for Swinney’s plan, it was established at Alabama. When Swinney first examined what was in place at Clemson, he recognized that the operation was “archaic,” especially when compared to Alabama.
“We were a mess and we needed to build a program, and we needed things in place,” says Swinney, who was adamant in his demands that Clemson’s ways could not change unless its football support staff was expanded and its facilities improved. Swinney reasoned that Clemson needed to establish a new standard. Winning seven, eight and nine games a season as it did under Tommy Bowden, would no longer be accepted.
Those great businesses out there, those great programs, they don’t plateau. So, how do you do that? Well, you’ve got to constantly reinvent, reinvest, reset, learn, grow. You change.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Out of the gate he preached to the Clemson fan base that it needed to be “All In.” It became his campaign slogan, and soon after T-shirts carried the motto with the Clemson’s tiger paw logo. To start the current season, Swinney championed a “15 in ’15” slogan, meaning Clemson wanted to play 15 games in 2015, which would merit an appearance in the National Championship Game. Then there was his charge after a home victory over Notre Dame in which Swinney proclaimed – on national TV – that his team operated under the “BYOG” belief of “bring your own guts.” BYOG was licensed and Clemson fans are gobbling up those T-shirts.
There was more than just hype and hyperbole to Swinney’s grand plan. According to research by TigerIllustrated.com, Bowden’s last staff at Clemson in 2008 included nine assistant coaches, two graduate assistants, two video graduate assistants and two members of the football administration. Swinney’s 2015 staff includes 15 staff support positions, in addition to the nine assistant coaches. Bowden’s final support staff payroll was $287,118. Swinney’s 2014 support staff salaries totaled $1.47 million, according to TigerIllustrated.com.
One of the current support staff members is listed as “special teams analyst/research development.” Brad Scott, the former South Carolina head coach and Clemson assistant, is listed as “assistant AD/director of recruiting.” Scott confided this past summer that he serves as a liaison between freshmen and the coaching staff, charged with making certain that the first-year players adapt well to college, and that their parents remain happy.
During his first two full seasons as head coach, Swinney believed he could do everything. He even signaled plays from the sideline to his quarterback. Then he gambled in 2011 on Chad Morris, who plied his trade at the high school level, save for one year at Tulsa. Swinney rewarded Morris with a $1.3 million annual salary to be the offensive coordinator. More importantly, Swinney turned the keys to the offense over to Morris, who left Clemson a year ago to be SMU’s head coach.
Following an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl, Swinney fired Kevin Steele as his defensive coordinator and hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma with an $800,000 salary. Later, when Venables’ salary jumped to $1.35 million, Swinney had the highest payroll among assistant coaches in the country.
In 2011, Clemson announced $50 million in facilities upgrades for football, including $15.3 million to complete the WestZone project in the end zone at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium and $10 million for an indoor practice facility. Even though the WestZone facility, which houses coaches’ offices and team meeting rooms, is among the finest in the country, Clemson recently announced plans for an upgraded $60 million football facility to be completed in 2017.
Swinney wanted, and usually received, nothing but the best. He also incorporated a throwback business model, believing that his “employees” were the program’s most valuable commodity.
“That’s the greatest asset we have are these guys on the team, not the guys we’re recruiting,” Swinney says. “It’s the guys on the team. You do a great job with developing your players. You do a great job with loving your players, serving them, caring about them, the recruiting will take care of itself.”
Swinney arranged early on for his players to be transported a few hundred yards by shuttle from the locker room to practice fields. A reporter asked him what Bear Bryant would have thought of that, and Swinney responded that the legendary coach would have seen it as a “class” way of doing things.
No detail is too small for Swinney, who also serves as the program’s master motivator. He often is both parts P.T. Barnham and Norman Vincent Peale, whether it is showing off his latest “Ney Ney” dance moves to his team following a win or finding ways to pump up his club before a big game.
Clemson carried a five-game losing streak against its rival into the 2014 game versus South Carolina when Swinney heard Michael Jackson on the radio singing “Man in the Mirror.” In hearing Jackson crooning “I’m gonna make a change/For once in my life,” Swinney immediately purchased more than 100 small mirrors, distributed them to his team and implored each player to look within himself to find ways to beat the Gamecocks.
Clemson won that game, and has won every one since. In producing an unbeaten regular season and a rise to the top of all national polls, Swinney has elevated his own status among his fan base as well as his profile nationally. There is every reason to believe he could add an exclamation mark to his name – Dabo! – and run for a statewide office. You can bet Swinney would be “All In” with his political campaign, and most certainly would bring his own guts.