The strongest, quickest, fastest 19-year-old in the world is still 19.
Nineteen-year-olds do foolish things. Heck, 57-year-olds do, too, but being 19 means you are prone to doing foolish things. And that’s OK. You learn from those experiences.
It just gets more complicated, and dramatically more public, when you get caught doing something dumb as a member of Clemson’s football team this week.
Tuesday night word leaked that three Clemson players – Deon Cain, Ammon Lakip and Jay Jay McCullough – had been sent home two days before the Tigers’ playoff semifinal against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. A few hours later, multiple media outlets reported that these three had failed drug tests.
That meant Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s news conference early Wednesday morning would be dominated by questions about distractions and discipline. Swinney had time to think about what he wanted to say, so before anyone asked a question he explained the following:
▪ First, it’s not acceptable to break rules and there must be consequences.
▪ Second, these three players aren’t bad people, they just made bad choices. Their lives aren’t over and, at least in the case of freshman Cain, if they start making better choices they might be welcomed back to the program.
▪ Third, three kids did something dumb while 112 others getting ready to play the Sooners did not.
I was impressed, though not surprised, how calmly and transparently Swinney handled this. No matter how many questions he was asked about the suspensions (it was rephrased a dozen ways in a 45-minute session), he didn’t get rattled or angry. I’ve seen coaches in similar situations react with dramatically less grace.
Grace is Swinney’s gift. No one will ever confuse him with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as a football tactician. But he’s a good manager of people. He hires well and then lets those people do their jobs. That showed when now-Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris was offensive coordinator and shows again with Brent Venables as defensive coordinator.
I asked several current players this week what’s distinctive about Swinney’s management style. I heard the same thing repeatedly: that hard as he rides you about your performance at practice, you never doubt the head coach supports you as a developing adult.
“Sometimes he tells us he doesn’t like us, but he loves us all the time,” said Germone Hopper, a junior wide receiver from Charlotte’s Berry Academy.
“We understand that, that we sometimes do things that he doesn’t like. I firmly believe if I knocked on his door at 4 o’clock in the morning, he’d answer the door gladly to know what’s going on. He cares about everyone on this team.”
College coaching – particularly at the highest level – is an odd task. You are in one of the most performance-driven businesses in the world, yet you leverage your career on the whims of kids barely old enough to vote.
You have them under your direct supervision a few hours each day and then you send them home to the dormitory or apartments, hoping they act with some responsibility. When they slip up you at least hope it’s not like Tuesday night, with so much at stake.
When they do slip up, you move on. Cain, a wide receiver with NFL potential, caught at least one touchdown pass in his last five games. Losing him seemed like a major hit for the Tigers.
Swinney countered that people forget Cain isn’t even a starter. Charone Peake starts at that position and will just get more snaps Thursday as a result.
Swinney was asked Monday at Orange Bowl media day what he’s learned in five-plus years as Clemson’s head coach. He replied, “Be yourself.” So I asked Venables how he would describe Swinney being himself.
“There is not an ounce of phoniness in him,” Venables said. “He knows their mommas, their grandmother, their little brother. And he never forgets it.
“When they come to see him he has his guard down 24-7. Some people think that’s hokey. I think it’s real. I’m glad he doesn’t make any apologies for that.”
That resonated in Swinney’s remarks. Days like Tuesday test who a coach is under the pressure of rare opportunity.
Regardless of what happens against the Sooners, he passed this test of leadership.