CLEMSON — ON HIS 43RD birthday, Dabo Swinney stood before a media gathering Tuesday and addressed how he has grown and matured the past four seasons as a college football head coach.
Cant you tell? Swinney said with a laugh in the deprecating manner he often displays when talking about himself. Im 43 today. I was 38 when I got thrust into this.
Over those four-plus years as Clemsons coach, Swinney has morphed from an overly excited sideline fanatic to a coach who appears in complete control of his team and coaches on game day.
That sideline demeanor, which no longer includes jumping into the arms of an assistant coach after a touchdown, likely represents how much Swinney has found comfort in his role as the programs CEO.
Swinney said the maturation is part of a process, not only for every coach, but for every person in every walk of life.
I think we all mature, Swinney said. I was a better player as a senior than a freshman. I was a better student my senior year in college than my freshman year in college. Im a better husband 19 years into marriage than I was my first few years into marriage. Im a better Christian now than when I first decided that was the path I wanted to go. Im a better father 14 years into being a dad than I was when little Will showed up and I didnt have a clue.
There were some who wondered if Swinney had a clue about leading a major college football program when he took over in October 2008, filling in on an interim basis for the departed Tommy Bowden.
Swinney had no head coaching experience. He was wet behind the ears as an administrator, his sole management experience being two years away from football in the commercial real estate business.
It, admittedly, took time for Swinney to grow into his job, to learn the ropes of juggling the immense responsibilities of a head coach, from how to handle recruiting to coaching the game to dealing with the fan base and boosters.
I think as you mature you get better at everything, Swinney said. Im a much better, much more mature coach just because of experience, just because of going through it. Ive had to handle a lot of different things and mature and grow. I worked hard at it.
The result has been success in his tenure like Clemson has not experienced since the late 1980s. His teams have won or shared three ACC Atlantic Division championships and captured the league crown in 2011. The Tigers have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons. A victory against South Carolina on Saturday will give Clemson 11 wins for the first time since 1981.
Those associated with the program said Swinney has learned to better delegate responsibilities. The addition of Woody McCorvey, Brad Scott and Jeff Davis as administrative assistants has helped the cause. Swinney also has made a couple of difficult decisions with his coaching staff that displayed an ability to recognize and find a solution to a problem.
Clemson produced big numbers on offense in 2009 with Billy Napier, a close friend of Swinneys, as the units coordinator. When the offense struggled in 2010, Swinney opted for a change. Then he gambled by hiring Chad Morris, a coach with one year of college experience, as his offensive coordinator.
Two years later, Morris directs one of the nations most exciting offenses, one that ranks fourth in the country in scoring at 45 points per game and fifth in yardage at 536 per game.
On the defensive side, Swinney dismissed Vic Koenning following the 2008 season, then brought in Kevin Steele for the following three seasons. When Clemson surrendered 70 points in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, Swinney dumped Steele and brought in highly respected Brent Venables from Oklahoma.
While the jury remains out on Venables and his defense, there seems to be much more closure on Swinney and the job he is doing at Clemson. Swinney has elevated the Clemson program to where obtaining high-level success is much more a probability these days than a possibility.
That shift has coincided with the maturation of its coach.
Im 43 years old today and Im a wiser man than I was four years ago, Swinney said Tuesday. Thats for sure.