(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The State in August of 2016.)
When the email arrived at his desktop in the Clemson football office earlier this summer, Don Munson had to read it a couple of times.
The radio Voice of the Tigers and the primary “gatekeeper” to coach Dabo Swinney since 2010 has seen some interesting – and strange – requests for his boss, but this …
“Some gal was getting married, somewhere in Georgia about an hour and a half from Clemson,” Munson said, a chuckle in his voice, “and she asked if (Swinney) would come to perform the ceremony.”
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Not to be a guest at the nuptials – that’s almost a standard request for college football coaches anymore – but to officiate the joining of two Tigers fans in holy matrimony.
“I told him, ‘Guess you got to go get licensed,’ ” Munson said, laughing. “He declined – the wedding was going to be in the middle of our August camp – but I wondered: Is Nick Saban being asked that?”
Given the Alabama coach’s legendary intimidating demeanor, odds are he’s not. But it’s part and parcel of the eighth-year Clemson coach’s outgoing personality that Munson wasn’t totally surprised by the request.
“Clemson people aren’t scared of Dabo,” he said. “They think of him as part of their family, that he’s their best friend. That’s why they call him Dabo, instead of coach Swinney” – a habit Munson would like to see change, but knows likely won’t.
Ah, the stories Swinney’s inbox could tell the past six months, since Clemson concluded a historic 14-1 season with its 45-40 loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game, a season rivaled in school history only by the Tigers’ 1981 national title run. Suddenly, a program once considered on the cusp of greatness – with a 56-12 record since 2011 and five straight seasons of 10 or more wins, a mark equaled only by Saban’s Crimson Tide – is now regarded as part of college football’s upper crust.
And so the Tigers, and Dabo, are in high – and occasionally odd – demand.
“We get people who want him to pay their dental bills,” Kathleen Swinney said. And that Georgia bride-to-be’s request?
“Dabo can do many things. If he wasn’t in coaching, he could be a preacher,” his wife of 22 years said. “But he can’t do a wedding.”
Woody McCorvey, Clemson’s associate athletics director/ football administration, recalls how, when ESPN was in town recently to do an “E:60” story, “the guy (host Jack Ford) wanted to spend the night with Dabo. At Dabo’s house.”
Shades of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh? McCorvey: “Dabo said, ‘No way.’ ”
For the Swinney family, the post-championship period included trips to Chicago for the NFL Draft, where two Tigers went in the first round, and where they were guests of the Cubs at Wrigley Field; and to New York as guests of the Pinstripe Bowl. There, the coach and sons Will, Drew and Clay visited Yankee Stadium, where they hung out pregame with Yankees manager Joe Girardi, “saw Big Papi and A-Rod, really a lot of fun, a bucket-list thing,” Swinney said.
Not just for the family, either. “It was funny seeing (his dad) sign autographs at Yankee Stadium,” Will Swinney said. “Joe Girardi called him over to sign for some Red Sox fans.”
Alabama has won four national titles in seven years; it’s been 35 years since Clemson was even in the postseason conversation. So if Crimson Tide fans perhaps ho-hummed their way into the offseason, it was a wonderful new world for the Tigers and their social-media-friendly coach – who, in fairness, brings some of the attention on himself.
After all, no one witnessed videos of Saban last season dancing in the team locker room after victories, or ranting about “Bring Your Own Guts” (now available on Clemson T-shirts) on national TV. So yes, things have changed around the Clemson football program.
Those closest to Swinney, and the coach himself, admit it’s been wild and crazy – on the outside. Inside the cocoon that is Clemson football, though – within what Swinney and his staff call “The Culture” – things on the eve of the 2016 season are humming along as usual.
RESPECT FROM HIS OWN FANS
It wasn’t always that way. Look back on Swinney’s unexpected elevation to Clemson’s top coaching position in mid-2008 to replace fired Tommy Bowden, and then the two transition seasons (a 15-12 record) that followed.
Reporter Larry Williams, who joined Clemson website Tiger-illustrated.com the same season as Swinney’s promotion, and who has written three books about Clemson football, including “Clemson Tough,” chronicling the 2015 season, remembers how it was in early 2011 when the Tigers were coming off a 6-7 season, Swinney’s only losing record.
“Very few Clemson fans thought he could coach a lick, in part because he’d been on the Bowden staff (as receivers coach),” Williams said. “I was critical of him, too, (after) losses to Maryland and South Florida, the 70-33 loss to West Virginia” in the Orange Bowl following a 10-3 regular season in 2011.
“Fans talked about firing him. The (five straight) losses to South Carolina (from 2009-13) -- in 2010 (the sentiment) was ‘Get him out of here.’ “
Back-to-back 11-2 seasons in 2012-13, capped by bowl wins over traditional powers LSU and Ohio State, were the first steps to changing that mentality. In 2014, Clemson crushed Oklahoma 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, using a backup quarterback.
Still, Williams said it wasn’t until last year’s trip to Glendale, Ariz., to face Alabama that Swinney’s status with fans went from so-so to spectacular. “Fans were, ‘Wow, this is actually happening,’ “ he said.
Williams believes Clemson, and Swinney, gained more respect at home and nationally from their shootout loss to the Crimson Tide than in a 20-point semifinal win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
“Alabama is the gold standard, and (Clemson) went toe-to-toe with them,” he said.
Now, it’s a love affair; “people are smitten with Dabo,” Williams said. Even Swinney’s post-game exuberances and his news conference rant about the derogatory term “Clemsoning” have not cooled that ardor.
“They like the way he represents Clemson,” Williams said. Over-the-top quirks, he said, are viewed as “Dabo being Dabo.”
Today, everything Swinney touches turns to gold. When iconoclastic offensive coordinator Chad Morris left for SMU, and “fans were saying (Morris) was the reason they were winning the way they did,” Swinney promoted Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, neither having any coordinator experience. The result: a record-setting offense, the most wins in Clemson history and a magical sprint to the title game.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, pushed out by Oklahoma, has fashioned one of the nation’s best defenses the past two seasons.
“(Swinney’s) hiring decisions have been impeccable,” Williams said.
Add the oh-so-close national championship loss, and no wonder this has been an offseason like no other.
Check out 2016 preseason polls, and two constants jump out: Alabama, the defending champions -- and Clemson, the closest thing to an heir apparent.
Unlike some coaches who adopt stone-faced personalities when success arrives, Swinney is, if anything, even more irrepressible. He waxed philosophical about the merits of college football in society on ESPN’s preseason “Car Wash.” He was invited to appear, with Lebron James, Steph Curry and other luminaries, at the ESPYs.
“Didn’t make it; that would’ve been a haul,” he said at his preseason media golf outing.
Ask him for highlights from the past six months, and he demurs. “I’d have to go back and look at my calendar” – one that Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich and others said is filled out through 2017.
“It’s been a fun offseason – but I’m ready to start over and get back at it.”
Radakovich, Clemson’s AD since 2012, reflects back on the season that was 2015, and the ones leading up to it. The new ACC Network, coming in 2019, is at least in part due to CFB playoff appearances by Florida State in 2014 and the Tigers last season, both huge boosts to the ACC’s national reputation.
“Obviously, (Clemson) is more recognizable,” Radakovich said. “When you have three games (ACC championship vs. North Carolina, Orange Bowl, title game) like those, there’s a lot of focus on Clemson. As people talk about great programs in the South, we’re being mentioned now.
“Now it’s not ‘Hey, you’re Clemson, a good football program,’ but ‘hey, you’re Clemson and those guys are doing special things.’ And Dabo’s able to keep a really good focus on, ‘OK, this is what we did before; how are we going to get back there?’ “
One way, of course, is recruiting. Brad Scott, a former assistant (and USC head coach) who’s now assistant athletics director overseeing liaisons with high schools, said Clemson’s ability to recruit top talent, already a strong point under Swinney, has been elevated even more.
“The exposure we got in those games made the Clemson brand stronger than ever on the national scene,” Scott said. Too, he said, Clemson brought in more personnel in its recruiting office, “adding that firepower to our success on the field and coach Swinney’s popularity.”
Clemson didn’t change its usual geographic recruiting areas, Scott said, but the Tigers are drawing more of those areas’ best prospects. Still, there also have been extra rewards, such as a commitment from the nation’s No. 1 quarterback prospect, Hunter Johnson of Brownsburg, Ind. – hardly a regular stop for the Tigers.
Still, one of Swinney’s priorities is to keep control of the public furor around his program. So when ESPN approached Clemson about staging its “Training Days” show there – a year ago, the program featured Ohio State and Urban Meyer – Swinney turned the offer down.
This summer, Radakovich saw demands on his coach spike, notably during Clemson’s “Prowl and Growl” fan-outreach tour, which Radakovich said broke attendance records.
“But Dabo understands part of his brand is to be available to that fan base,” he said.
Not just fans, either.
“Every week, some high-profile media guy, a writer or TV or radio personality, happened by for the past six months,” Munson said. “ESPN, Sports Illustrated -- everyone wants to get his own little taste.”
Swinney’s family noticed. “It definitely has been a busier year,” Kathleen Swinney said. “We had more games, more travel going into Jan. 11. Then from there, the coaches and players were traveling; Dabo and Deshaun (Watson, Clemson’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback) won awards, so wehad to go to so many banquets, dinners, in Texas and New Jersey and Atlanta and New York ...
“It was wonderful, wonderful, such a blessing – but it did get very, very busy.”
How to slog through all the attention and hype, and remain sane – let alone keep a program on its so-far-successful path? That’s easy, Swinney’s staff members said; inside the eye of the hurricane is where it’s always calmest.
THE MODEL PROGRAM
Two things about Clemson’s ability to handle success need to be noted. First, his staff says, none of what has happened has been by accident; every step to last year’s title game had been meticulously mapped out by the head coach, whose confidence in that plan and in those he entrusts to make it work are off the charts.
Second, the notion that Clemson has arrived as an elite program (and that Swinney and his staff are suddenly among the nation’s best) misses the point: before a program is recognized as elite – Swinney emphasizes that “I never wanted to build great teams; I want to have a great program” – the work to become elite has already been done.
“He has a fierce belief in himself, and the people he puts around him,” Munson said. “It took time to build this staff,” including coaches who already had experienced a national championship: offensive line coach Dan Brooks (Tennessee, 1998), tight ends coach Danny Pearman (Alabama, 1992), Venables (Oklahoma, 2000) and McCorvey (Alabama, ’92), plus Swinney (’Bama ’92).
The day of the Alabama game, Swinney had those assistants speak to the team.
“He didn’t tell us about that ahead of time, so we had no time to prepare,” Brooks said. He said Swinney’s point was that “(winning) is about guys who play together the best, not necessarily are the best players – and who care about each other.
“We as a staff didn’t change anything from the Orange Bowl (preparation). If you make that (championship) game anything other than a regular game, if you put too much pressure on them, they can’t perform. That’s coach Swinney. He’s the same guy, every day.”
Elliott – who said that since that game, “everywhere I go in town, everyone recognizes me; I can’t hide” – said that the Tigers’ image as elite is a product of “the last seven years, (when) coach Swinney has done an unbelievable job of changing the brand recognition of the Tiger Paw,” he said. “I think everyone knows exactly where Clemson is now.
“We believe we’re building the model program in all of college football; not just because of the national championship game but by graduating players at a high level, players doing what they’re supposed to on and off the field. We’ve got the total program in place. It didn’t just happen over-night, or even last year. This is seven years in the making; really, the 20 years of (Swinney’s) career in the making.”
Jeff Scott witnessed a similar process growing up. His father, Brad, was part of Bobby Bowden’s Florida State staff when the Seminoles won the 1993 national title after coming close in 1987 and 1992.
“No doubt, continuity (of staff) is huge for (offensive and defensive) schemes, and recruiting,” Brad Scott said. “Coach Swinney has shaped a tremendous staff of quality men, a staff he likes. And hats off to the administration for maintaining things (such as salaries) so he can keep them.
“At Florida State the last 8-9 years I was there, no one left unless it was to become a head coach or coordinator, and very few of them. That had a lot to do with our success, and I see the same thing with coach Swinney and this staff. Plus he’s a great guy to work for; he gets it. Outside football, he’s a dad, too, and he’s made this a welcoming situation for coaches.”
“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen that type consistency again,” said Jeff Scott, in his ninth season on the Clemson staff. “That’s the staff continuity of a top-five program, building a strong foundation, and that’s one of the beautiful things about coach Swinney – all the success he’s had at Clemson, and he hasn’t changed anything.”
Even when staff changes occur – Morris departing, Venables replacing Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator – “we have the same approach we’ve had the past 6-7 years,” Jeff Scott said. Echoing Elliott, he said, “That it didn’t happen overnight.”
It just seemed that way after Glendale.
THE CLEMSON FAMILY
This season, expectations for Clemson are higher than • well, perhaps since 1982 after the Tigers’ Cinderella 1981 national championship win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Former coach Danny Ford, a Clemson icon since that New Year’s Night in Miami, stayed another eight seasons and won 10 games three times, but never seriously challenged for a second national crown. He said that post-title reaction was hectic – “I traveled more than I ever had to get awards, places I’d never been before,” and he fielded many requests for his time, “so you’d better get good at saying ‘no’” – but doubts his experience matched Dabo’s current one.
“We didn’t have near the media (coverage),” he said. “Now they hardly can go out without getting their picture taken.” That year, Clemson got a recruiting “bump” from the win, spreading out its reach as far as Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa and Pennsylvania; this spring, Clemson has enjoyed a banner haul of recruits
Despite his disclaimers, Ford still feels the impact of that season, 35 years later.
“The other day, a couple was celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary,” he said, “and their son wrote me, said they were big fans in the 1970s and 1980s, and would I sign a photo for them, send them a note.” Ford says he happily complied.
“Someone said, ‘Do you get tired of it?’” he said. “It’s a heckuva lot better than them not knowing who you are.”
While Ford/Swinney comparisons began with Dabo’s hiring – both were 30-something, non-coordinator assistants on the Clemson staff – Larry Williams points to obvious differences: Ford’s run-ins with administration and the NCAA, which ultimately cost him his job in 1989, vs. Swinney’s love affair with administrators and fans. “I think (Dabo) is more popular than any coach they’ve had,” Williams said.
One other similarity: As a young head coach, Ford counted on defensive coach Tom Harper, who had “been through it all,” he said. For Swinney, that role was filled by McCorvey, also part of that Clemson staff from 1983-89.
Now the most visible link between the Tigers’ glory eras, McCorvey was a receivers coach at Alabama from 1990-97, where Swinney, a former walk-on, was part of that corps. In 2009, Swinney’s first full season at Clemson, McCorvey was one of his first new hires.
“He was a young coach, and I’d been doing it a long time,” McCorvey, 65, said. “He leaned on me. I saw things he needed, and I needed to be that guy to help him navigate situations.”
He paused. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Now, with Swinney comfortably in charge, McCorvey – who likens his role with Clemson to that of an NFL general manager – handles budgets and travel plans so the coach can, well, coach. “Every Tuesday, 17 of us on the staff go over the whole program, write it up and give it to him,” he said. “It’s a very good relationship.”
McCorvey battled kidney cancer in 2008 at Mississippi State and nearly retired, but “I saw a role to play, being involved in Clemson again, and what better way to do that? It can’t be any better than being here with this guy (Swinney), having success.”
Swinney and Ford “both brought the Clemson family together,” McCorvey said. “I think Dabo unified Clemson the same way Ford did in 1981.” Now, like Ford was, Swinney is poised to be recognized – if he isn’t already – as an elite coach.
“I envision him being here a long time,” McCorvey said. “That’s a rare thing; usually it’s 6-7 years and move on. But I see him more as a Frank Beamer guy. If he keeps going the way it is, he’ll be mentioned in the same breath with those top guys” in coaching.
For his part, Swinney says he isn’t content to get Clemson to a national title game, or even win one. He talks about multiple ACC and even national titles. He has made Clemson, in his words, “relevant.” He’d like to do much more.
And yet Swinney disputes any underdog role for his Tigers, but he knows there remains work to do. “Until we win a couple of national championships,” he said, “we’ll probably always be ‘little ol’ Clemson.’
“That won’t go away until we put the flag on top of the mountain.”
BEST IS YET TO COME
Ask Kathleen Swinney the best moment of the past six months, and she talks about seeing Clemson “put on the map,” seeing fans’ enthusiasm, enjoying the affection between her husband, his staff and their players.
“They all love and care about each other, and that made me really proud.”
Ask her husband, and he jokes about being “still alive, and I get a chance to get back on the football field.” He also, wisely, notes that “I celebrated 22 years of marriage on July 9, that was pretty good,” a statement that, when reported to his wife, elicits a laugh and an “isn’t he sweet.”
Then there was Swinney’s (and McCorvey’s) Alabama reunion this summer in Tuscaloosa, where he hung out with former receiver teammates Craig Sanderson, Prince Wimberly, Steve Busky, Kevin Lee and David Palmer, who finished third in the 1993 Heisman voting.
“That was pretty special,” Swinney said. “Coach (Gene) Stallings was there, and we had a lot of laughs.” When talk turned to the Tide’s win over his Tigers in Glendale, though Swinney, deadpan, said, “Oh, they all love me now. We’re one big happy family. And we open with Auburn, so they’re all Clemson fans now.”
He grinned. “My expectation was to walk in with my national championship ring on,” he said, laughing. “That didn’t work out that way, but we live to fight another day.”
Maybe that day comes soon. Maybe it’ll happen in Tampa, site of this year’s College Football Championship.
Yeah, all in all, it was a pretty good past six months – for Clemson, for Dabo Swinney and his family. And, they all believe, the best is yet to come.