Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers will play Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday night in Athens, Ga., in a nationally televised prime-time game pitting two national championship hopefuls.
Swinney and Richt are two of college football’s top coaches – and two of the most prominent coaches in mixing their Christian faith with their sport at publicly funded schools.
Both men committed their lives to Christ in a sports-related setting – Swinney in a high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering, and Richt in his college coach’s football office. They feel it’s their mission to share their faith.
“I’ve never been bashful about telling people I’m a Christian,” Swinney says. “That’s just who I am.”
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As a new season is about to kick off, Swinney has stayed true to his conviction of offering opportunities for spiritual growth to his players despite one organization’s belief that he has gone too far.
Among the complaints by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in an April letter to Clemson is a claim that Swinney approved 87 devotionals between March 2012 and April 2013 that were organized by the team chaplain and led by members of the coaching staff.
“I mean, that’s a lot of praying going on,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, a nonprofit atheist and agnostic group. “And it’s all orchestrated by the authority figures. And that is abusive.”
The FFRF says the state-funded school’s football program is “entangled” in Christianity, and those decisively Christian actions can be coercive for an impressionable young man trying to please his coaches and earn playing time.
Swinney says that has never happened. He and other top coaches in the south and southeast say that any religious activity involved with their football programs is voluntary.
In the homes of recruits, Swinney promises parents he will help their son grow academically, athletically and spiritually.
“Only thing mandatory in our program is you’re going to go to class, you’re going to give effort and you’re going to be a good citizen. You’ll be held accountable for that,” Swinney said. “But spirituality is a personal decision for everybody. ... It’s a free country here, and I can live my life the way I want to.
“I can’t come to work and not be a Christian.”
Christian influences at programs across the region stretch well before Swinney became Clemson’s coach.
The Bowden family, starting with retired legendary coach Bobby Bowden of Florida State and including three sons who were coaches, has been bringing a heavy dose of religion to football programs for decades.
Richt, Georgia’s coach, was a graduate assistant coach at Florida Sate in the 1980s and was inspired to commit his life to Christ in the coach’s office after listening to Bowden talk to the team about eternal salvation after a player died.
When Tommy Bowden, Bobby’s son, was hired as Clemson’s football coach in 1999, he told then-school president Constantine W. Curris “right off the bat, I’m a Christian.”
Tommy Bowden began the Clemson football tradition of “Church Day,” when the team would go to a local church one Sunday before the season started.
Bowden – an ACC analyst for Fox Sports South as well as an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a Christian sports ministry founded in 1954 – had his team attend FCA breakfasts. He said it wasn’t mandatory but “it was strongly encouraged” and the coaching staff “knew who wasn’t there.”
During recruiting, Bowden says he would get the blessing from parents to help their child grow as an athlete, a man and a Christian.
“I’m going to inquire their parents, but I’m not going to let (the players) make decisions on what’s best for them when they’re 19 and I’m 54 or 55,” Bowden said. “And I have their parents support.
“I didn’t ask my children whether they wanted to go to church, and I sure wouldn’t ask those guys either as far as what I felt was best for them. If they chose not to, that’s fine. They knew I was trying to help them build character and their parents knew it, and I had the support of their parents, so I felt that was all we needed.”
Swinney gave his life to Jesus at an FCA rally when he was in high school.
He attended Alabama as a walk-on receiver in 1989 when Tommy Bowden was an assistant with the Crimson Tide, and Bowden brought Swinney to Clemson as his wide receivers coach in 2003.
Both Bowden and Swinney say they’ve recruited players of all faiths, as well as players who are nonbelievers. They say they encourage spiritual growth but insist nothing is mandatory.
In 2007, wide receiver Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness, didn’t board the bus for “Church Day” or participate in any Christian gatherings under Bowden. He had the best season of his career, leading the conference in receiving yards (1,081) and touchdowns (11).
Kelly said he never felt excluded, or pressured to join, or viewed differently by his teammates or coaching staff because he was a Jehovah’s Witness.
“With football, especially big-time college football, you have to play the best players or you’re going to lose your job,” Kelly said. “College football is a business first...”
Bowden went 72-45 in his nine-plus seasons at Clemson and was named ACC Coach of the Year twice. He resigned in 2008 after a 3-3 start, and Swinney, then the assistant head coach, was named the interim head coach. He later earned the job permanently.
Swinney has returned Clemson to national prominence. He’s 51-23 as a head coach, has won 10 or more games in each of the past three seasons and has his Tigers ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Before home games, he touches “Howard’s Rock” for luck and points up to the heavens.
He continues making Christianity a significant part of Clemson’s football program, and it has paid off in recruiting players.
In 2010, Swinney was pursuing Ohio high school quarterback Cole Stoudt, who will be the Tigers’ starting quarterback against Georgia. Swinney won over Stoudt and his family with his values.
“Ninety percent of the guys on the team chose to come to Clemson because of coach Swinney’s faith and values. That was the biggest reason why I came here,” Stoudt said. “I am also a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s something that I’ve always valued with coach Swinney.”
Former Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins committed to his faith in 2012. After a September practice, Hopkins asked to be baptized in front of his teammates.
With nearly the entire Clemson football team and coaches present, Hopkins, who is now with the Houston Texans, was baptized in a tub filled with water while still wearing his practice jersey on the team’s practice field.
Hopkins, through a Texans spokesman, declined comment for this story, saying his faith is a personal matter.
The co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Gaylor focuses her group’s efforts on the separation of religion from publicly funded entities.
The FFRF is a nonprofit group in Madison, Wis., that refers to itself as the nation’s “largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics)” with more than 21,000 members. Staff attorney Patrick Elliott said the FFRF has 10 lawsuits ongoing after successfully settling two earlier this year.
For at least the past seven years, groups have complained that Clemson football and Christianity are too close. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern Bowden was exercising his office and authority to “impose his personal religion upon university athletes through his so-called ‘Church Day.’ ” An attorney for the school later responded, saying he found no violation of laws.
Religious faith seems more ingrained in football than other college sports. On the field, players huddle at midfield and pray after games. At Clemson, like at other schools, there’s Bible study during the week, a team chapel on Friday nights and a pregame prayer.
Clemson is resolute in its support of Swinney.
The university said in a statement it believes the practices of the football staff comply with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing views.
The school said it’s not aware of any complaints from current or former players about the football program coercing players to participate in religious activities.
Students, alumni and fans have used the hashtag #ClemsonStrong on social networking sites to show solidarity with Swinney and the football program. With the support of his university and fans, Swinney said he won’t change the way he or his program practices religion.
“I have great respect for other people’s faiths and beliefs – it’s not my job to judge people. But, sometimes, people have their own agendas that they want to push,” Swinney said. “I’ve never had a problem relating to my players, dealing with players from different backgrounds culturally or religiously. I just want to win and coach football and make a difference in my players’ lives. That’s all I care about.”