CLEMSON TO COLLEGE FOOTBALL fans across the country, Clemson’s hiring Monday of Dabo Swinney as its next coach must appear to be a huge gamble. Swinney counts six games as an interim coach for experience. Most fans nationally probably cannot correctly pronounce either of his names.
Yet Terry Don Phillips introduced Swinney at Memorial Stadium without hesitation, completely confident he just hired the next great college football coach.
It was the same manner in which Phillips hired a relatively unknown Les Miles at Oklahoma State and insisted that Miles bring aboard little-known Mike Gundy as the team’s offensive coordinator. Both of those hires worked just fine for Oklahoma State, and both have made names for themselves the past decade.
At Clemson, Phillips can boast of hiring Oliver Purnell as men’s basketball coach. Purnell also lacked the marquee quality sought by many athletic programs, yet he has proved to be one of the brighter minds in the nation’s top basketball league, the ACC.
Phillips is fast developing a reputation for finding the jewels within the bed of oysters. He is quite certain Swinney will be the next.
“I have a wonderful feeling about Dabo Swinney,” Phillips said.
Still, Swinney’s hiring can’t help but be seen as a gamble.
“It’s less of a gamble if you’ve been around them a long time,” Phillips said of hiring coaches. “That’s why I feel so good about Dabo. If I didn’t know Dabo, I probably wouldn’t have the same feeling. I know him, and I feel it’s less of a gamble.”
Phillips insisted his evaluation of Swinney went well beyond the past seven weeks when the assistant coach took over for Tommy Bowden, who resigned after six games. Phillips has been watching and examining Swinney for the six years he has coached under Bowden.
Phillips said he rarely walked past Swinney’s office in the McFadden Building without seeing several players lounging around the coach’s desk. It left an impression.
“You see how he relates to players over in McFadden,” Phillips said. “I really liked how he coached on the field, also. It didn’t matter if it was C.J. (Spiller) or James (Davis) or Jacoby (Ford) or whoever.
“If they didn’t do right, he was on them. It wasn’t one of those things where he tried to cajole them into what to do. They were going to do what they needed to do, and he wasn’t always saying it in a very kind fashion. I just love the way he coaches on the field.”
That ultimately made Phillips’ decision to hire Swinney an easy one. Phillips tired of traveling around the country the past few weeks in search of a coach who better fit his criteria for head coach. With each return trip to Clemson — and there were more than a handful — Phillips kept coming back to Swinney.
“You want to see how he coaches, how he relates,” Phillips said. “That’s ultimately what’s going to matter. There’s a lot of wonderful people that coach that are not always successful. There are some intangibles that I believe he has that are leadership intangibles.”
First and foremost among those intangibles is a deep-seeded belief by Swinney that he will succeed. At one point during his introductory news conference, Swinney was asked if he believed Clemson was taking a gamble with his hire.
“No,” Swinney said without hesitation. Before he could continue with his answer he was serenaded with applause from the many Clemson boosters in the room. Then he continued.
“I’ve never failed at anything in my life. I don’t think it’s a gamble at all,” Swinney said. “If you’re asking me, I think it’s a pretty good bet. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I’m confident in my abilities, always have been.”
Swinney then compared the situation to his freshman year at Alabama, when he and his future wife, Kathleen, were seated in Bryant-Denny Stadium. After watching several Alabama receivers drop passes, Swinney told Kathleen he was going to walk-on to the team. He earned a scholarship a year later and played on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team.
“A lot of people thought I was gambling going out there,” Swinney said. “I believe in myself. It goes back to what I said before. If you put your eyes on the Lord, you believe in yourself and you don’t quit, you’re going to be successful. So, in my opinion, I don’t believe it’s a gamble at all.
“I think it’s a pretty good investment, if you just look at my track record.”
For the record, his name is pronounced Dab-oh Swin-knee.