Clemson University

With stakes higher, Dabo works harder to control message

Until Dabo Swinney replaced Tommy Bowden, there may not have been a more relaxed, open environment for newspaper, radio and TV than at Clemson. Reporters cruised the halls of the football offices. Bowden, his staff and virtually every player were available for interviews several times a week during the season.

Relationships developed that often helped provide a view behind the scenes that few college programs afforded. It was common for an assistant coach to shut his office door so he could speak in confidence. Reporters were permitted to pull players aside after practice for private conversations. Occasionally there were leaks, stories that might not be flattering. One reporter wrote a story after eavesdropping outside an office.

When Swinney became coach, I warned others in the Clemson press brigade that it would change.

It has.

When Swinney succeeded Bowden, he inherited the routine and the headaches. He wanted the entire program reading off the same script. He needed to control the message. That had become difficult and occasionally frustrating. In some cases, it was an issue of loyalty. Swinney began plugging the leaks.

Staff attrition helped. Access was tightened. The rules enforced. Windows to reach players became smaller and less frequent. The sentinels at the gate of the football offices curtailed the traffic. Other than the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, assistant coaches were off limits except for one day in July.

If there was a “leak,” Swinney probably approved it.

Still, reporters generally loved him; TV and radio for his long sound bites, print because he didn’t shrink from a question on virtually any topic. He tended to be glib, and often before a press conference there were several guesses as to how long he would speak. Players weren’t stifled, but they were well-tutored. Frequently they parroted “coach speak,” but some of the personalities couldn’t be harnessed.

Fundamentally Swinney was the same guy that became interim head coach. Money and power hadn’t changed him, though there was a suspicion that with the program’s return to prominence and his visibility nationally it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a “normal” life. His wife, Kathleen, as Southern sweet as iced tea and a gracious hostess, served supper to reporters in their home for several years in a casual, off-the-record setting shortly before August practice. That ended this year so the family might have more time together before the season.

Also, the dynamics changed. Swinney has had to adapt to seismic shifts in the news business, to the 24/7 news cycle, proliferation of websites and frequent use of sourced material, the extensive reliance on social media and the crush to be first at the expense of accuracy and fairness.

Facebook and Twitter weren’t part of the vernacular when he arrived in Clemson. There were maybe seven reporters on the daily beat, usually representatives from four or five newspapers and a website or two whose primary existence was to cover recruiting. Swinney spoke frequently to reporters after practice or in his office. His candor and enthusiasm were refreshing.

Frequently now there are 20 or more people with recorders and cameras, the majority representing Clemson-friendly websites. Instead of a chamber group of independent musicians, there’s a small orchestra and Swinney is the conductor. There’s little concern for accountability or patience for contrarian attitudes, and it plays well with the fan base.

His rant this week, while at its core a commentary on the troubling state of the industry and the blurred lines between news and opinion, was more about minimizing the pressure his team might face during a critical week. Besides the ACC Championship game and the team’s track to the College Football Playoffs, players are approaching the end of the academic semester. They don’t need further distraction.

Swinney understands the value of good relationships with media and the platform it provides for his mission. Despite the rare prickliness, he generally has been respectful and, on some occasions, cooperative beyond imagination.

But because the stakes are higher, Swinney must control the message.