NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Running back C.J. Spiller left a glossy photo on the desk of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney last week, penning a lengthy note thanking Swinney for helping him grow into a man and a leader.
At the end, Spiller referenced Bible verse Luke 12:48, part of which reads, "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more."
Swinney was entrusted with much more at this time a year ago, having been promoted from receivers coach to interim head coach and then to full-time leader of the Clemson football program.
He led the Tigers to their ACC championship-game appearance last month and knows still more will be demanded in the future. With Clemson set to face Kentucky on Sunday in the Music City Bowl, Swinney reflected on his first go-around in a one-on-one interview with The State.
QUESTION: Two games ago, this season was viewed as a success because Clemson had gotten over the hump into the ACC title game. The pulse has changed with losses to USC and Georgia Tech. How would you define this year, and how much of that is to be determined by the bowl outcome?
ANSWER: I'm proud of this team. This is a team that had a ton of question marks going into spring practice last year. Even though I was here (as) an assistant, it's just different. It wouldn't have been any different if they had gone and hired Joe off the corner. Everybody has their way of doing things.
So as I look back on it, we had never won the division here. So I think if we had sat here last January and said these guys would be in the conference championship game, I would think most everybody would say, you know what, that would be a pretty successful first year.
I doubt there were many people who believed we would win the division this year. Then people want to say the division wasn't good, and this and that - well, anybody could have won it. It's all about you taking care of your business.
Q: Do you believe you and your staff are judged differently by the public because some of you are holdovers from the Tommy Bowden era?
A: That's one of Clemson's biggest detriments. Clemson eats their own, and it's really sad. It's a loud minority. But there's a group of people out there that, if we won every game, it wouldn't matter. Thankfully the majority of Clemson fans are not that way.
But with this staff, we kept four guys and hired five new ones. I think we had a nice blend. It's all about what I feel is best for this program. If there's something that's not the best, I'll change it. When you finish with a top-25 scoring offense, a top-25 defense - for our first year, I think that's pretty good progress.
Q: When you took over, you said Clemson wasn't exactly an old jalopy, it just needed an oil change. What needed rebuilding and what needed tweaking?
A: I did not feel like we were in complete disarray as far as talent. I felt like we could compete.
We just needed to change the culture in terms of leadership, organizational structure, the way the program is run, practice, having a training table, just so many things. Also, having a culture change in that they show up ready every week and are ready to play and play with a great effort. And I don't think anyone can watch any film and say they didn't play with effort.
That was my biggest task going into this thing, breaking that funk and creating the mentality that this is the standard, you meet it or you don't, but this is how you have to practice. Bring an uncommon effort every week. And I think we've done that. When I evaluate it, we have had very few ... effort issues. We've turned the corner in that regard.
Q: Take us through your meeting with Spiller in the minutes before he announced he would return to Clemson for his senior season.
A: Well, he sat down in one of my chairs and just started crying. He actually told me he felt he probably was just going to have to go. I just hugged him and told him I couldn't help him there. All I could tell him was, "If you want to go pro, that's what you need to do. But it needs to be what you really want to do. If you don't have peace about it, you need to think about it and do what was best for you."
My heart just fell for him because he was really struggling. It was a very difficult day for him, and I didn't know what he was going to do.
He just sat there with his head down for a few minutes, then he wiped his eyes and said, "All right, let's go, coach." So we got up, he walked to the podium, I went to the back of the room, and I really thought he was leaving. I had no idea.
To see him not only announce he was staying but also the things he said and the way he said them, I was in awe.
There are so many little things with C.J. You get in at 3 o'clock in the morning from the Miami game, I'm at church the next morning, look up, here comes C.J. He's by himself, got his Bible in his hand, he's at church. That's who he is. He's just an amazing guy, very giving of his time, always humble and fun to be around.
Q: Where have you improved the most as the head coach in the last year?
A: Last year, you just plop down in the middle of a war zone and you're just spraying your hose, relentlessly trying to keep the flames back. Whereas now, I know where exactly to point the hose. I think I've grown a lot in that area. I feel much more prepared each week because of how we've prepared.
Q: Anything come with the territory that caught you by surprise?
A: Don't know if it surprised me as much as confirmed, but it's a daily grind. It's a massive undertaking to manage the day-to-day operations of a football program.
I had always dealt with a segment of players and all the things that come with that. Now all of a sudden you've got all of them, and there's always something to deal with.
But I manage things a lot better. Staff, practice planning, administrative items, just responding as the head coach to mail, requests and media. It never stops. You'd better be organized and efficient with your time, or it will consume you.
I've never written so many speeches in all my life. I'm still doing a lot of those requests, but I'm trying not to be away from my church more than one Sunday a month, trying not to be gone from home more than once or twice per week during the off-season. You only get one opportunity to be a dad, so that's important to me.
Q: What is your biggest undertaking this off-season?
A: Developing new leadership. We have a strong group of guys, but we don't have a lot of seniors.
We have to develop the new playmakers. Who are the guys going to be? You're losing (C.J.) Spiller, Jacoby (Ford), Michael Palmer. But just like last year, we lost Aaron Kelly, James Davis, Tyler Grisham. And nobody thought C.J. could be an every-down guy.
There are a lot of things, but it's really taking the foundation we put in place and growing in year two with our systems. We've changed a lot of things on both sides of the ball and created an identity. But we have to be more cerebral. At certain positions, we have to play smarter.