CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Few believed 10 years ago Dabo Swinney could transform Clemson into a perennial championship contender.
It was a longshot that he even got the job. But there he stood in an ill-fitting orange coach, the down-home guy with the folksy dialogue and no head coaching experience, smiling, trying to make a good first impression.
It sounded like the normal rhetoric from the new guy when Swinney vowed Clemson’s football program would be second to none and that the skeptics should take another look because, “We will not disappoint.”
But a decade later, they haven’t.
Clemson has lived up to that bold pledge with seven 10-win seasons, four Atlantic Coast Conference crowns, the 2016 national title and has become one of the top programs in the sport.
There isn’t one blueprint for college football success, but former Texas coach Mack Brown said Clemson has all the necessary ingredients:
— A dynamic leader people believe in;
— Resolve to stick with an overall plan yet having a willingness to adjust;
— Ability to consistently recruit the best in players;
— Top-notch coaches and resources;
— Commitment from administrators.
“You can’t have a program that wins like Clemson’s without those things,” said Brown, who has a national championship on his resume.
Brown also believes Clemson has the mix to keep the run going for a while.
Swinney is still one of Clemson’s biggest cheerleaders, but he has demonstrated to players that he is a leader with vision who’ll accept nothing less than their best.
“You’ve got to change the inside before you can change the outside,” Swinney said.
Swinney seemed to have little chance at the fulltime job when then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips showed Tommy Bowden the door six games into the 2008 season and elevated the Tigers’ 38-year-old receivers coach to take over.
Phillips, who retired in 2012, said when he went to Clemson’s practices, he’d find himself watching receivers and Swinney’s animated coaching style. When Phillips walked through the football offices, he’d find players packed in Swinney’s room, many who were not receivers.
“He just has a way” with players, Phillips said.
Still, when entrusting a football team like Clemson’s to a new coach, everyone has an opinion “and hiring a receivers coach who was never a coordinator is not what they had in mind,” Phillips said with a laugh.
Swinney was called a stop-gap, a “coupon coach” hired on the cheap at less than million who was way out of his depth.
And for a minute, it looked like it would be a short ride for Swinney.
Clemson won its first ACC Atlantic Division title in Swinney’s initial season, yet when the Tigers finished 6-7 in 2010, plenty of fans, boosters and people of influence wondered if Swinney was indeed the guy to make Clemson a perennial title contender.
Inside the program, there was still belief in Swinney.
“We knew he was and we knew if we kept believing, things would change,” said record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd.
They did. Boyd and the Tigers were 32-8 from 2011-2013.
It helped, Boyd said, that Tiger coaches went after and landed some of the top players in the country. The 2011 roster included NFL receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins.
“You could see the talent getting better each time,” Boyd said.
When you win, more players get to play meaning a bigger buy-in from everyone, said Brown, who also revived North Carolina before moving to Texas.
An appealing style of play under the leadership of personable coaches has also contributed to Clemson’s rise.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is on the top of that list.
Phillips said his full-blown coaching search in 2008 included Venables, who was Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator at the time. Three years later, Venables reached out to Phillips that he might be ready to change jobs. Phillips told Swinney and the coach called Venables, who now runs one of the most respected defenses in the country.
Then there are the players that Boyd mentioned.
Boyd himself was almost never a Tiger.
He said if Philip Fulmer wasn’t fired at Tennessee 10 years ago, he would’ve signed with the Vols and never come to Clemson. Instead, Clemson assistant Danny Pearman, who remains with the staff, convinced Boyd to visit with Swinney.
“I wasn’t going anywhere else after that,” Boyd said.
Now players like Boyd, tailback C.J. Spiller and quarterback Kyle Parker maintain connections with the school. Parker recently completed two years a graduate assistant. Former All-American defensive lineman Da’Quan Bowers currently follows a similar path.
Swinney has also maintained a solid core of assistants who players can count on.
Venables begins his seventh year on staff. Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were former Clemson teammates who were on staff and were promoted when Arkansas coach Chad Morris left after the 2014.
“You see the same faces year after year,” senior tight end Milan Richard said. “That’s a benefit for us.”
At the top, of course, is Swinney.
The coach does not see anything remarkable about his style. He simply says what he feels and makes sure his players are told not what they’d like to hear, but what they need to hear.
“The best,” Swinney said, “is yet to come.”
Hard to count them out.
Brown, an ESPN analyst, saw this coming. He remembers Swinney visiting the Longhorns one offseason and the two talking about life. Brown left convinced Swinney would reach the top .
“Dabo’s been able to do this,” Brown said, “by being Dabo.”
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