By Larry Williams, Photos by Zachary Hanby
Published this month by The History Press,
Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory Under Dabo Swinney takes readers deep inside the team's burgeoning renaissance. When Dabo Swinney told a national television audience about his team’s willingness to “bring your own guts” after an emotional win over Notre Dame, it was a spontaneous line to a television reporter in the delirious, rain-soaked aftermath of a landmark victory. But Swinney’s comment also underscored the identity and drive that would fuel a truly special season.
Enjoy these exclusive excerpts from the book!
From the middle of October to late November 2008, most people who encountered Dabo Swinney wanted to know how nerve-wracking it must have been to suddenly possess the keys to a major college football program. Six games into a failed season that began with immense promise, things didn’t work out with Tommy Bowden, and he was gone after nine-plus seasons. The athletics director, Terry Don Phillips, shocked almost everyone, including Swinney himself, by telling this thirty-eight-year-old receivers coach he was the guy.
So Swinney had a six-game audition to win the job, six weeks to orchestrate some sort of change for the better after ugly losses to Alabama, Maryland and Wake Forest. It was the mother of all opportunities but also the mother of all challenges, which presumably imposed an immense amount of pressure on the man who was considered a long shot to get the gig.
“This is fun,” he said in November of that season. “Man, this has been a blast. An absolute blast. I’ll be fine no matter what.”
At the time, Swinney had sat down for a lengthy interview with this writer to discuss his life story. Eleven months earlier, as Clemson prepared for a meeting with Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Swinney shared some insight into his tumultuous upbringing during a casual, off-the-record conversation in a lounge of the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta. Now, as the 2008 regular season wound down, the story was more pertinent. It needed to be told. So William Christopher Swinney told it.
“I guess some people look at me and they see me with a calmness in the midst of a storm, and that’s where that comes from,” he said then. “It’s because I’ve lived in that my whole life.”
Shifting to the present, people sometimes wonder why Swinney pays so much attention to people on the outside who say his team can’t do something. At regular intervals throughout the 2015 season, he brought up various slights that came from the media along the way. If it wasn’t preseason skepticism about his inexperienced offensive line, it was preseason questions about his quarterback’s ability to stay healthy after an injury-prone 2014. If it wasn’t a former Notre Dame star predicting a “lugubrious” mood from Clemson players and fans for a rain-soaked showdown with the Irish, it was an ESPN reporter who dared use the term “Clemsoning” in a question for a story about how much the Tigers had done to flush the derisive moniker. Even after a convincing victory over Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal, after spending more than three weeks hearing that the Sooners were the favorite, Swinney told a national television audience that the only people who believed in his team were the team members themselves.
Step back and consider the context of Swinney’s life, and it makes perfect sense that he uses what people say about what his team can’t do to fuel the Tigers’ motivational fire. Because for basically his entire life, he has been told that he can’t do something. And darned if he hasn’t overcome the odds and done it, every step of the way.
If you thumb to Swinney’s biographical information in the team’s media guide and rely on that alone to inform your view of him, his life seems blessed with an inordinate amount of right-place, right-time good fortune. He grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama; fulfilled a childhood dream by walking on at Alabama; and later earned a scholarship for the Crimson Tide. He closed a storybook career by winning a national title under Gene Stallings. He then joined the team as a graduate assistant before becoming a full-time coach at the age of twenty-six. He married his high school sweetheart, Kathleen; has three healthy boys; and after five years under Bowden at Clemson he had the head job fall into his lap.
If you spend some time looking beneath the surface, though, you find a life that has been far from charmed. Swinney remembers climbing from his bedroom window and onto the roof as a child, trying to escape the venom and violence that accompanied his father’s heavy drinking. He remembers going without lunch money as a twelve-year-old and sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house as a senior in high school. He can remember sharing a bedroom with his mother for much of his time at college in Tuscaloosa because she had nowhere else to go. He remembers spending weekends cleaning gutters to make money.
“When I see these guys, I see more than football players,” Swinney said during that conversation in 2008. “I see a lot of myself in a lot of these guys. Lost kids trying to find their way. Scared. Don’t know what the future holds. Problems at home. Financial problems. Whatever it is.”
Typically, not much interesting happens at a groundbreaking ceremony. Donors are thanked. Photos are snapped. Important people take off their hard hats and discard the shovels, and everyone moves on.
The day before Clemson played host to Florida State with a chance to claim the ACC’s Atlantic Division, they staged an event to turn ceremonial dirt on a $55 million football operations facility. And it was anything but a routine endeavor.
A few days earlier, the 8-0 Tigers were unveiled as the No. 1 team in the country in the first College Football Playoff poll of 2015. Now, Swinney stepped to the microphone and was trying to thank the donors who had bought into his vision of not just keeping up with what everyone else in college football is doing but staying ahead of them. There was a time when Clemson did just enough to remain competitive in the ever-evolving arms race of facilities improvements and coaches’ compensation. But those days are over, thanks to Swinney selling his administration on a commitment to dictating the cutting edge instead of reacting to it. This event was being held at the team’s $10 million indoor practice facility, which was completed in 2012 after years of lobbying from Swinney. Now he was here to celebrate the start of something much bigger: a sprawling, all-encompassing complex that would house all of the Tigers’ football operations for a long time. Kind of like a forever home for a major college football program.
Swinney, seldom at a loss for words, choked back tears.
“I’ve just been full of emotion the whole year,” he said, alluding to his father’s passing in August. An extended pause followed as he tried to compose himself. Someone in the audience shouted, “We love you, Dabo!” Applause followed, and Swinney began to lose it again before turning his back to the crowd. He used his suit jacket to wipe away the tears.
“It takes a lot of people,” Swinney said before another pause. “It’s rare in college that you have everything kind of working in the same direction. I’ve seen where the president doesn’t like the AD, the AD don’t like the president. The head coach thinks he calls all the shots, he doesn’t understand the chain of command. The board of trustees don’t like whatever. I’ve seen that. It’s an ugly thing. Everybody worries about who gets the credit. But I’ve never been a part of a better situation than the one we have right now at Clemson as far as the synergy, the unity of spirit. Clemson has a determined spirit. And that’s why we’re having success.”
For two decades, Clemson couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be on the football field. Danny Ford ushered in unprecedented success in the 1980s, bringing the 1981 national title to the foothills of the Palmetto State and establishing the Tigers as a perennial power. But he also brought NCAA scrutiny and strife with the administration that ultimately resulted in his messy departure in 1990. That produced years of conflicting interests and conflicting ideas and conflicting definitions of what Clemson football should aspire to be. Everyone wanted the Tigers to win, but there was paranoia about the perception of winning at all costs. To replace Ford, they brought in straight-laced Ken Hatfield before deciding he wasn’t a good fit. Then they brought in Tommy West, who talked like Ford but didn’t win like him. Then they brought in the hot young name (Tommy Bowden) but took years to supply him with modern facilities.
In four full seasons as a receivers coach at Clemson, Swinney was paying attention, and he noticed some of the cultural weaknesses that were holding Clemson back. When Terry Don Phillips made the surprising decision to name him interim coach in October 2008 after Bowden walked, Swinney’s long-term vision consisted of unifying the entire Clemson family and making the football product stronger as a result. The “All In” mantra he voiced on the first day of the job wasn’t just something to rally his players that week; it was a broader message underscoring what could be achieved over the long term with everyone devoted to the same goal.
Brent Venables doesn’t want to get into the time or the place. He’d rather keep those details to himself.
At some point earlier in his career, Venables was in a bad place emotionally. A place where even after victories he’d find himself gnashing his teeth over the mistakes and the slivers of imperfection that obscured the main objective of it all.
“Here’s what I disliked about myself: I got to a place personally where I was not enjoying the winning. And that is a very bad place to be, when you can’t enjoy it.”
As the wins piled up in 2015, a lot was made of how Clemson celebrated its victories with various dances in the locker room by Dabo Swinney and his players. It made for viral phenomena when Clemson’s social media team captured and disseminated the clips to the world, and it certainly made for great exposure when ESPN chose to air them. One might convincingly argue that exposing this behind-the-scenes glee played a role in athletics directors seeking to fill head-coach openings with young, energetic figures who aren’t afraid to let their hair down and relate to today’s athlete.
But there was something more important and revealing at work in the way that the Tigers’ ascending football program greeted its growing list of victories. This group was going to party like it was 1981 after every win, not just the big ones over Oklahoma or Louisville or Notre Dame. And it wasn’t something that just spontaneously happened. It was a calculated part of Swinney’s leadership, a ritual that provides a great safeguard against winning ever becoming the dull routine it might be at some other places.
“I just think guys get bored,” Swinney said. “I think it needs to be fun. It’s college football. I think part of at least what we want these guys to take away from here is I want them to have a great experience. I want them to have some fun. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of stress on these guys.”
Since he took over as Clemson’s coach in 2008, Swinney has said, “The fun is in the winning.” The football program has changed dramatically, in many ways, over the seven years since. But one thing that has remained basically the same is how the Tigers enjoy the wins. As in, a lot.
“Coach Swinney does a really good job of making sure our guys celebrate the wins,” said co–offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “I think there’s a danger when you win a lot to say, ‘We expect to win, OK we won, business as usual, just kind of put your suit back on and go home.’ That’s really where you can find yourself in trouble, where winning is not enough and it kind of becomes boring. Coach Swinney does a masterful job, in my opinion, of having the players prepared and having that mentality to expect to win, but after we win allowing them to enjoy that and really creating the environment that he wants them to enjoy that.”