Old-school Dabo Swinney keeps Clemson on top in ACC

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney gestures during an NCAA college football news conference at the...
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney gestures during an NCAA college football news conference at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)(Nell Redmond | AP)
Published: Jul. 27, 2023 at 8:16 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t use the transfer portal, prefers to promote from within his staff and once said he’d quit coaching if players were paid, which has come to pass under name, image and likeness earnings.

Still, the ACC’s longest-tenured coach, who critics have labeled behind the times, has stayed on top and is seeking is eighth league title in the past nine seasons and ninth overall.

Swinney, starting his 15th year, credits steadiness in building a strong culture that has kept the Tigers out front of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Football is a marathon and it’s not a sprint,” said Mickey Conn, Clemson’s co-defensive coordinator. “Sometimes, a sprint’s easy. But if you want to win and have a successful program like Dabo has built here, you’ve got to be in it for the long term.”

And Swinney’s cultivated success in his own way. He brushes aside big picture issues and simplifies his program’s success: “Just got to win. All that stuff is a lot to talk about, but it still comes down to what you do on the field,” he said Thursday at the close of ACC media days.

Clemson figures to get a strong push from rising Florida State when the ACC preseason rankings are released. The teams face each other at Clemson on Sept. 23.

Having the Seminoles back in the league chase may not be good for Clemson, “but it is definitely good for the ACC,” Swinney said, smiling.

It’s been a while since Clemson was pushed in the ACC play. Since Florida State won the league title in 2014, the Tigers have gone 100-13 overall and 66-5 against ACC opponents.

It took Swinney time to develop a powerhouse. Coordinators Chad Morris on offense in 2011 and Brent Venables on defense in 2012 touched off a recruiting boon that included NFL standouts like quarterback Trevor Lawrence, defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins and receiver Tee Higgins.

Tar Heels coach Mack Brown watched Swinney’s long-term build, as both a TV analyst and an ACC rival. He said the mindset at Clemson is staying the course. “They’ve got a plan for each coming year,” Brown said. “They might tweak it a little bit, but they won’t change it.”

Swinney has added only two transfers since 2014, both to bolster experience at quarterback. Neither David Olsen in 2014 nor Hunter Johnson in 2022 played significant roles in games.

Roster spots were at a premium this fall, especially with seven draft-eligible players, including all-ACC defensive tackle Tyler Davis, returning for another college season.

Clemson center Will Putnam said knowing your coaches aren’t seeking to supplant you through the portal is a big selling point at Clemson.

“As a player, it’s definitely respected,” Putnam said. “Really trusting guys who buy into him. He rewards that by giving them the opportunity they deserve.”

Swinney was a vocal opponent of paying players, going as far as to say he’d quit the game if it came to pass. These days, Swinney, who’ll make $10.75 million plus incentives this season, believes NIL opportunities have been a “net good” for the sport.

The problem, Swinney said, is “there’s no order, there’s no structure. It’s different rules at different places. The biggest thing I would like to see is just some continuity.”

Swinney can change his style when he feels it’s necessary. He subbed in reserve quarterback Cade Klubnik for ineffective starter DJ Uiagalelei early in the ACC championship game. Klubnik sparked the Tigers to the 39-10 victory after trailing 7-0.

Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State with Klubnick this year’s starter.

Swinney, known for promoting from within, made the out-of-character move of dismissing former Tigers quarterback and offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter after last season and luring Garrett Riley of TCU to take over.

That’s not so unusual, Swinney said. He benched starting quarterback Kelly Bryant in favor of NFL No. 1 overall pick Lawrence as a freshman in 2018.

As far as adding Riley to lead the attack, Swinney said he had no relationship with Venables before hiring him after the 2011 season. Venables defensive schemes helped the Tigers six ACC and two national championships.

“Sometimes, you have to have a different voice from time to time,” Swinney said.