How Dabo Swinney Turned Clemson Into a Football Juggernaut

CLEMSON, S.C. — The six-bedroom house on Surfsong Road where Leon J. Hendrix Jr. lives sits on the far side of Kiawah Island from the South Carolina mainland, right on the water. It looks less like the Cape Cod clapboards around it than like an Italian villa. One June afternoon in 2014, Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s head football coach, knocked on the door.

Hendrix, who is universally known as Bill, had done well in business. For a decade, he ran Remington Arms, the gun manufacturer. Before that, he was a partner in a private investment firm. But his passion was Clemson football. He began attending games as a high school student in the 1950s. He studied at Clemson as an undergraduate, returned for graduate school, then sent each of his four children there. When Swinney became Clemson’s head coach in 2008, Hendrix was the chairman of the university’s board of trustees and a major donor. He already had his name on the student center.

Swinney was convinced that Clemson needed a new training complex for its football program. He had a specific vision of how it should look — part office suite, part health club, part fun house. When Dan Radakovich was hired as Clemson’s athletic director in 2012, he asked Swinney what the team needed to reach the very top. Swinney grabbed a napkin and drew a sketch. “Well, we’re going to need some money,” Radakovich told him.

Sports are often called the front porch of a university. Winning, especially championships, can entice prospective students, donors and sponsors. “At Clemson,” says Radakovich, who also worked at Georgia Tech and Louisiana State, “football is way beyond the front porch. It’s the lawn, the porch, the front door. It’s everything until you get inside the classroom.”

Whether that’s appropriate or not for an institution of higher learning, Radakovich understood that nothing could enhance Clemson’s brand like football success. If Swinney wanted a new building, Radakovich would find a way to get it for him.

The plan called for elite donors to contribute $2.5 million each to the project. Nobody had ever given that much to Clemson athletics. But if Hendrix did, Radakovich believed, others would follow. Except that Hendrix had just donated several hundred thousand dollars toward a locker room and offices. “I thought that was a pretty nice gift,” Hendrix says. His wife, Pam, was equally unmoved by the fund-raising appeal. We’ve built enough, she told her husband.

Swinney flew in to make a final plea. He and the Hendrixes sat on the back porch, cooled by the ocean breeze. They ate pizza that Pam made from scratch. At one point, Swinney mentioned that Hendrix must have been around for what at that time was Clemson’s only national championship in football, in 1981.

“Hell yes, I was,” Hendrix responded.

Swinney’s voice rose. “Do you ever want to win another one?”

“Hell yes, I do!”

“Well,” Swinney said, jabbing a finger at his own chest, “I’m your best hope.” He paused, then pointed the same finger at Hendrix. “And you’re my best hope.”

Six seasons have passed since that conversation. Clemson last lost a football game on Jan. 1, 2018 — to Alabama in a national playoff semifinal. It had won the previous national championship by beating the Crimson Tide. Now, Clemson is in position for a third title in four seasons. On Monday night in New Orleans, it will play L.S.U. in yet another title game, Swinney’s fourth in five years.

Clemson, a state university in rural South Carolina, had little national standing in athletics or academics even a decade ago. Its 1981 title was its only top five finish in history. It would hardly seem the place to build such a legacy. And Swinney would hardly seem the coach to do it. His teams play high-energy, spirited football, but so do plenty of others. He hasn’t had the best players, either; until this year, his recruiting classes were rated no higher than seventh in the country. “There is something head-scratching about it,” says Scott Woodward, the L.S.U. athletic director. “But if it takes a special magic to win that last game or two each season, he obviously has it.”

As to what that magic is, even his biggest supporters seem flummoxed. “I know what you mean,” says Tommy Bowden, the former Clemson coach who hired Swinney as an assistant in 2003. “He’s Forrest Gump.”

What Swinney does do, perhaps better than any other coach in football, is sell: to recruits, to the players in his locker room, to the trustees who employ him and, crucially, to the Clemson community. That 2014 evening, Swinney left Surfsong Road with a commitment for $2.5 million. Once the door had closed, Pam Hendrix turned to her husband.

“Do you think we’re giving them enough?” she said.

Swinney, now 50, was a 38-year-old assistant when Bowden offered to resign six games into the 2008 season. Clemson was 3-3. Swinney was chosen by Terry Don Phillips, then the athletic director, to run the team for the remainder of the season. Swinney had never been a head coach at any level of the sport. He hadn’t even worked as a coordinator.

More than a decade later, he still doesn’t seem much like a head football coach, who is typically cast from one of two templates: steel-jawed and taciturn or wild-eyed and fiery. “In nearly 40 years, I’ve not come upon a personality like his,” says Paul Finebaum, whose national radio show focuses on football in the South. “He kind of looks like the guy who just got off the Gray Line sightseeing bus. If you introduced me to Dabo Swinney and said, ‘He’s the minister at the Spartanburg Baptist Church,’ I wouldn’t blink an eye.”

Picture a through line connecting the most successful coaches of modern college football, beginning with Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, passing through Miami’s Jimmy Johnson and Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and one or two others, and ending with Alabama’s Nick Saban, Swinney’s friend and nemesis, who has won six national championships. All fit the stereotype of how great coaches act. “General George Patton,” says Woodward. More feared than loved, they demanded respect from on high.

Instead, Swinney grins and claps. He waves his arms. He deals out high-fives and low-fives. After each victory, he joins his players in a celebratory dance in the locker room. He will turn his hat backward, fling his limbs skyward and generally resemble a middle-aged man pretending to be a generation younger. Like much of what he does, the dancing works because of Swinney’s willingness to let himself be vulnerable.

If a player does something exceptional at practice, Swinney hugs him. If he notices someone’s attention wander, his entire face falls. There’s not even a pretense of emotional distance. “As a kid, you try to hide certain things,” he says. A young Swinney, for example, didn’t want anyone to know that his father, who died in 2015, had lost his job and turned to heavy drinking. “But,” he says, “I finally got to the point where I just didn’t care anymore.”

He puts that lack of inhibition on display before every home game. He and his players enter the stadium, which is known as Death Valley, from the top of a steep hill behind an end zone. After a cannon shot, the players complete a series of rituals, including touching a rock imported from the real Death Valley. Then they jog down the hill and onto the field. Unlike every Clemson coach before him, Swinney races down the incline, hitting flat ground before anyone else and accelerating from there.

Up ahead, a squadron of cheerleaders marches toward midfield, to the beat of the Clemson fight song. Swinney prides himself on catching them before they get there and needling them about winning his imaginary race. “I’m like: ‘I’m coming! I’m coming! I’m here! I got you again!’” His rubbery face rearranges into a crooked smile. “I always say, ‘I got you again.’”

He does it for his own satisfaction, he insists, not to motivate his players. “If I’m going to run on the field, I’m going to run on the field,” he says. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

The town of Clemson is small and remote. It is about a two-hour drive southwest of Charlotte, N.C., and about the same distance northwest of South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. With a nonstudent population of about 17,000, it has retained the feel of a sleepy Southern hamlet, even as its university has grown into one with a billion-dollar annual budget. Clemson’s head football coach is often the state’s most visible employee, and must be comfortable visiting with supporters at the Walmart or over lunch at a meat-and-three. That could be why the college tends to hire small-town Southerners for the position: Since 1970, they have included a Hootie and a Red, a Danny and a Charley, two Tommys and a Dabo.

As it is throughout the South, football at Clemson is inextricably entangled with religion and patriotism. Until 1955, Clemson was a military academy, all white and all male; the entire senior class of 1917 enlisted to fight in World War I. At football games, the spectators rise for a spirited rendition of “God Bless America.” Then, hands on hearts, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only after that do the players start hitting each other.

In college football, the same institutions tend to win championships generation after generation. “Clemson was never one of those schools,” says Danny Ford, a former coach who won the college’s only pre-Swinney title, in 1981. “I didn’t know if Clemson would ever win another. I really didn’t have high hopes.” Yet even before 1981, fans treated Clemson like a national power. “We would have 100,000 people coming to town every weekend,” says Davis Babb, who runs the athletic department’s support club and fund-raising arm.

The club’s name, IPTAY, stands for I Pay Ten a Year. The cost of membership has risen since its founding in 1934, but only to $60. IPTAY raised $63.7 million in 2018, an enormous sum for a university with maybe 150,000 living alumni. “People in the state grew up in families in which supporting the university was important, even among those who hadn’t attended it,” Babb explains. “Even when times were not as good, you had people say, ‘I’m going up to Clemson for the game.’” It didn’t matter that few people outside South Carolina were paying attention.

Swinney had never been to a Clemson game before he arrived to coach. He grew up in Pelham, Ala., south of Birmingham, where he slept in a car some nights. Alabama football provided common ground with his tempestuous father. Swinney was 13 in 1983 when he heard Bear Bryant had died. He remembers the moment as some others might recall the death of Elvis Presley. “Time stopped for me,” he says.

Swinney had a successful high school career as a wide receiver. He went to Tuscaloosa in 1989 unrecruited but determined. “He wasn’t going to give up,” says Woody McCorvey, who was an assistant coach at Alabama when Swinney played there and is now an associate athletic director at Clemson. Swinney lettered for three seasons and played on a national championship team. Then he stayed on eight more years as a graduate assistant and receivers coach. When head coach Mike DuBose was fired after a 3-8 season in 2000, Swinney had to leave, too. He was 31 and hadn’t held a job outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. “All I knew was ball,” he says.

A few months later, a former Alabama colleague called offering a job selling commercial real estate. Swinney dived in. He would meet investors at vacant lots in Grand Junction, Colo., and Olathe, Kan., and ask them to envision where their Cinnabon might go. He worked from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and had weekends off.

“I’m making more money than I ever made, and I’m working way less,” Swinney recalls. “And I was moving like this” — he shoots his hand upward and makes a whooshing sound — “through the company.” But he yearned to coach: “I missed teaching, being around young people, recruiting, getting a result every Saturday.”

He applied for every coaching job that came open, and some that didn’t. He reached out to coaches, to players who had become assistants, even to sportswriters. Driving to work each morning, he said the same prayer, asking for a coaching job to come his way. Then he’d park his car and start to sell.

The new football complex Bill Hendrix helped pay for looms over a lake like a presidential library. It includes a miniature golf course, a barber shop and an indoor slide that leads from the second floor to the first. Swinney likes to tell visitors that Clemson won the 2016 national championship before the building opened. “We earned it,” he says.

That Swinney was still at Clemson in 2016 is a credit to his ability to sell his vision. When Phillips had made him the interim coach eight years earlier, the reaction at Clemson was equal parts distress and incredulity. Fans considered their team a latent powerhouse. Surely it could attract someone more accomplished than an untested assistant. The national reaction was even more skeptical. “There was nothing really impressive about Dabo, other than that he was a likable guy,” Finebaum says. “I would have put whatever pennies I could have rubbed together against him even making it to the end of the season.”

But Phillips had seen something in Swinney. He would notice that Swinney’s office was invariably filled with clusters of players. “They just liked hanging out with him,” he says. When he attended practice, Phillips was drawn to the far end of the field, where Swinney was exhorting and backslapping and leading cheers. He sensed the potential for a special coach. “I really couldn’t explain why I felt the way I felt,” he says now. “Sometimes you just do things with your gut.”

Swinney sold himself to the players, who beat South Carolina in their final game and carried their interim coach off the field with a season record of 7-6. He sold himself to university officials with a detailed plan that included winning championships. “Very few coaches are willing to set the bar that high,” says Hendrix, who was part of the hiring process.

After getting the job, Swinney visited boosters around the state, selling his plan to make Clemson nationally relevant. Coming from a coach with no previous experience, that might have sounded naïve to a sophisticated fan base in a bigger market. But Clemson desperately wanted to believe someone who, despite all evidence to the contrary, felt he had inherited a program with championship potential. It had been waiting for someone like Swinney for decades. “Winning football games is hard,” Swinney says. “It’s hard if you’re connected. It’s impossible if you aren’t. You have to have an alignment — the board, the president, the athletic director, the coaches, the fans. It all depends on creating belief, up and down that line.”

Time away from football had given Swinney a sense of what real life is like. Accordingly, workdays in his program don’t begin until 9 a.m., which gives his assistants time to drive their children to school. At lunchtime, Swinney plays basketball with anyone in the building who shows up. Instead of eating in a secluded film room, as many coaches do, he heads to the cafeteria, setting down his tray wherever he finds an empty seat. He wants his players to be comfortable eating with him, so that they won’t hesitate to knock on his door if they have a problem. “There’s a stigma around football coaches,” says Jay Guillermo, the center on the team that won the title for the 2016 season. “He took a step back and thought: How do you lead men? Do you really need to be out there screaming and hollering?”

In November, Clemson was placed fifth in this season’s initial rankings by the committee that selects the playoff teams, even though the Tigers were the reigning national champion and had not lost a game. Clemson fans were incensed, but not Swinney. In the fable he likes to weave, Clemson will always be the lightly regarded college from the tiny town that rises up to smite the giants.

The $92 million, 10-year contract that Swinney signed in April is not only more remunerative than anything Saban has earned at Alabama, it’s the biggest in the history of college sports. His current recruiting class is rated the best in the country. The accomplishments of the last five seasons have made Swinney’s framing seem laughable, even though Clemson currently stands as a 5½-point underdog to L.S.U. in the title game (with gamblers heavily backing L.S.U.). “He’s in a different realm now,” Finebaum says. “The ‘aw shucks lil’ ol’ Clemson’ doesn’t work anymore.”

Clemson’s faithful have fed on the criticism, as many fan bases would. The Monday after Clemson beat Wake Forest in November, a 52-3 thrashing, Swinney hustled from practice to his weekly radio show, stopping only to grab baked chicken from the cafeteria. He yanked the orange cap off his head, pulled on pair of rimless reading glasses, and started cutting up his chicken. For the hour that followed, the co-host Don Munson put caller after caller on the air. Almost none had a question. Rather, they wanted to discuss one of two topics, often both: their lifelong passion for Clemson football, and how Swinney was the best thing that ever happened to it. God was invoked periodically. Each time, Swinney gave a brief nod.

Swinney wouldn’t inspire such devotion if he didn’t win. If he stops beating South Carolina nearly every year, stops winning the conference easily or driving the conversation for the national championship, he will soon find himself eating his chicken dinners at home. Swinney has proved that the expectation he pitched when he took over can be met. Now he must ensure that he doesn’t become a victim of his own achievements.

One caller to his radio show, named Lester, concluded half a minute of fulsome praise with an invocation. “May God bless you,” he intoned, “and bless your entire staff.” Swinney jerked his head backward and blinked. He put down the pen he had been holding. “Wow, that’s nice,” he said, almost to himself.

He wasn’t selling anyone on that Monday evening, but he didn’t need to be. They were already sold.

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