College Sports

How Dabo built Clemson into nation’s No. 1 team

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney addresses his players before their game against Georgia Tech at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium on October, 18, 2008. This was Swinney’s first game as Clemson’s head coach. Tech won 21-17
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney addresses his players before their game against Georgia Tech at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium on October, 18, 2008. This was Swinney’s first game as Clemson’s head coach. Tech won 21-17

When Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney found out he had the opportunity to be the Tigers’ head coach following the 2008 season, there was no contract negotiation or lengthy meeting with athletics director Terry Don Phillips.

Swinney had a vision, and he was ready to get to work.

“I didn’t read the contract. I just signed whatever he put in front of me. I was a pretty cheap investment. I didn’t care. I told him that,” Swinney recalled. “We were a mess, and we needed to build a program. We needed things in place.”

Swinney said his initial contract was for about $800,000, and while he was more than happy with what he was making, he needed support from the athletics department to make his vision a reality.

He told the administration at Clemson that without being able to hire more support staff and devote more resources to recruiting, Clemson would continue on as it had under Tommy Bowden.

“We only had one support guy. We were archaic just from the way we did things,” Swinney said. “We didn’t really get along very well in the early stages just because I felt like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get the same result then.’… I was like, ‘Look, I don’t need that. Leave me on the contract I’m on. I’m good. I make more money than I’ve ever made. I want to win, and I want to build a program that we can all be proud of around here.’ 

While Clemson did not have the success it desired from a national standpoint under Bowden, the Tigers did recruit well, including in the state of Florida. That has continued under Swinney and is a big reason the Tigers have become one of the most consistent programs in the country.

From 2005-08 Clemson signed 19 players from Florida, including one of the top players in the country, running back C.J. Spiller. Spiller’s success, as well as that of other players from Florida, including DeAndre McDaniel, Jamie Harper and Rashard Hall, helped the Tigers continue to recruit well in the Sunshine State.

The Tigers have signed five five-star prospects and seven four-star prospects out of Florida since Swinney took over the program.

“You’ve got to have a staff that believes in what you’re talking about, and you’ve got to be able to resonate that message. But, more importantly, you’ve got to do a great job with the players you have here,” Swinney said. “That’s the greatest asset we have is the guys on the team, not the guys we recruit. It’s the guys on the team. If you do a great job of developing your players, if you do a great job of loving your players, serving them, caring about them, the recruiting will take care of itself.”

In addition to Florida, Clemson has recruited well in Georgia, which produced ACC Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson.

Clemson has four starters from the Peach State – Watson, star running back Wayne Gallman and offensive linemen Maverick Morris and Mitch Hyatt.

Clemson’s ability to identify prospects and offer scholarships early has been a big plus for the Tigers, according to current players, including Watson and Gallman.

Watson committed to Clemson on Signing Day his sophomore year of high school before the majority of Division I prospects usually start earning scholarship offers.

“We offered him early, just built a great relationship with him. We hit it off right out of the gate,” Swinney said. “We knew he was going to be the best, and it didn’t take long for everybody to see that. … He’s been exactly what we thought he’d be.”

Gallman said Clemson offering him a scholarship first played a big factor in his decision.

“I got my first offer my sophomore year when Coach (Chad) Morris came up to me during one of my practices,” he said. “Them offering me first always had them in the forefront of my mind.”

Clemson’s coaching staff is known as a group of tireless recruiters, and they receive a lot of help from the school’s recruiting department.

The Tigers have a staff of three full time people and 20 student assistants who work with the recruiting department in monitoring social media accounts and sending messages to football prospects.

“I think social media has been a huge part of it,” Tigers offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said of Clemson’s success in recruiting. “We’re in the age now where social media is very prevalent. It’s relevant in all types of recruiting, coaching, everything. I think Coach (Jeff) Scott has been a big part of recruiting as well. He’s probably the best in the business.”

When social media such as Twitter became a bigger aspect of recruiting, Clemson was at the forefront because of Thad Turnipseed, the Director of Football Recruiting & External Affairs. The Clemson football social media account is widely regarded as one of the most interactive in the country. The Tigers tweet gifs and clever graphics daily.

“Those great businesses out there, those great programs, they don’t plateau. How do you do that? Well, you have to constantly reinvent, reinvest, reset, learn, grow, change,” Swinney said. “You have to do that. You don’t just change to change, but you have to always challenge yourself each and every year to say, ‘OK, well this may be how we’ve done it, but is it the right way?’ 

Swinney said after every season he studies ways for the Clemson program to improve.

“You can’t be satisfied, because just as soon as you think you’ve arrived and you’re satisfied, the next thing you know you’ve plateaued and you’re on the decline. Now you’re not paying attention to the little things. You don’t have the sense of urgency because you’re fat and happy. Then it’s death,” he said. “Something new has come about, so all of a sudden what’s new? Social media. ‘Well, we better figure that out, and how do we use that?’ That’s just my personality. That’s just how I am.”

Clemson recently announced details for a new $55 million football complex that includes amenities such as sand volleyball, mini golf, laser tag and a bowling alley. It is set to open in February of 2017 and will only help Clemson on the recruiting trail.

“We want to be the best and we want to lead,” Swinney said. “We’ve been there, done that at Clemson as far as being reactive to everything. We want to be proactive. That’s the mentality that’s kind of taken root here.”