When Dabo Swinney was hired as Clemson’s head coach in 2009, not everyone was convinced he’d be the man to take the Tiger program back to the promised land. A land filled with National Championships, Heisman contenders and a reputation as one of the elite programs in college football.
On Monday night, Swinney officially proved all those doubters wrong when the Tigers knocked off top-ranked Alabama 35-31 in the CFB National Championship game in Tampa, Florida. It was the culmination of many hard years of turning around the culture in Clemson. One that had been filled with mediocrity under former coach Tommy Bowden, who went 72-45 during his tenure.
Upon his arrival in South Carolina, Swinney was faced with a program known for losing the big games. His task was to turn that same program into a national contender, much like it was in the 1980s. He also had to fight for his job. Many wanted him fired after just his second season, when the Tigers went from 9-5 to a dismal 6-7.
In 2011, the Tigers started 8-0 but fell off and finished the season by losing four of their final six. This included an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the bowl game. In 2012 and 2013, the Tigers went 11-2 before a 10-2 season in 2014.
However, during that 2012-14 span, Swinney might’ve taken his biggest steps in turning around the program. The Tigers became a recruiting hotbed, landing some of the nation’s best recruits and finishing with some of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Among those recruits was quarterback Deshaun Watson (yes, the same Watson who threw the game-winning touchdown Monday night. And, finished as runner-up in the Heisman in each of the past two seasons).
With Watson, and the rest of the major recruits, came a lot of high expectations and pressure. But the two committed to one another, going 10-2 in Watson’s freshman season in ’14.
Then the run in 2015 happened, when the Tigers seemed to hit the top-tier of football programs in the country. That was when Swinney termed the phrase “BYOG”—or ‘Bring Your Own Guts’—becoming an internet sensation for his post-game, post-victory, dance parties in the locker room. The Tigers went 14-0 to start that season, advancing to the championship game where they fell to the Crimson Tide, 45-40.
Despite losing seven starters on defense, Swinney reloaded while the offense would ride the arm and resiliency of Watson, finishing 12-1 and as ACC champions.
Once again in the playoff, Swinney out-coached who many believe to be two of the best coaches in college football. Ever. First, Swinney and the Tigers blanked Ohio State 31-0 in the semifinal game, handing Urban Meyer—who won championships at Florida and OSU—his worst loss as a head coach.
A week later, Swinney enacted revenge against Alabama’s Nick Saban, who has won five championships. Four at Alabama. He once again relied on Watson to bring the Tigers downfield in the final minutes to throw a game-winner with one second remaining to topple the Crimson Tide on Monday night.
It was Swinney, the former WR coach who was hired in 2009. Who fought through several years of losses in big games and criticism that he couldn’t get it down in Death Valley. And, who brought the Tigers back to the promised land. He did it by sticking to who he is, and in doing so landed major recruits. Then he won over his fan base by winning on the field.
A former champion as a player at Alabama. A guy who speaks his mind, and one you can tell cares for his players. Swinney is someone who is fun to play for at the college level.
If the dance parties in the locker room after victories doesn’t prove it, just take this past weekend as an example of who Swinney really is. Following a Sunday press conference where both he and Saban were featured, the two shook hands and smiled for a few photos in front of the championship trophy before Saban turned and exited the stage. Swinney, however, not so much. The 48-year-old stopped, pulled out his cell phone, and took a selfie with the trophy. The same one he was able to hoist Monday night.
That moment, which couldn’t have lasted longer than two minutes, was a prime example of who Swinney is. Both on and off the field. It’s also exactly how he got the Tigers back to being champions.
Moving forward, don’t expect the Tigers to fall off. Even if and when Watson decides to depart for the NFL. Swinney is still one of the best recruiters in the nation, already landing the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class—Cartersville, Georgia High quarterback Trevor Lawrence—a two-time state champion.