Dabo Swinney, in his 10th season* as head coach of the Clemson Tigers college football team, led Clemson to its second national championship in three years on Monday night. Clemson has been in the College Football Playoffs (final 4 teams) the last four years, making it to the championship three times.
Until Clemson’s program established itself as a regular feature in the playoffs these last four years, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide football program had been the perennial powerhouse – the standard to which all other programs strived for. After all, Saban had won three of the last four national championships heading into this year’s championship and six overall, which ties him with the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant for first all time.
To what can we attribute this shift in power which has allowed Clemson’s program to be considered elite and possibly equal to Alabama’s? Here is my opinion as an outsider looking in…
Understand and “play to” your strengths. As the “CEO” of Clemson football, Dabo has never swayed from his vision of what he wanted the program to become, which was one where the players believe in themselves and one another with a shared desire to be great. From his very first meeting with his players as an interim head coach, Dabo established those expectations. He understands who he is as a leader and that has not changed – what you see is what you get. Swinney is transparent is transparent in every way and does not hide his faith.
Focus on relationships. Dabo is all about relationships. When he offers a scholarship to a player, he is accepting one’s entire family into the program. Therefore, Dabo refuses to extend a scholarship until he has met the student-athlete’s family. He is honest with his players and never makes promises, and talks about there being no individual that is greater (or more important) than the team.
Build a culture and a deep sense of community. Dabo inevitably set out to build a different culture for Clemson football. He recognized from the beginning that building a culture takes time and requires dogged persistence of a message, over and over. Due to Clemson’s location 35 miles from a big city, he has embraced the community that Clemson is known for. From a rabid Alumni following and a University that has improved significantly in global appeal, Dabo has leveraged the benefits of a Clemson education and experience.
Be passionate and sincere about what you do. If you have ever watched an interview with Dabo, you feel his passion and can’t help but be drawn to his energy. His players, coaches and Clemson’s fans all feed off that energy and enthusiasm. Dabo’s quote after winning the most recent championship was, “We’re gonna enjoy this tonight. But on Friday, we’re gonna have another team meeting and get locked in on next year.” It is this sincere commitment to excellence and getting better every day that makes his team compete at such a high level.
Surround yourself with great, smart people who share your vision. Dabo takes care of his assistant coaches and he lets them “do their thing.” He makes sure they are paid handsomely and have what they need to be successful. Dabo’s assistant coach, defensive coordinator Brent Venables, was highlighted as a primary reason for Clemson’s lopsided victory over Alabama, as his game plan and schemes for stopping Alabama worked throughout the contest.
Foster friendly competition, giving everyone a chance. Dabo keeps competition for playing time alive before, during and after the season, and tells his players that there are no guarantees. His players appreciate that, and as a result it makes them better. This season, Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman quarterback, beat out incumbent quarterback Kelly Bryant for the starting position. Dabo explained the reasoning behind the change, and at the national championship game credited Lawrence as a reason for their success this year. In addition, one of Clemson’s best wide receivers this year – Hunter Renfrow – was initially a walk-on to the team.
Always stay humble and grounded. Dabo is considered an authentic human being and a servant leader. He does not forget his humbling and challenging early life experiences and remains an ever positive (and intense) person. Dabo said after winning the championship this week, “I hope you get a little hope and inspiration from us. If we [Clemson] can do it, anybody can do it.” He also said that there are many other great, deserving coaches who have not been able to experience such a moment (i.e., winning a championship), and therefore appreciates and is humbled by the feat.
I am working on a deeper story with a colleague. In the meantime, use these tips to help write the next chapter of greatness for your team in 2019!
For those interested in reading more on Swinney and Saban, read a previous blog highlighting these two great coaches and their distinct differences in both style and approach to coaching (written before their first matchup in January 2016).
*Dabo Swinney took over as an interim head coach after Tommy Bowden’s termination during the 2008 season, coaching the team’s last 7 games of the season.