SUNSET — Pressure? What pressure?
If Dabo Swinney is feeling any at the helm of the Clemson football program, he certainly isn’t showing it.
Tuesday marked the unofficial beginning of Clemson’s 2011 season – Swinney’s annual media golf outing at The Reserve – and with it came questions about his future, given 2010’s 6-7 debacle, the program’s first losing record since 1998.
Ebullient and back-slapping as ever, Swinney didn’t seem concerned.
“Why not us?” he exulted. “It’s been 30 years since we’ve won a national championship at Clemson. 20 years since we’ve won a conference championship. It’s time for us to take that step as a program, to be one of the elite teams in the country, and that is my job. If I’m given the opportunity, we’re going to do that. I don’t have any doubt about it.”
There is external pressure on Swinney this season, his third at Clemson. Although the Tigers came within one defensive stop of making a BCS game in 2009, winning the ACC Atlantic Division in the process, they stumbled in 2010, losing five games by six points or less, tied for most in the FBS.
He revamped his offensive coaching staff, trading Billy Napier for new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who’ll run a fast-paced, no-huddle system centered around the run and keeping defenses off-balance.
Just as importantly, Swinney believes he has laid a solid foundation for success.
“I’m all about the long term, building a program that will sustain, not cutting corners, and not sacrificing, doing things the wrong way, doing something in the short term,” he said.
“I want to be here a long time. I’m just really excited about the things we have in place now. It’s been a long process, a grinding two years to get to this point. Our football team has learned how to compete. We’re a tougher team than we were in January of ’09. We’ve got improvement to do but we’ve come a long way. We know how to practice, we’re a closer football team, and that was reflected this season. In the midst of a lot of adversity, our team didn’t flinch.”
Swinney isn’t flinching either.
Asked if 2010 left him feeling any extra pressure, he responded, rather emphatically: no.
“You don’t live off last year either way in this business,” he said. “You win them all, you better forget about it. You don’t have a good season, you better forget about it. It’s totally irrelevant to this year. When you’re a competitor, it’s all about the next game, the next season, getting back out there and going to work.
“I’ve said this many times: I coach football for a living, it’s what I do but it’s not who I am. I’m a lot of things other than a football coach. I’m a husband, a father, a Christian, a friend. I don’t let football define me. I don’t let the scoreboard define who I am.”
Pressure, he said, is self-imposed. He’s worried most about developing his players into solid citizens and fathers.
“The only pressure I feel … nobody has higher expectations than me, because I expect to win, every game, every week, every year,” he said. “That’s always been my expectations. I’m never going to be a guy who comes in and says, ‘I don’t know if we can win this game. That’s not who I am. I believe that we can. I’m excited about where we’re going. We’ll get out there and see if it shakes out.”
He admits he doesn’t know how 2011 will shake out, but “a lot of good times are ahead.”
“I’d say we’re right on track from a program standpoint,” he said, “but as far as where I want us to go long-term, I think our future is very bright.”
The Class of 2011 plays a big role in his projections; Swinney expects 10-13 true freshmen to play this fall, with 27-30 freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart. That, he admits, is a concern, but he says the class will “be a special group.”
Their success would certainly help him lift the external pressure surrounding the program.
“You don’t get a lot of time these days building a program,” Swinney said, “so it’s important we take a big step forward in solidifying the direction we want to go.”