In his three-plus seasons as Clemson’s head football coach, Swinney had developed a reputation as being tough on discipline – but never with a prominent player, much less the program’s most prominent player.
Two hours into Friday’s first practice of the 2012 season, Swinney passed the test – with flying colors.
Clemson announced that Watkins had been suspended for the season’s first two games – Sept. 1’s Georgia Dome opener against Auburn and Sept. 8’s home opener against Ball State, eligible to return Sept. 15 against Furman.
It was a surprising move which sent a clear, unmistakable message: no player is bigger than the team.
Clemson will enter its most anticipated opener in four years without its most electric offensive weapon.
A year ago, Watkins had his national coming-out party against Auburn’s defense, shredding the defending national champions for 10 catches, 155 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-24 win that broke the nation’s longest current win streak.
He never looked back, setting ACC freshman records for receptions, yardage and touchdowns while becoming an AP first-team All-American and winning consensus national freshman of the year honors.
Last month, he was voted the ACC’s preseason player of the year, and there was talk of a Heisman Trophy run.
Emerging as the ACC’s best player is still possible, but making a bid for the stiff-arm trophy seems difficult, especially when you subtract a chance to perform in the national spotlight.
It is a tough but fair punishment that falls right in line with Swinney’s other major disciplinary issue. A year ago, freshman wide receiver Joe Craig was suspended for the season’s first three games after his involvement in a bloody domestic dispute with Clemson track teammate Marlena Wesh; no charges were filed (and Craig was dismissed in February following domestic abuse charges against the mother of his young child).
By all accounts, Watkins has handled his arrest with class; Swinney repeatedly praised his response, saying he has gone “above and beyond” the parameters set out.
Perhaps that’s why some were so surprised by the ruling. Upon hearing those comments, including Swinney suggesting there was “a chance” he could play against Auburn, some began to believe the suspension would be relatively light – a quarter, a half, three quarters.
Turns out that was never a true option. All that good behavior earned Watkins the “low end” of the punishment. The high end? Four games, which would include a crucial ACC Atlantic Division showdown against Florida State.
Clemson could beat Ball State if Watkins played with his legs in a potato sack.
Suspending him for Auburn says Swinney wasn’t willing to sacrifice his principles to win a football game – even a crucial tone-setter like the season opener.
Lose, and some fans will pillory Swinney for costing the team a game in the name of a moral stand.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem for him, either.
“Those people need to be the head coach,” he said. “I’m the head coach, I make the decisions and whatever decision I make, you can’t please people. I’m not in the business to please people.”
The most important factor, he said, was making the right decision – no matter how much it hurts.
“The game of football, or a game of football will never be more important to me than teaching young people important life lessons,” he said. “ I have learned that many times something that seems to be the worst thing that can happen to you can become the best thing. I know Sammy will learn from this and use this to make a difference in other people’s lives. “
You can bet that Watkins – and those who follow him into the program – will remember it, too.
On Swinney’s watch, no one – superstar or scrub - is above the law.