CLEMSON — It started out just like any in-season Monday morning for Dabo Swinney.
Clemson’s wide receivers coach was sitting in a staff meeting, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, working on, as he recalls, “blitz pickup” techniques
In walked Tommy Bowden, the Tigers’ embattled head coach. After 10-plus years leading the program, he was resigning under pressure.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Bowden said. Swinney recalled him being “very business-like, but very emotional – everyone had a ton of respect for coach Bowden. He was great like he always was, handled it with class.”
Five minutes later, athletic director Terry Don Phillips walked into the room.
“Dabo, you’re the head coach,” he said. “You’re calling the shots. See me in my office in five minutes.”
It was, Swinney said, a moment of raw emotion.
“What would your reaction be?” he said.
Four years and 19 days have passed since Swinney was thrust into that sudden position of power, and by all accounts, Phillips’ snap decision has worked out pretty well. Bowden’s last stand was a nightmarish 12-7 Thursday night loss at Wake Forest; Clemson will return there for Thursday’s 7:30 p.m., ESPN-televised game in a position of power.
The No.14 Tigers (6-1, 3-1 ACC) still have hope of their second consecutive ACC title and third ACC division crown in the last four years, and are working towards establishing themselves as a national power, backed by what Swinney calls a completely changed culture.
“The good Lord opened the door and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to lead this program,” he said. “I’ve done the best job I could since the day I got the job and tried to get better each and every day, every year. I’m proud of how far this group has come, proud of this program, and a lot of good things have happened. We’ve come a long way and hopefully we’ll just continue to get better.”
Under Bowden, Clemson was a consistently good program – never great. The Tigers were bowl-eligible in all nine of his full seasons, but never won an ACC division title. Despite Phillips awarding a lucrative contract extension following Bowden’s flirtation with Arkansas, Clemson dropped to 3-3 following what Swinney called a “nightmare” loss to the Demon Deacons. It was time for a change.
“That was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said senior center Dalton Freeman, who was redshirting that fall; he watched from his parents’ couch with his father in Pelion. “You heard about things that were going on, but you weren’t sure because coach Bowden had just signed a new contract. And after that game, things fell apart.”
That week, Swinney didn’t sleep much; he took over a team that he says was divided and “not together” before his debut against Georgia Tech. He knew, after meeting with Phillips, that he had “a shot” at becoming the full-time head coach, but nothing more.
He immediately fired offensive coordinator Rob Spence, retaining the rest of the staff (defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and defensive line coach David Blackwell left following the season).
“I have a lot of respect for coach Spence,” he said. “He worked as hard as he could possibly work, like him or not. The guy worked his butt off for Clemson. But there’s no way it was going to work.”
Swinney’s initial core tenure was built around two core tenures: belief and having fun.
“We weren’t together,” he said. “I wanted to get guys to have some fun, buy into things from a team standpoint. I was passionate about getting guys to believe they could win again, that they could be good.”
He brought a wooden carving of the word “Believe” to his first team meeting: it has been a fixture at every meeting since.
“My No.1 job was that I had to create an attitude of belief, not hope,” Swinney said. “Get guys to believe in each other, the system, the overall vision of the program.”
“When (Swinney) first took over, he talked about changing from the inside out,” he said. “That means the culture and the attitude of the players. I feel like we’ve created a winning environment. Before we were hoping to go up and win. Now we expect to win every time we play.”
Swinney finished the regular season 4-2, with a win over rival South Carolina sealing his elevation to the full-time position and a Gator Bowl bid to play Nebraska.
There have been bumps in the road – like 2010’s 6-7 season, the program’s first losing record since 1998. Swinney’s staff has almost entirely turned over; wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott is the only assistant remaining from that 2008 staff. He began the season as a graduate assistant and took Swinney’s position following Bowden’s departure. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman and secondary coach Charlie Harbison joined for the Gator Bowl.
Still, Freeman sees a very different program from the one he watched that fateful October night.
“We’ve always had great leaders here but you’re only as good as your weakest link,” He said. “A lot of times our younger guys wouldn’t necessarily put in same intensity and focus into their preparation. Over the course of the last few years, coach Swinney has done a good job from the top trickling down to the bottom with everyone getting on the same page. There’s no drop-off from a senior’s preparation to a freshman’s preparation. Everyone knows how important every week is.”