Thinking the unthinkable: Swinney plots Clemson's course with 'humble confidence'

'From the day I got this job, I felt like this could be one of the best programs in the country'

Clemson's Dabo Swinney in the closing seconds of their 24-14 win over Boston College at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Dabo Swinney in the closing seconds of their 24-14 win over Boston College at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.

Five years ago this week, Dabo Swinney dared to think the unthinkable.

Upon the recommendation of his former boss, Tommy Bowden, he had just unexpectedly been handed the keys to the Clemson football program, at least for a little while.

One of the first thoughts that crossed Swinney's mind was 'why not?'

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"It was a crazy day, a crazy week," Swinney recalled. "I had notebooks, notepads of notes, just writing things down, thinking - just trying to do the best you can with the situation that you're in.

The situation was, he said, "unthinkable."

But then he gave it some deeper thought.

"It's only unthinkable if you don't think it, because it all starts with how you think, what you believe," said Swinney during his pre-Florida State press conference on Tuesday. "That's what the Bible says: 'As a man thinketh, so is he.' So why think little thoughts? Think big thoughts.

"And so when I got the opportunity, it was like, man, I've got a chance; why not?"

Swinney's bold aspirations for the Clemson football program began even earlier, when he first arrived in the Upstate as Bowden's wide receivers coach in 2003, after being out of coaching for two years.

Swinney quickly became the Tiger coaching staff's star recruiter, in part because he persisted in knocking on doors that were previously considered closed to Clemson.

His breakthrough as a recruiting assistant came in 2006, when five-star running back C.J. Spiller passed up offers from family favorites Florida State and Florida and signed with the Tigers.

"When I first came here, the mentality was we can't sign players like that," Swinney said. "I didn't understand that. That was kind of a shocker to me. I'm seeing Clemson and thinking 'man, this is a great place, why can't we?'

"And then when I got the job the first part of December, my mentality was, 'listen, I want Clemson to become the model program in college football.' It was unthinkable to a lot of people I'm sure, at the time. We had a lot of growing to do, a lot of things that we had to get better at, a lot of things that had to take place.

"But it's never been unthinkable to me. From the day I got this job, I felt like this could be one of the best programs in the country."

When the third-ranked Tigers run down the Hill Saturday to meet the challenge of fifth-ranked Florida State, they'll do it as a confident and capable team that week-by-week is carving out its place as one of college football's most consistent mainstays.

It's taken five years of work, with some bumps along the way, to make it happen.

"I wish I could have just snapped my fingers," Swinney said. "But one thing I knew we were never going to do was take shortcuts, and we've not taken any shortcuts. We've done things the right way, and it hasn't always been easy.

"We've handled adversity, we've handled some success, and to see where we are now after five years, I'm very proud of our players. I'm proud of the players who aren't here any more who helped us get to this point, who helped us slowly build a foundation so when new people come in here, this is the way it is. And I'm proud of all the coaches that have been here, all of our coaches that have done such a tremendous job over the years since we started this thing and helping doing their part."

These days, Swinney looks at the program and sees a changed "culture."

"It's just everything you do within your program, everything," he said. "It's how you practice. When you pay the price for something and you're really prepared the right way, then you should be confident.

"There's a difference between confidence and arrogance. We don't have arrogance; we have a humble confidence. But we've got good players, and they have an attitude of belief. Guys have to learn how to think the right way, and I think our guys have done a great job with that, and it's reflected in our consistency."

Nevertheless, Swinney and his program still have their doubters - perhaps reflected in the No. 3 Tigers starting the week as a three-point underdog at home to a team ranked two places lower in the polls.

"Everybody still goes, 'well, yeah, but you lost the bowl game a couple years ago,'" Swinney said. "Well, yeah, we sure did. We got our butts whipped, lost the ballgame, and it wasn't pretty. But I think we've lost two games since then, and they were to two top-10 teams, fourth quarter type games."

The Tigers will go into their next game - which Swinney says is always the most important game - not hoping to win, but expecting to win.

"Everything goes into creating that attitude of belief," he said. "Ultimately that's where it starts. If you don't truly believe in what you're doing and who you're doing it with and that you have a chance to be successful, then you're not going to be. Not consistently."

Being unprepared, he said, is unthinkable.

"Why would we not be prepared?" Swinney asked, rhetorically. "We might lose the ballgame, but it wouldn't mean we weren't prepared. It might be the other team is pretty good. It might be they've got a good team and they just beat us.

"If they do, you shake hands with them and you move onto the next one. Ain't nobody going to skin us and eat us alive I don't think. This is a game - that's all it is, it's a tough football game. You get excited about it. You don't worry about it. Be confident in your preparation and be confident in your teammates, and you go play the game. It's really that simple."

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Comments » 3

f8thwlk writes:

Good, Dabo. That's what I am talking about. Clemson deserves to be great.... From this point on, nobody and I mean nobody is going to walk on top of us. My man!

kellytown writes:

Our D needs to put Jamies on his butt an see how he responds to eating turf!!!Then the Tigers offense needs to play smart don't turn the ball over take whats their if not throw the ball away live to fight another day. Then have the lead in the fourth qtr when the last seconds tick off the clock. Its going to be a GREAT GAME.

kimpots writes:

Yes vagaran you were right it was super game, for Fl. State. Hurts when you play a team rather than a p;owder puff.

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