• It’s How You Win That Matters

    by Nancy Spitler

Family. It’s one of those words that conjures up so many different images. When you ask Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney what it means in the context of the football program, he boils it down to one four-letter word: “Love.”
He then proceeds to explain one of the most-discussed episodes of last season with punter Andy Teasdall. At the ACC championship game against North Carolina, Teasdall opted to try to run the ball rather than punt it away. Swinney, clearly, was not happy, and as Teasdall came off the field, he let him know that.
“I have three boys and a wife,” said Swinney, “and I don’t always like them. But I always love them. And family is love. And when you are a family, you can celebrate the successes together. I always laugh about Teasdall, and say, ‘I showed great restraint. I wanted to choke him.’
“It was not okay. We all have bad days and make mistakes, and it was a tough situation, but because you have a relationship….” Swinney paused. “He knows I love him. He knows I care about him. I promise you if every home out there had a national TV audience watching it every day, every moment …” He chuckles. “I don’t even think about those things. That’s our home … there would be tough moments in every home.”

  • Swinney and members of the football team work at a local Habitat for Humanity site.

You can’t fabricate family

Swinney certainly hasn’t used his own personal experience as a model for what family means, but he says the struggles with an alcoholic and violent father, the breakup of his parents’ marriage and foreclosure of the family home did help him be a better father and a better husband. “Sometimes you learn more from the bad than you do from the good,” he says.

“My experiences growing up shaped me from a mental toughness standpoint, a drive, a work ethic, a perseverance, an attitude of hope,” he said. “Sometimes that’s all you got — hope!”
He follows that up with a saying that is one of many “Dabo-isms:” “If you’ve got hope, that gives you power in the present.”
Watching his dad over the years finally get control over alcohol and his life, Swinney also learned the lesson that it’s never too late to do what’s right. “You can’t change certain things,” he says. “You just gotta love ’em and pray for ’em and model it.”
Love ’em and pray for ’em and model it. That’s a pretty good definition of coaching in the world of Dabo Swinney, who is concerned not only about modeling good football for the young men who wear orange, but modeling what it means to be a father and a husband and a person who serves the community. “Everybody’s an example to somebody,” he says. “You have a circle of influence.”

The term “Clemson Family” in the context of Tiger football is a very literal term. Wednesday evenings during the season are family nights, where all the coaches and their families gather for dinner with the team. On Sunday evenings, always a long night for the coaching staff, the coaches’ wives take turns bringing in dinner. Coaches are encouraged to have their kids on the sidelines during practice once they turn 10. “Our wives are all involved in the recruiting process,” Swinney says. “They’re a part of this program. Our kids are at practice all the time; they’re on the sidelines. So the players see us in a different light, in a different environment than just as a coach. It’s important for us to understand as well that our kids are watching us — watching how we coach this guy, how we respond to negativity or criticism.”

When you hear Swinney talk about family, it can sound a bit corny. Maybe hokey, even. Punter Andy Teasdall says that to those not involved in the football program, all the talk of family “could seem a little fake or cliché.” But Teasdall, who is in his last season, calls it genuine and authentic. And it’s not only with the players and the coaches. The coaches’ wives, he says, “are always asking about our families and our parents and how we’re doing. People genuinely care about how we are — outside of just Saturday afternoons on game day and how we’re playing.”
“You can’t fabricate family,” Swinney says. “If it’s not a genuine, authentic part of every single day, people are going to know that. Everybody understands that there is no perfect family. You have problems from time to time. But when you truly love the people you work with, the place you work, you can work through anything. You’ve got each other’s back.”
“If you like Clemson or not,” says Swinney, “if you’ve watched us play over the last seven years, the one thing that jumps out is that these guys care about each other. They play with passion and toughness and unselfishness. And from time to time, there’s some discipline situation, and they rally around each other. That’s because we have a family atmosphere.”

“You kind of have to experience it,” Teasdall says.

Relationship-driven, not results-driven

There are two large display boards leaning in the corner of Swinney’s office, mounted versions of the Wall Street Journal “Grid of Shame.” The grid has one axis that ranges from “Weakling” to “Powerhouse” that takes into account performance on the field, and another that ranges from “Embarrassing” to “Admirable” that considers academic performance, NCAA violations, arrests and other factors including what the publication characterizes as the “ick” factor. Clemson is positioned in the top right quadrant, at the intersection of “Admirable” and “Powerhouse,” in a small group of institutions that includes Wisconsin, Stanford and UCLA.DaboSwinney Grid-of-Shame

With an office full of trophies, Swinney calls this the best trophy of all and “the best accomplishment of our program.” For him, that chart is proof that it is possible both to run a football program “the right way,” and to win.

“In six out of seven years,” he says, “we’re top 10 academically. That’s culture. We’re the only school in America that was top 15 on the field four years in a row and top 10 academically four years in a row.” He pauses for emphasis. “The only program in America — out of 128 programs.” He explains that with another Dabo-ism, a quote borrowed from George Washington Carver: “Do the common things in an uncommon way and you command the attention of the world.”
For Swinney, the right way of running a football program involves being “relationship-driven,” which he describes as serving players’ hearts and not their talent. “Serve, care, love,” he says. “We’re here to serve our players, to care for them, to love them. Sometimes that means disciplining them.” Sounds sort of like a family.
“We’re not perfect,” he says, “but it separates us from a lot of other places out there.”
Those other places he’s referring to are results-driven — they put the goal of winning a championship above all else. “Suddenly,” he says, “they’re not graduating their players like they should or equipping them with tools like they should, because they’re looking the other way, cutting corners. They’re creating entitlement, creating their own culture, and as a result a lot of kids are having a bad experience.”

In Swinney’s relationship-driven model, he says, “We want our players to graduate, to leave here equipped with tools for life. Because of our program, they are equipped, they know what discipline means, they know how to show up on time, they know how to handle adversity, respect others, be a good teammate. They understand what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. No sense of entitlement, and they know how to win and lose. Those are tools for life. If we do a great job with that, whether they make All American, or never get above third team, they will still have a great experience.”
On the other hand, he says, “If you’re serving their talent and not their heart, then you know they’re doing the wrong things and you play them anyway, you reward bad behavior. That’s just not what we do.”

That became very clear to players at last season’s Orange Bowl, according to Eric Mac Lain, who finished up his Clemson football career at the 2016 National Championship game. Prior to the game against Oklahoma, three Clemson players — wide receiver Deon Cain, kicker Ammon Lakip and back-up tight end Jay McCullough — were suspended for a violation of team rules and sent home.
“Coach would rather lose the biggest game of his coaching career so far than play and win with people who didn’t follow the rules and didn’t deserve to be there.” Mac Lain said. “Coach Swinney is the epitome of class and character, and this story set that in stone for me.”
Swinney put the action in a different context. “I care so much more about meeting them at 35 than I do their feelings sometimes at 21,” he said. “That’s just how we do it. They all know … everybody in this program knows. I would rather lose trying to do it right and to make sure I can look at the man in the mirror than I would win knowing we did it the wrong way.”

The Clemson fit

Dabo Swinney spends a lot of time and energy trying to convince young men focused on football that life is about a whole lot more than football. And he starts that during the recruitment process.
When he talked with a large group of top high school recruits and their families before the Florida State game last season, he emphasized academics and character and graduation. Going to class, being engaged and graduation were expectations, he told them, as was earning your spot on the team. And recruits would be judged on more than just their skill on the field. “Every Monday morning, I get a spread sheet of all our recruits,” he told them. “There’s a column on there that’s ‘Questionable Social Media Content.’ If there’s a check mark in that column, I look at the coaches and ask, ‘Why’s this kid still on the list?’”
All around the room, you could see mothers making eye contact with their sons, raised eyebrows communicating the message, “You listening to this?”
Named ACC Recruiter-of-the-Year and one of the top-25 recruiters in the nation in 2015 by Rivals.com, Co-offensive Coordinator Jeff Scott says that after having worked with Swinney for close to eight years, he can tell in the first five minutes of meeting a young man whether he’s going to be a great fit at Clemson, or whether he’s going to be looking elsewhere. That great fit, says Scott, is a young man who is goal-oriented and family-oriented and who understands the value of a college degree.
There are measurables — evaluation criteria for each position — that have to be checked off, but it’s these intangibles as well that Scott and the other coaches know have to be a part of the package. “Obviously, they have to be a good player,” says Swinney. “But we don’t get caught up into offering a guy because he’s got a bunch of offers. He might be a great player, but he may not fit here.”
In today’s world, many of those players don’t come from two-parent homes, but most of these young men, according to Scott, “would not be at the point they are, in terms of college and playing football and earning a full scholarship, if there wasn’t someone who stepped in to help in their journey —a grandmother, grandfather, coach, teacher — who’s helped along their way and changed their lives.” And these young men see a great value in having close relationships with their future coaches.
For Swinney, coaches were a critical part of his development as well as his survival through a tough childhood and tougher adolescence, and he sees a lot of young men who come from similar circumstances. While he says he doesn’t recruit to that story, he says his background is probably more common than not among young athletes. His background does provide him credibility with these young men, and he is passionate about “impacting young lives the way my coaches impacted me.”

“Coaching gave me a clarity”

If you had asked Swinney what he was planning to be when he grew up, he would probably have told you he wanted to be a pediatrician. He thought that if he were a doctor, he wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of things he dealt with growing up —having the car repossessed, losing his house, sleeping at friends’ homes. And so when he headed to Alabama, it was as a pre-med student.

At some point, he realized he didn’t want to go to school for the next 10 years, so he switched to business with plans to major in hospital administration, where, as he put it, “the doctors would work for me.” He was feeling the need to get to work, make some money and move on. In the meantime, Alabama won the national championship his senior year, a great capstone to his college career on the field.
Spring semester, an internship with a local hospital and job hunting resulted in a job offer in Birmingham with a salary of $30-$35,000 and a car to boot, which was more than he could even fathom. But that spring, as he prepared to graduate, he went out to watch practice a few times. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t on a team,” he says. “I played three sports since I was three years old. I felt like a man without a country.”
It was to one of his coaches, Woody McCorvey, that he went for advice. (McCorvey is now on staff at Clemson as associate athletic director for football administration.) A graduate assistant position came open, and head coach Gene Stallings offered him the spot. “I was sick of school,” he says, “but I couldn’t tell Coach Stallings ‘no.’ I was scared to death of him. It was easier to call my new employer about my change of direction, that I was going to get my MBA and be better prepared for the workplace.”

As soon as he began working as a graduate assistant coach, things became clear to him. “I knew that was what I was called to do,” he says. “Coaching gave me a clarity to my life. God was preparing me for exactly what I’m doing right now. The things I dealt with in my life — there are a lot of people just like that, and so I was armed with all this credibility and experience that a lot of people didn’t have.”
Those experiences have found their way to the positive side of the balance sheet. “A lot the things I dealt with in my life that were painful at the time, things I saw as liabilities, are now assets to me. They’re some of the greatest assets I have.”


Dabo Swinney’s Childhood: Hot Dog Hairdo


Watching the light come on

Everywhere you look in the WestZone, you see reminders of what Swinney calls the core values of the program. A list of “Team Commandments” (there are 16) begins with, “Go to class and be engaged,” and ends with, “Have Fun!” And the “Building Blocks of Character” may include competitive greatness, passion, discipline and confidence, but it also includes poise, sacrifice, humility, respect, courage and trust.Team Commandments Dabo Swinney_043

Each year at the first meeting of the football team, Swinney takes a football and puts in on the floor. Then he calls one of the guys forward and challenges him to stand on the football. As the player struggles to stay upright, Swinney looks at the assembled players and says, “Exactly. If football is your foundation, it’s going to be really rocky; it’s not going to be a very stable situation. It’s important, but let’s keep it in the right place and build our lives on a really good foundation.”
He challenges them to be diversified. “Let’s not just be defined as Vic Beasley, the guy that sacks the quarterback. Let’s be a great man, a great citizen, a guy who serves the community, a great teammate. Let’s grow in your faith, be a great student. Let’s be a guy who excels.”
He goes on to suggest that they need to build their own brand, so to speak, by taking advantage of career development opportunities, by building relationships, developing leadership skills — so that when they leave Clemson, they’re ready for whatever is ahead of them.Pyramid Dabo Swinney_045

“That’s the best part of my job,” says Swinney, “seeing these knuckleheads really turn into men. It just never gets old. Just watching the light kind of come on for them.”
You have to love that kind of comment from a coach whose job this last year had him accepting the ACC and the Orange Bowl trophies and leading a team playing their hearts out in the National Championship, moments most of us think would trump almost anything else.

Celebration33.CCOur Favorite “Dabo-isms”

  • Everybody’s an example to somebody.
  • At Clemson, it’s til graduation do we part.
  • If you got hope, that gives you power in the present.
  • At Clemson’ it’s BYOG: Bring Your Own Guts.
  • To be an overachiever, you’ve got to be an over believer.
  • It’s only unthinkable if you don’t think it.
  • Don’t let anyone walk through your mind with dirty feet.
  • You’ve got greatness in you but you have to make a decision to be great.
  • It doesn’t matter if you’re a Division I head football coach or Joe Schmo from Okemo. If you’re not anchored, you’re going to be washed away.
  • Until we win a couple of national championships, we will always be little old Clemson. We need to stick a flag in that mountain.
  • We’re the rednecks who moved into the nice neighborhood, but we belong.

     Add your favorite one below in the comments section.

Winning Off the Field

After eight years of emphasizing the same set of values, telling the same stories, repeating the same “Dabo-isms,” the culture that Swinney brought to Clemson is accepted and celebrated. There’s no handwringing about how Clemson needs to copy Alabama or any other college program. Instead, coaches from around the country are coming to campus, eager to find out what Dabo Swinney’s “secret sauce” really is.

One thing they won’t find is the corporate approach to college sports that you find in many larger programs across the county, where decisions to retain a player or cut him loose often seem to be made with the bottom line in mind. How much is this going to cost us in wins? In revenue?
One thing they’ll find out is that Swinney is committed to consistency and repetition and doing even the little things in a very great way. With a new class of young men coming in every year, there’s a need to make sure that every player understands the culture and the expectations and the Clemson family way. And so he starts over again every year with the same stories, the same lessons in life.
They’ll find one of the most successful coaches in the country who still takes time to coach his youngest son’s baseball team, and encourages the other coaches to do likewise. One who realizes that despite the fact that it pays his salary, football is just a game. And that winning is important, but not nearly as important as impacting the lives of the young men in his program.

“Sometimes Clemson people get mad at me,” he says. “I get emails and letters — they get mad at me because I don’t really care about the scoreboard. I care more about how we do it. How we play. How we win. At the end of the day, you can win, win, win, win, win on the field, but if you’re not impacting your players’ lives in an incredibly positive way by how you win, you lose. That’s just a core value we have in place here.”
In Dabo Swinney’s world, that’s the Clemson way.

Photography credits: Ashley Jones, Mark Crammer, Mark McInnis, Bradley Moore, Dawson Powers, Carl Ackerman.