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.
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.”