The Tao of Dabo Swinney

CLEMSON, S.C. — It‘s entirely possible that the college football world will be forever changed because of a movie that garnered a 35 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The premise of the 2013 Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson buddy comedy “The Internship” was simple enough: Two middle-aged pals get internships at Google. But the plot isn‘t important to this story. What‘s important is that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — never one to shy from mediocre comedy — saw the film and took notice of one of the set pieces.

Turns out, Google‘s headquarters has a slide, and Swinney loved it. So now, inside Clemson‘s $55 million football facility, a stainless steel chute runs from the second floor, outside the coaches offices, down to the first, ending near the team‘s weight room.

“I thought, ‘If I ever get a new football building, I want a slide,‘” Swinney said. “Now I go down it every day.”

Just your run-of-the-mill, everyday slide in the Clemson football facility. David M. Hale/ESPN

When the building was unveiled to the public earlier this year, it was the slide that drew most of the attention. It‘s not that the rest of the facility isn‘t ostentatious. It has a nap room and a golf simulator and a Wiffle ball field, so ostentation is pretty much its aesthetic. But the slide said something else about the building, about Clemson and about Swinney. This whole thing, the football and the training and the schoolwork and everything else — this is supposed to be fun.

Not that Swinney thought that deeply about it. He just saw a bad movie and thought a slide would be cool, which really illustrates the true symbolism of the slide.

Swinney knows little of Google‘s corporate ethos beyond what he saw in “The Internship.” He owns an iPhone and frequently includes emojis in his texts, but he hasn‘t read Steve Jobs‘ biography. But if the oft-used analogy of football coaches as CEOs holds true, then Swinney is something akin to Jobs and Elon Musk and Larry Page — the Silicon Valley CEO transported to Death Valley.

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Is this stretching things a bit? Swinney thinks so. That‘s not surprising. Dig a little deeper, though. If there‘s a coaching equivalent to starting one of the world‘s biggest companies in your garage, it‘s Swinney‘s career path, which has gone from walk-on at Alabama to commercial real estate salesman to national punch line as a novice head coach to national champion.

Or take a tour of this new football facility, one designed by Swinney to feel like a holistic universe where players can work on their golf swing, catch some shut-eye in a bunk bed, tighten up their résumés, start a charitable foundation, grab lunch prepared by a personal chef or visit Clemson‘s most recent national championship trophy — all in the same place, all with football just a few feet away at any given time.

Or listen to the way Swinney talks about player development. Musk is fond of avowing his SpaceX rocket launches as a way to pay the bills, but his mission statement is to save humanity by colonizing Mars. Swinney‘s dreams aren‘t quite so big, but they‘re just as aspirational. The wins on the field are important, because that‘s what pays the bills. But his mission statement is to build these players into great men, and who cares if it all sounds cliché and hokey, because, again, this is coming from a man who takes a slide to work.

“Football, to me, is just the unique opportunity to have a pathway into their lives,” Swinney said. “I want them to truly love their experience, and not just be a football player, but to grow and be a person of excellence that just happens to be a good football player, too. And my philosophy is: If we develop them that way, football will take care of itself because they create habits of excellence that carries over.”

Don‘t believe it? Think it sounds too much like a recruiting pitch? That‘s fair.

But think again about that slide. Imagine, for a moment, Alabama‘s Nick Saban whizzing down it, hands aloft and an enthusiastic whoop echoing through the halls. Or picture Urban Meyer. Or Chris Petersen, Jimbo Fisher, Kirby Smart, Chip Kelly.

Does not compute.

“Nick Saban has his process,” said Thad Turnipseed, Clemson‘s director of recruiting and external affairs and a former Saban associate. “Dabo built a culture.”

At this summer‘s ACC Kickoff event, a reporter polled the players in attendance on which coach they‘d most want to play for, assuming they couldn‘t play for their own. The near-unanimous answer was Swinney. From his dancing to his corny jokes to his motivational speeches, playing for Swinney just seemed like fun.

“A lot of those guys think they want to play for me until they do,” Swinney said.

In other words, it ain‘t all sunshine and flowers.

Go back and watch Clemson‘s ACC title game against North Carolina from 2015. See what happens when punter Andy Teasdall mistakenly executes a fake punt. Swinney rips the poor kid to shreds on the sideline, rips him some more to the reporter doing a halftime interview, then rips him again when the game is over and Clemson has won.

play0:38Dabo fired up after fake punt

Clemson punter Andy Teasdall takes off running on a fake punt but comes up short. UNC‘s subsequent drive leads to a touchdown. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney goes off on the punter.

Or see how Swinney lambasted the referees during this year‘s Clemson-South Carolina game. Fans were throwing items onto the field, and Swinney was livid the officials weren‘t taking action. His diatribe was enough to earn him a flag.

Or ask Ray-Ray McCloud about his relationship with Swinney. McCloud might be one of Swinney‘s favorite players, but that doesn‘t come across in practice. For three years, Swinney has “been in his grits,” and McCloud lamented that even during Clemson‘s bye week this year, the coach rode him hard on every practice snap.

“Anybody can get up there and tell them what to do,” Swinney said. “If you can‘t articulate why you need to do it, they won‘t listen. It‘s a different world. If my coach told me to go run them bleachers, you didn‘t ask no questions. I turned around and started running until he said stop. Now they‘ll still run bleachers, but you better be able to tell them why.”

It‘s fair to wonder about Swinney‘s “why.” For all the talk of players‘ futures, Swinney is among the most ardent critics of paying college athletes, a position that can seem more than a bit hypocritical.

Swinney will make close to $7 million annually but said that “professionalizing college athletics, that‘s where you lose me. I‘ll go do something else, because there‘s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” He‘s disagreed with player protests during the anthem, and he has been accused of pushing religion through football.

The argument starts to fall apart, however, when you note that he encourages staff to bring their kids into the office, because too many of his players grew up without a proper template for how to be a dad. Or that so much of Clemson‘s success is built on players who failed miserably early on only to emerge as stars after five years of Swinney support. Or that his ethos on amateurism is derived from his own experiences, when he shared a bed in his dorm room with his mother, because they were too poor to live apart.

Around Clemson, this isn‘t a hard sell. The players see it. On Turnipseed‘s desk is a photo he had signed by the stars of the Tigers‘ defensive line. Each member — all likely future NFL stars — offered a personalized inscription. They all offered some version of the same idea. Swinney is honest, he‘s real, he cares.

From the outside, some of Dabo Swinney‘s words on amateurism might seem hypocritical. But his players, led by former star QB Deshaun Watson, swear by him. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Turnipseed said there are three keys to a great head coach: respect, intelligence and fear. When he took the job at Clemson, he worried Swinney couldn‘t instill fear. He was just too nice. But what he has come to realize is that, like every other aspect of the program, he does it differently. Saban rules by fiat. He‘s the boss, follow or be gone. Swinney is like your dad.

“People are just afraid to disappoint him,” Turnipseed said.

Earlier this month, Tony Elliott was at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta to accept the Broyles Award as the nation‘s top assistant coach. This is the second straight year that one of Swinney‘s assistants has won, after defensive coordinator Brent Venables took home the award last season. Swinney laments that he‘s allowed to nominate only one coach per year.

Elliott‘s place here means something a little more, though. When Chad Morris left for SMU after the 2014 season, Swinney stayed in house for a replacement — or, more accurately, replacements. He promoted Elliott, who once played for Swinney at Clemson, and Jeff Scott, a one-time graduate assistant who earned a full-time job on the Tigers‘ staff when Swinney took over as head coach. It was an odd arrangement that raised eyebrows, like handing the keys to a Ferrari over to a couple of kids on learner‘s permits, one to operate the wheel and the other to push the pedals.

“I‘ve never really hired anybody that people thought I should hire,” Swinney said.

In each of their first two years, Clemson went to the national championship game, and lest you assume that was all the handiwork of legendary quarterback Deshaun Watson, this year‘s offense offered a clear rebuttal. Elliott and Scott completely reinvented their ethos, leaned on a run-heavy game plan and allowed quarterback Kelly Bryant to flourish in Watson‘s long shadow.

Whatever you think of Dabo Swinney‘s methods, they‘re working, as evidenced by last year‘s national championship. Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Swinney hired Turnipseed away from Saban without a job title. Turnipseed‘s instructions: “Just make us better.” He pulled in former Clemson All-American Jeff Davis from the school‘s fundraising department and put him in charge of player development. The Tigers now have one of the most robust programs in the country. Swinney pushed to fund positions focusing on social media, and it quickly translated into Clemson becoming one of the most followed brands in college football, even though Swinney, himself, doesn‘t have a Twitter account.

“I have an MBA,” Swinney said, “but my Ph.D. is in people. Everything I do is about relationships.”

In the past month, Elliott spurned overtures from other programs interested in him as a head coach. Programs also kicked the tires on Scott. And, as has become a yearly tradition, Venables shrugged off options to depart, too.

In the past five years, Clemson has lost just five assistant coaches. Alabama has replaced 17.

To be sure, that‘s partly a credit to Saban, whose success has created a market for imitators, and some of that Clemson loyalty was bought by salaries for assistants that make it tough to leave. But the bottom line is that Swinney gives his coaches reasons to stay, and while he‘d love to see a coaching tree develop, he has taken another Silicon Valley mantra to heart: It‘s far easier to keep your own talent than to go looking for someone new.

“Alabama people, they love Alabama; it‘s their normal to be focused on the process, the result, and it works,” Turnipseed said. “But what Clemson is building, I think we enjoy it more.”

At the nadir of Clemson‘s 2017 season, on a Friday night in Syracuse, Swinney walked into the opposing locker room in search of his nemesis.

In the week leading up to the game, Swinney had offered effusive praise of Syracuse receiver Steve Ishmael‘s game, but to his mind, folks had once again conflated hype with hyperbole, and he didn‘t want Ishmael to make the same mistake.

So in the aftermath of one of the season‘s most stunning upsets, Swinney found himself at the front of the Syracuse locker room, talking to players on the team that had just whipped his program, hoping to convince them this was no fluke.

“I‘ve never heard of a coach doing that before,” Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “I‘ve got a lot of respect for that.”

Here‘s where some people might reasonably assume this is all a load of manufactured publicity and Swinney‘s image is all carefully crafted public relations.

Either way, it‘s working. Swinney knows not everyone has bought in on his culture, but at Clemson, they‘re sold.

“Alabama people, they love Alabama; it‘s their normal to be focused on the process, the result, and it works. But what Clemson is building, I think we enjoy it more.”

Thad Turnipseed, Clemson director of recruiting and former Alabama staffer

“That was the No. 1 task I had at Clemson, was to create an attitude of belief,” he said. “Everyone else was telling us what we can‘t do, what‘s never been done, what we hadn‘t done. You win on the inside before you ever win on the outside.”

He has won inside. At Clemson, Swinney is king. Outside, however, the tide is turning, too.

“A lot of guys ask about him,” Bryant said. “What you see on TV, that‘s exactly what you‘ll get.”

You don‘t have to believe, of course. But that‘s what has really separated Swinney from the pack. He‘s not looking for your approval.

“I don‘t need other people to validate what I already know,” he said.

Turnipseed drops a white binder, six inches thick with documents, onto his desk with a thud. This is the owner‘s manual for Clemson football — the revised 2017 edition. It‘s called the “All In Book.”

Each year, Swinney and his staff go on a retreat. Actually, Turnipseed doesn‘t like to call it that. The term connotes fun, relaxation. This isn‘t fun.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “we kind of dread it.”

For five days, Swinney sits in front of his coaches and staff and reads through every page of that binder. There‘s a discussion of each coach‘s job description. There‘s a revised depth chart, looking ahead to the team‘s strengths and weaknesses. There‘s the philosophy on recruiting, which involved monitoring about one-third the number of prospective players as a typical school might, but showering that smaller group with attention. There‘s a calendar for the season that‘s remarkably detailed. Want to know where Swinney will be on July 24, 2018? It‘s in there.

But that‘s all just a portion of the book. The rest is something akin to the Tao of Dabo.

“Probably a third of this book is about building men, about character,” Turnipseed said.

Page 1 is topped in bold font with the word “Attitude,” and it goes from there.

The book contains all of Swinney‘s greatest hits: Iron sharpens iron. Serve a player‘s heart, not his talent. How you do something is how you do everything. The little things lead to big things.

Many of these quotes are emblazoned on the walls around the football building, too. They‘re mantras that get repeated again and again and again and again.

“You‘ve got to be intentional,” Swinney said. “I‘m very focused on the culture we have and nurturing that. Whether it‘s how we discipline, how we recruit, how we staff, how we respond to something great, something bad. It‘s all of those things.”

None of this is unique. This is what a CEO does. What sets Swinney and Clemson apart is that, they‘re doing it all a little differently.

“I‘ve never seen myself as a Silicon Valley guy or anything like that,” Swinney said. “I may see things a little different from other people, but I just try to be who I am. I made a decision early on that what works for somebody may not necessarily work for me. What works for me may not work for someone else. You have to be who you are. That‘s what I‘ve done. I‘m constantly trying to get better.”

Last spring, eight Clemson players interned at Adobe, a true Silicon Valley outfit. There, they found a place that felt oddly familiar. Management mingled casually with coders. Brand awareness was at the forefront. The standards were immeasurably high.

“The culture was the same,” said Bryant, one of the Adobe interns.

Swinney scoffs at the analogy. Clemson is no tech startup, and he‘s no Silicon Valley golden boy. He got into coaching, he said, because it felt right, and he has always kept doing what felt right to him.

Still, talk to the folks around Swinney and they see it. The culture at Clemson is something unique in college football, a disruption to the template set by Saban‘s unquestionable success.

“I think we‘ll look back in 25 years,” Turnipseed said, “and he will have changed college football.”

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