No Ordinary Interim: How Dabo Swinney Turned a Seven-Week Job Into a Clemson Dynasty
On the most important day of his professional life, Clemson’s receivers coach wore sweatpants and a sweatshirt. In the 7 a.m. staff meeting that didn’t seem any different than any other 7 a.m. staff meeting before it, he gave the daily devotional because it was his turn. “There was not one thing that seemed out of order or odd,” he says now.
The date was Oct. 13, 2008. It was a Monday. The previous Thursday, the Clemson team that was supposed to win the Tigers’ first ACC title since 1991 had lost 12–7 at Wake Forest to fall to 3–3 on the season. In his office that morning, Clemson’s head coach learned a lesson he’d carry with him always. “You can’t lose to Wake Forest on Thursday night,” Tommy Bowden says. “You just can’t do it.”
Bowden had first met with athletic director Terry Don Phillips around six that morning. Though the semantics remain up for debate, the gist of the conversation isn’t. Phillips intended to fire Bowden at the end of the season. After reflecting for a little while on what Phillips had said, Bowden met with his boss again. “If I’m the reason we’re not having success, I need to remove myself now,” Bowden remembers telling Phillips. Then the two men began discussing who would shepherd the Tigers for the remaining seven weeks of the season. “I said, ‘I myself would recommend Dabo.’ When I said that, he just kind of sat back in his chair and got quiet,” Bowden says. “I could tell I kind of threw him for a loop a little bit.”
The Tigers had two former head coaches on staff. Offensive line coach Brad Scott had run South Carolina’s program from 1994 to ’98. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had been Wyoming’s head coach from 2000 to ’02. Bowden had just recommended Dabo Swinney, the 38-year-old receivers coach who had joined Clemson’s staff in 2003 after two years selling commercial real estate. Swinney, a former Alabama walk-on receiver who had gone into coaching only to be fired from his alma mater with the rest of Mike DuBose’s staff in late 2000, hadn’t been a head coach anywhere. He hadn’t even been a coordinator. But Phillips had been watching Swinney the previous five years, too. The notion wasn’t as shocking to him as Bowden had assumed.
It was, however, a shock to Swinney. He and the rest of Clemson’s assistants were summoned back into the staff meeting room at about 10:30 a.m. Bowden told them he had resigned. “Then he walks out and Terry Don steps in,” Swinney says. Phillips reiterated what Bowden had said. Then he pointed at Swinney. “Dabo, you’re in charge,” Phillips said. “You call all the shots. I need to see you in my office in five minutes.” Then Phillips was gone and all the coaches remained.
“All of a sudden the room got dead quiet,” Swinney says. “Everyone is looking at me.” Swinney told everyone to hang tight. He would meet with Phillips and report back.
In the five minutes between getting the news and meeting with Phillips, Swinney called his wife Kathleen. “We’ve been fired,” he told her. “And it gets worse. I’m the interim.”
You already know how this story ends. Swinney winds up keeping the job and becomes the best coach in Clemson history. When he celebrates the 10-year anniversary of his elevation to interim coach on Saturday—the Tigers’ only Saturday off this season—he’ll do it with four ACC titles and a national title in the trophy case. But before we get back to the 38-year-old who just delivered what he assumed to be bad news to his wife, let’s explore a few alternate timelines that nearly became reality.
In early 2007, Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence was a hot commodity. He had turned down an offer to become the offensive coordinator at Minnesota. He also had turned down an offer to be Nick Saban’s first offensive coordinator at Alabama. As National Signing Day approached, new Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin wanted to talk to Spence about the offensive coordinator job. Bowden, fearful he might lose Spence, told Swinney he was next in line to be the offensive coordinator.
It was around this time that Saban—who had already poached running backs coach Burton Burns from Clemson—called Swinney, whose reputation as a recruiter extended far beyond upstate South Carolina. Saban offered Swinney a job coaching receivers and the title of passing game coordinator. Larry Williams, then writing for The (Charleston, S.C.) Post And Courier, reported that Alabama had offered Swinney a deal worth $230,000 a year with an incentive package that could push Swinney’s total compensation to $300,000. Swinney made $135,000 a year at Clemson at the time.
Bowden couldn’t match the salary, but he could get close. He knew he’d also need to throw in a title to sweeten the deal and keep Swinney. Scott, the former South Carolina head coach, was already the assistant head coach. “I had associate head coach,” Bowden says with a chuckle. “Don’t ask me what that is.” The title may not have had a specific definition, but it had the desired effect. “Tommy had promoted me. I knew I had opportunity to grow with him. He had verbalized his plan for me,” Swinney says. “I didn’t know Nick. There were more unknowns. I didn’t know most of the staff he was putting together.”
Imagine a world in which Swinney takes Saban’s offer. Swinney and Kirby Smart would have been position coaches in 2007. The Alabama recruiting machine, which was about to put together an all-time great class in 2008, would have added arguably the single best recruiter in the South ahead of that recruiting cycle. Clemson would have replaced Bowden with someone else, and, given the success rate of coaching hires, that person probably wouldn’t be coaching at Clemson anymore. Assuming offensive coordinator Major Applewhite also would have moved on after the ’07 season as he did in our timeline, Swinney likely would have assumed the offensive coordinator job at Alabama in ’08—which is when Smart ascended to defensive coordinator. Swinney, like all the good young assistants who have worked for Saban at Alabama, would have been in line for a head-coaching job at some point.
Where might he have ended up? It’s safe to assume he would have stayed in the South. Would he have replaced Urban Meyer at Florida following the ’10 season? Or Will Muschamp following the ’14 season? Would he have been hired at Tennessee following Kiffin’s exit in January ’10? Or after Derek Dooley’s firing following the ’12 season? Might he have been a candidate at Auburn after Gene Chizik was fired? (Smart was.) Or would he have been hired to run the show at Clemson after Bowden’s successor was (most likely) fired?
We’ll never know because Swinney said no to Saban. But that wasn’t the last time Swinney almost left Clemson. Eleven months after he turned down that Alabama job, Swinney was in Myrtle Beach, S.C., watching practice for a high school all-star game when his phone rang. It was Bowden. Get back to Clemson, Bowden said. Bowden was on the verge of taking the Arkansas job, and he wasn’t sure he was bringing everyone with him. But he knew he wanted to take Swinney. So Swinney drove five hours across the state. He told his wife, who began preparing to move. Swinney went to bed assuming he’d be in Fayetteville the next day. The Arkansas plane was in Clemson, just waiting to collect Bowden and whatever staffers he decided to bring along. The next morning, Swinney awoke prepared to call the hogs. But Bowden had told Clemson he’d stay if the school met certain contractual demands.
So Swinney waited. And waited. “At the 11th hour and 58th minute, they decided to stay,” Swinney says.
A few days later, this happened at Arkansas.
You know how that ended, too.
Bowden’s reward for staying at Clemson was a contract extension that ran through 2014. It bumped his pay from $1.3 million a year to as much as $2.2 million a year if he met certain goals. It also ratcheted up the pressure on Bowden. He probably had one more year of star tailback C.J. Spiller. Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, the top recruit in the state and one of the highest ranked recruits in the nation, was on his way. Bowden’s father’s program at Florida State, which ruled the ACC in the 1990s, was mired in what the Seminoles now call “the lost decade.” It was time to win the conference—or else.
Under his old contract, Bowden would have been owed $500,000 had he been fired after the ’08 season. The new one set a buyout at the same time around $3.5 million. But no one was particularly worried about the number, because this was the year. Clemson was ranked No. 9 in the preseason Associated Press poll, higher than any other ACC team. The Tigers would open the season in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome against No. 24 Alabama, which had gone 7–6 in Saban’s first season. Among those six was a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. How much could the Crimson Tide have improved in just one offseason?
Now, we recognize Alabama’s 34–10 win that night as the dawn of a new era in college football. Then? It was an example of something called Clemsoning.
“For the closer this play date came, the louder the chorus of compliments rose until we came to believe the crescendo was the final stanza,” columnist Ken Burger wrote in the Post And Courier. “Instead, we find ourselves saying it's more of the same. Tommy Bowden’s teams still find a way to play below their potential and disappoint when expectations are high.”
Steve Spurrier, then coach at rival South Carolina, chuckled at Bowden’s payoff on a recruiting pledge to tailback Jamie Harper. Harper, a true freshman, was promised the first carry of the season. (Remember, this was a team that had C.J. Spiller and James Davis on the roster.) Harper was handed the ball on Clemson’s second play from scrimmage. He promptly fumbled. Alabama cashed in with a field goal.
One game in, the Tigers were a laughingstock. They bounced back with wins against The Citadel, NC State and South Carolina State. But then they fell 20–17 to Maryland on Sept. 27. Twelve days later, they played Wake Forest on a Thursday night.
A day after the loss to the Demon Deacons, Bowden announced his plan to bench starting quarterback Cullen Harper and replace him with Willy Korn, who had been a highly touted recruit out of Byrnes High in nearby Duncan, S.C. Three days later, with a little push from Phillips, Bowden benched himself.
We left Swinney on the phone with his wife dreading the prospect of steering a sinking ship for seven weeks before starting a job hunt. Remember how he had five minutes to get to that meeting with Phillips? Once he arrived in the AD’s office, he didn’t get the message he expected.
Swinney had brought along his notebook. He’d been keeping a head coach’s book since he started on the bottom rung of Alabama’s support staff in 1993. In it, he had mapped out the philosophy he’d instill in a program if anyone ever let him run one. He figured he’d need to be a coordinator first. But this wasn’t a head-coaching job, Swinney thought in that moment. This was a seven-week babysitting gig.
Swinney still didn’t understand what he was walking into. A few minutes into his meeting with Phillips, he did. Here is the statement from Phillips that Swinney will never forget: “I don’t want you to be the interim head coach. For the next seven weeks, I want you to be the head coach. And I want you to think and walk and talk and act like the head coach. I want you to do whatever you think you need to do to fix us.”
Phillips spent that meeting empowering Swinney. The AD had been paying much closer attention than Swinney realized. He’d noticed how Swinney coached on the practice field. He knew which recruits Swinney had landed. He noticed how Swinney built relationships in the community. Phillips promised a nationwide search for Bowden’s permanent successor, but he also promised Swinney something: Whether he went 6–0, 0–6 or somewhere in between, Swinney would get an interview for the job.
After he left the AD’s office, Swinney sequestered himself in a room no bigger than a closet for 45 minutes. “I had a flood of thoughts,” Swinney says, “and I was just taking notes.” The meeting with Phillips had changed everything. Dread had been replaced by hope. Wasn’t this what Swinney had wanted for 15 years? Why be scared? “I didn’t have time to think about failing,” Swinney says. “Or to even be fearful. I was just pure adrenaline.”
Swinney met individually with all the coaches. He only made one change. Convinced he stood no chance if the offense didn’t find a spark, he fired coordinator Spence and moved Billy Napier from tight ends to quarterbacks. Swinney and the 29-year-old Napier would call the plays. That left two open spots on the staff. Swinney elevated offensive graduate assistant Mike Dooley to tight ends coach. Meanwhile, Swinney had noticed defensive GA Jeff Scott the same way Phillips had noticed Swinney. The two had worked closely running Clemson’s camps, and Swinney saw a lot of himself in Scott, who had given up a full-time assistant coaching job at Presbyterian College of the FCS and taken a pay cut to become a GA because he was worried he’d only gotten as far as he had at that point because he was Brad Scott’s son. After Bowden told the staff he was done, Jeff Scott had called his wife Sara and told her he might be unemployed later that day. Instead, Swinney made Scott the receivers coach. So Scott called Sara again. “I told her I had slightly better news,” he says.
When Swinney met with Clemson’s players, he sent all the other coaches and staffers out of the room. He leveled with the players. He had a chance to get the job permanently, and he wanted to know if he could count on them. He knew Clemson had a morale problem—to go along with its quarterback controversy—so he offered a deal. Anyone who didn’t want to play for Swinney could leave the team, stay on scholarship and return when the new coach was hired. No questions asked. Whoever showed up at practice that night was in for the long haul. “That’s where All In came from,” Swinney says, referring to the motto that has endured for the entirety of his tenure. “Basically, I told the team what the AD had told me. I wanted them to know what he had said.” Later, at his first press conference as the interim coach, Swinney repeated his new favorite phrase.
He also said this: “You're looking at a coach who has nothing to lose. We're going to lay it all on the line. And it might be a seven-week career, but it's going to be fun.”
After Jeff Scott returned home that night, he flicked on SportsCenter. He noticed a stat attached to the story about Bowden’s ouster. The previous 29 interim head coaches in major college football hadn’t gotten the full-time job. “O.K., maybe we can make it one out of 30,” Scott thought to himself.
Five days later, Swinney claimed his first minor victory by not face-planting as he ran with the team down the hill at Death Valley. He didn’t do so well once he got to the field. Georgia Tech won 21–17. Among themselves, Clemson assistants had figured they needed to go 4–2 to have a chance to keep their jobs. No one was particularly optimistic about the visit to Florida State on Nov. 8. So that meant Clemson had to win at Boston College on Nov. 1.
The Tigers started well enough, roaring to a 17–0 lead behind Harper, who had won back the starting job during the bye week. But the Eagles fought back and took a 21–17 lead with 8:43 remaining. The timeout after that touchdown felt exceedingly long to Scott as he sat in the press box pondering the potential long-term ramifications of that blown lead.
“I'm sitting up there in the box thinking the next few minutes of this game are probably going to determine the next 10 or 15 years of my career,” says Scott, who is now Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. “Fortunately for us, we had somebody named C.J. Spiller.”
Spiller returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to the Boston College 15-yard line. Four plays later, Harper found Aaron Kelly for a four-yard touchdown. The Tigers tacked on another field goal and won 27–21. “You’d have thought we’d won the national championship that day,” Swinney says. “It was just like, ‘We believe and we’ve got a chance and we’re on our way.’ That was the wind in the sails that we needed.”
As predicted, Clemson fell in Tallahassee. But the Tigers’ effort against a superior foe further impressed Phillips. They beat Duke and Virginia the next two weeks, setting up a game at Death Valley against the rival Gamecocks that could seal the job for Swinney. The Tigers left no doubt, racing to a 24–0 lead and cruising to a 31–14 win.
That day, Swinney felt confident he’d done enough. “I knew I had good momentum,” he says. “Once we won the game against South Carolina, nobody came up and said ‘You’ve got the job.’ But I got a lot of wink-winks.”
Those winks turned into handshakes the next day. Phillips offered, and Swinney accepted. In what would become typical Swinney fashion, his introductory press conference ran long. It pre-empted three-quarters of The Bachelorette on the local ABC affiliate. Bowden and his wife laughed about missing most of her favorite show, and Bowden ribbed Swinney for his long-windedness in a congratulatory call.
Perhaps Phillips would have made Swinney the interim even if Bowden hadn’t suggested it. But one thing is certain: Swinney ultimately succeeded because he had prepared all along. It reminded him of the Tuesday during his redshirt sophomore year at Alabama when he was told that he could leave the scout team field for a one-day trial with the actual offense. If he performed, he’d get to play that Saturday. Swinney passed that test because he’d also been studying Alabama’s offense when he wasn’t learning to run everyone else’s. And it taught him a lesson that made him ready for Monday, Oct. 13, 2008.
“Had I not been prepared to be a head coach—as prepared as you can be—then this opportunity would have passed me by,” Swinney says. And had he not thrown himself into his job coaching receivers and spent his time pining for a coordinator gig, then Phillips might not have offered the opportunity in the first place. “If your job is to go get the doughnuts, man, you bring the freshest doughnuts and the hottest coffee,” Swinney says. “And you do it in a way that everybody notices. ‘That guy gets the best doughnuts in the history of the doughnut business.’ And that’s just how you have to do things.”
So on Saturday, raise the freshest doughnut you can find to Dabo Swinney, the coach who turned a seven-week job into a dynasty.