Tommy Bowden helped to resurrect Clemson from the dark ages, but Coach Swinney is a perfect fit for Clemson’s football program. Coach Swinney is a hard worker and excellent coach, but he is not a ‘villain’ like Saban, nor is he a statue on the sideline. Swinney is an enthusiastic man whom has a passion for building excellent men and winning football games. Swinney’s personality is a perfect fit for Clemson (and despite speculations, not a good fit at Alabama). Some places have to engineer slogans to make fans feel good, but at Clemson they come naturally. People in Clemson testify that the ‘Clemson Family’ is real – letter-men and fans alike. ‘All In’ is one of Coach Swinney’s signature phrases that was so catchy that other programs would occasionally ‘borrow’ it. People sometimes get the perception that Swinney does not know schematics because of his expressive personality. Opposing fans often call him a ‘cheerleader’ in order to degrade his coaching skills.
This is far from the case – in fact he has ascended into a higher order of coaching. New head coaches (and coaches in general) feel the need to micromanage and to have their fingertips on everything. If they are going down, at least they outworked everybody until they have heart attacks. Swinney has football knowledge – he played college football for Alabama, was a graduate assistant, and finally a wide receivers coach. But Coach Swinney is the opposite of a stereotypical head coach who spends hours poring over schematics. He focuses on maximizing people’s potential and using this to create a winning culture. I don’t know if he knows it, but he is carrying out this Ronald Reagan quote to a ‘T’: “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”
While Coach Swinney is not a micro-manager, he certainly cast the vision for Clemson’s offensive identity. However, this offensive identity precedes Coach Swinney’s time at Clemson. The roots of Clemson’s scheme began when Rich Rodriguez brought the ‘spread option’ offense to Clemson along with Bowden and turned Woody Dantzler into a star. Coach Swinney wanted a spread offense, but struggled to create an offensive identity with Napier. There were rumors that circulated surrounding the two, but they are irrelevant in the story. After a horrific 2010 on the offensive side of the ball he fired Billy Napier. Swinney searched and found Chad Morris who was a former high school coach and Tulsa offensive coordinator. Under Swinney’s eye, Morris brought his offensive identity to Clemson and shocked the nation in the 8-0 run of 2011. This was also aided by incredible talents such as Sammy Watkins, but Morris’ coaching prowess gave the Tigers a vision for what the offense could be. As he stayed the offense developed, but since everyone knew he would return to the Midwest for a head coaching job, understudies like Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott studied the offense. The goal was for Morris’ scheme to be a Clemson offense, not a Morris offense. When Morris finally left at the end of 2014, the co-coordinators were ready to trim down the offense and adapt it to the current team. This year Clemson finally was able to utilize the full abilities of the scheme and run the ball down opponents’ throats due to the improved offensive line and running of Wayne Gallman – a powerful bruising back. It is important to note that Clemson’s offensive identity is similar to Auburn’s – home of Morris’ hero in Gus Malzahn and opponent in Clemson’s opener this year.
On the defensive side of the ball Swinney has had two coordinators and despite their differences, one theme is the same – aggression. Swinney started out by hiring Kevin Steele. Steele has a NFL background and if successful, his defenses are suffocating. While Clemson was dreadful on offense in 2010, it was dominant on a defense loaded with talent. His defense then fell apart in 2011 and culminated in a 70-point collapse to West Virginia that caused him to be fired from Clemson. His defense is also extremely intricate with many variables. Here at Clemson, he ran mostly a 4-3 under defense with sprinklings of other schemes mixed in, but he has experience in many schemes. The bad was that the defense was too complex and that our defensive depth dropped off. Swinney found Brent Venables from Oklahoma, and he has been the perfect fit for the Clemson program. Like Swinney, Venables has intensity that is contagious and can sometimes border insanity. (For more information, google ‘Clemson get back guy’). Venables runs a 4-3 over but he is variable in his schematics also. His goal is to keep the offense guessing and afraid so that his defense can feast on negative yardage plays. Venables’ defense suffered in his first year (2012) but steadily improved until it was #1 in 2014. There was a minor dip in 2015 but the elite defense is here to stay.
Finally, Swinney’s program emphasizes character. Most programs say this, but not all live it. This does not mean that there are no incidents. Instead, it means that they are handled with love through discipline. This discipline often means missing games (Sammy Watkins in 2012, the three players this year). Clemson runs a tight ship and things that slide at other programs do not cut the muster at Clemson. This fits right in with Clemson’s culture.
While schematics are important, what is most important is people. Clemson is the perfect place for Coach Swinney and others to blossom. The foundation for the first two parts are set, but it is the third part (recruiting) that makes or breaks a team. Come back for the final installment of Recipe of Champions – Clemson Tigers!