Nowhere is this on better display than in the campus’s athletic district, where progress feels never-ending: a $12 million tennis facility here, a $14 million softball stadium there. But the true showpieces are those assembled by the most dynamic builder these parts have ever known.
Dabo Swinney hasn’t just constructed one of college football’s best programs, winner of two of the past four national championships. He has invigorated the economies of the campus and the town while overseeing $88 million in upgrades to Clemson’s football facilities. Since 2013, multiple renovations to Memorial Stadium have added embellishments such as an “oculus” in the shape of the College Football Playoff trophy, and the program’s new football facility includes a bowling alley, a bocce ball court and a nap room.
Someday, some former players believe, the school will inevitably commission another project: a statue of Swinney himself.
“He has literally changed that program,” says K’Von Wallace, a former Clemson safety who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in April. “It’s not even what he built; it’s the heart and genuineness behind it. It’s all out of pure love.”
But sometimes the ground shifts, threatening the foundations of even the strongest structures. On May 25, a shock wave that began in Minneapolis with the police killing of George Floyd rippled across the United States. A reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement forced immediate reconsideration — and often the removal — of racist monuments and symbols. It also compelled Americans with powerful megaphones to speak up in ways they never had.
Former Clemson players Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, two of the NFL’s biggest stars, publicly pressured the university to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from its honors college. Calhoun, a former U.S. senator and vice president, owned the cotton and timber plantation on which Clemson was built; he was an enslaver who called the nation’s original sin a “positive good.” And “this oppressive figure,” Hopkins said, was the reason Hopkins never mentions Clemson when he’s introduced during nationally televised games.
The honors college dropped Calhoun. But Calhoun Field Laboratory and Calhoun Drive — the lightly traveled road cuts through the heart of campus and runs past a building constructed with materials repurposed from enslaved people’s quarters — remain. So does Tillman Hall, a stately brick structure built with what a sign describes as “an African-American convict labor crew,” named for a “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a politician who advocated for the lynching of black Americans.
"This is something that isn’t new to us,” says Wallace, who is black. “I knew the first day I got here what we stand on and what was built there.”
Wallace spoke up, too. So did Clemson’s star white quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who helped organize a Black Lives Matter rally in this Southern town of about 17,000 year-round residents.
But even as Swinney’s extended football “family” took action, the coach — with perhaps the most influential voice in a state and on a campus still coming to grips with racist pasts — remained noticeably silent. When he finally spoke, during a Zoom meeting with reporters, he blamed what happened in Minneapolis on a “sinful, fallen world.”
“For me,” Swinney said, “the good news is we have a Lord that loves us all.”
That meeting drew criticism for its failure to recognize the impact racism and police violence have on African Americans, who make up the majority of college football rosters but a sliver of coaching staffs. So did a photo that surfaced a few days later of the coach wearing a “FOOTBALL MATTERS” shirt. So did his decision, around the same time, to retain Danny Pearman, a 55-year-old white assistant coach who admitted to using the n-word during a practice in 2017.
“We dealt with it,” Swinney said in a video about Pearman’s use of the slur, “and we moved on.”
Some at Clemson couldn’t move on quite so easily. They tried to make sense of the Swinney they knew, whose heart and intentions serve as a bedrock to the football team’s success. They tried to square it against what he was now saying and the incendiary things he had said before about social justice protests and paying amateur athletes. They whispered among themselves and thought about confronting Swinney.
Which, they wanted to ask, ultimately matters more to Swinney — black lives or football? But considering his $93 million contract, his power and the influence he still holds in their lives, would he listen?
“We’re just a football program,” Swinney said in his video last month, “and I’m just a football coach.” But that’s not true. Not here. The 50-year-old coach once led a revolution in Clemson, tearing down something antiquated to rebuild it stronger than most anyone could imagine. Now, at a historic cultural crossroads and in the face of Swinney’s first major crisis, another question has emerged: Can Swinney, older and more emboldened and set in his ways, do it again?
“If Dabo is the face of down there, people are looking at him, and how he changes can affect how they possibly change," says Tammi Trotter, whose son Jeremiah Trotter Jr., a top high school recruit for the 2021 class, is committed, for now, to playing at Clemson. “Listen, Dabo got the side-eye from this mama. Right now it’s about going with your gut and feeling like, ‘Can I forgive this?’ ”
He used to sketch them on paper, these plans in his head: an indoor facility that didn’t yet exist, modifications to the stadium, an entryway that showcased Clemson’s history and trophies.
He went to university infrastructure meetings to share his ideas. He talked to colleagues about how he envisioned the future of Clemson football. He showed them his sketches, audacious even for Swinney.
“I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, this isn’t bad, what we’ve got right now,’ ” says Brad Scott, a former longtime Clemson assistant coach and administrator. “He just wanted to take it to a whole other level.”
When Swinney went from receivers coach to interim head coach in 2008, having never even been a coordinator, he was selected not just because he can dream big but because he can convince others these visions are achievable. As a wide-eyed assistant, Swinney insisted on recruiting C.J. Spiller, a Florida native and the country’s best high school running back. Swinney’s colleagues suggested he focus on more realistic prospects. But the determined young coach — who once spent a sabbatical from football as an actual salesman — saw only a world in which Clemson had better players, facilities, championship hopes than even Florida and Florida State.
Swinney kept telling Spiller about his Christian faith and this landscape he imagined, and eventually the young running back committed — a signing that changed the course of Clemson history.
The Tigers won the ACC in 2011, their first championship in two decades, and Swinney kept asking to build things: $10 million for an indoor facility, $8 million for upgrades to Memorial Stadium’s west end zone, $25 million for suite renovations. Though Clemson athletics had never received a gift of more than $1 million before 2014, it had never had Swinney do the asking. He sat in living rooms and on porches to ask donors for $2.5 million apiece, and more and more, it seemed impossible for anyone to tell him no.
“As he became more successful, his voice just got stronger and stronger,” Scott says. “He’s never comfortable. He turns the page.”
The town tried to keep up, erecting new shopping malls, hotels and condominiums. Meanwhile, Swinney assembled the country’s most formidable coaching staff and made certain it was paid accordingly. In 2012, he deferred money he was due in pay raises to build up a $4.2 million salary pool for his assistants, the highest in college football.
“I make plenty of money,” Swinney told USA Today in 2012, when he was paid about $2 million. He declined The Washington Post’s requests for an interview for this story.
But players, he began saying a year later, deserved no such compensation. His beliefs on this would harden, suggesting that “professionalizing” college football would ruin the game by stimulating entitlement among players. He said he would walk away from the sport if players were paid.
Swinney’s program, at least in his mind, was built on a simple foundation of God and football. The truth is he constructed it by being highly detailed, occasionally stubborn, universally demanding — but genuinely family friendly. Swinney provides assistants 13-month calendars including spring breaks and days off, a rarity in a sport whose employees typically work round-the-clock. His coaches’ kids are encouraged to hang around the facility and treat it like a playground.
Swinney expects perseverance and dedication, and in return he promises a collegial working environment and extreme loyalty. In the past five years, four assistant coaches have left Clemson. Alabama and LSU, the past two non-Clemson national champions, have lost three and four assistants, respectively, in the past five months.
“What Coach Swinney did was bring a mind-set that the best is the standard,” says Jeff Scott, who in December left Clemson to become South Florida’s head coach after a dozen years under Swinney as a player, position coach and coordinator. “It’s why coaches stick around.”
That and, of course, the national championships, the pay — the Tigers’ 10 full-time assistant coaches are due $8.1 million in 2020 — and a university that, in its quest to win the sports-facility arms race, reliably manages to keep up with Swinney’s imagination.
“This was truly my dream,” he said in 2017, after the ribbon-cutting on Clemson’s $55 million football operations complex. Though soon Swinney was selling a new dream: $70 million in upgrades to Memorial Stadium. Last fall, the school’s board of trustees said yes.
There was so much Trotter’s mother liked about what Swinney has built: the “Paw Journey” program, which teaches career development and financial planning; the millionaire head coach’s open-door policy to current and former players; that 53 former Clemson players have been NFL draft picks over the past decade.
“I just felt comfortable,” says Tammi Trotter, whose husband, Jeremiah Sr., was a four-time NFL Pro Bowl linebacker. Jeremiah Jr., whom ESPN ranks as its No. 1 outside linebacker for the 2021 recruiting class, verbally committed to Clemson in September.
She believes, too, that Swinney sees his players as whole people, not assets at his disposal. This allowed her to overlook some of the coach’s more questionable comments. In 2016, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee to protest racial injustice, Swinney criticized Kaepernick’s method of protest. He also suggested crime and police violence stem not from systemic racism but from a “sin problem,” going on to say some activists “need to move to another country.”
Swinney admitted last month these statements were “harsh.” But he has not backed down from his insistence that college athletes shouldn’t be paid, even as lawmakers and the NCAA move toward compensating them — and even as Swinney’s own pay has skyrocketed, thanks in large part to the free labor of a predominantly black workforce.
“You’re looking at these schools paying these coaches a lot of this money,” Tammi Trotter says, “and it’s coming off the backs of these [players].”
Swinney likes to cite his own upbringing in extolling the value of scholarships allowing athletes to attend college free. He grew up poor in Alabama, the son of an alcoholic father. He says he believes God and Gene Stallings, his coach as a walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, changed his life through faith and the college experience. He cleaned gutters and was part of the football team’s brotherhood, starting him on a path that led him to this $9.2 million-a-year pulpit and his meticulously crafted kingdom.
“Life is tough,” Swinney told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. “And I’ve never wanted that for my players. I want young people who value that experience, who value education.”
He’s passionate about this, viewing it through a deeply personal lens. Though Swinney enjoys debate, one close friend says, he sometimes struggles with being wrong or even expanding upon a set of limited perspectives. Colleagues and players have nonetheless attempted to widen his world view over the years — perhaps no one more than Woody McCorvey, who coached Swinney at Alabama 30 years ago and now effectively acts as the coach’s chief of staff.
“Sometimes I think he says some things that — oh, man, I don’t think I would’ve said that,” McCorvey says.
A 69-year-old black man, he grew up in Alabama, too, though it was a very different experience than the one Swinney would know and cherish. He has volunteered these stories to his boss, about the assassination of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the march from Selma to Montgomery, segregated water fountains and movie theaters.
“I’ve tried to educate him,” McCorvey says. “But he has not lived that like I have and other black kids on this football team have and their parents.”
Tammi Trotter has lived it, too. As this horrifying spring unfolded — first Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, then Breonna Taylor in Louisville, then Floyd — Trotter couldn’t help imagining her children in similar scenarios.
“When I send my son out the door,” she says, “I have to worry about this big, black young man with this big, thick head of hair, that somebody is not looking at him as a threat. No matter how gentle he is, I have to worry.”
She considered Swinney’s silence during the seven days between Floyd’s death and Swinney’s response. She was “definitely angry,” she says, after seeing Swinney posing with his “FOOTBALL MATTERS” shirt. And learning that Pearman had used a slur on Clemson’s practice field — and wasn’t fired for it — was a “hit in the gut,” she says.
Coaches scheduled a call with the Trotters, which Tammi says was an attempt at damage control, and Swinney was on the line as yet another black American tried to get him to understand.
“I want you to look at my child as if you and your wife had birthed this person,” Tammi Trotter recalls saying. “If I’m hours away from you, I want to feel in my heart that he’s in a place where the people that I left him with will protect him.”
Clemson’s recruiting classes are routinely ranked among the nation’s best, and Swinney rarely loses committed players; between the classes of 2015 and 2020, zero recruits who had verbally pledged to play for the Tigers changed their minds.
Two players in the 2021 class have done just that, most recently cornerback Jordan Hancock, who switched to Ohio State. A person close to Hancock said Swinney’s response to the Floyd killing didn’t directly factor into Hancock’s decision. But last month, Hancock tweeted an anguished emoji when sharing a video of vehicles, adorned with Confederate flags, passing through Clemson in response to the Black Lives Matter rally on campus.
“A lot of these recruits now have started to think about the reality of what some of these colleges represent,” says the coach of a different Clemson recruit. The coach spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal from within the fraternal football recruiting community. “A lot of coaches that are going into a lot of these African American homes are going to have to answer some tough questions that they got away with not answering in the past.”
Tammi Trotter says her son has no intention of playing anywhere but Clemson — for now, anyway. “That man is good,” she says of Swinney.
But her initial comfort is shaken, and whether that remains the case depends on Swinney’s words and actions between now and when he signs his national letter-of-intent.
“Right now, hey, we’re still in the game,” she says. “I’m just praying that nothing occurs that would just derail us and have us say, ‘Nope, can’t take no more of this.’ ”
As the days after Floyd’s death turned to weeks, Spiller noted the protests — and his former coach’s response — and couldn’t sleep. He and Swinney had changed Clemson together 14 years earlier, setting the football program and themselves on extraordinary paths. But now Spiller felt let down and anxious.
He wanted to talk to his old coach, but would Swinney be receptive? Would he be respectful and open-minded? Would he listen?
“We have a great relationship,” says Spiller, who spent eight seasons in the NFL before returning to Clemson last year to help lead fundraising for the athletic department. “But we’ve never had these conversations.”
Spiller typed thoughts on his phone’s notes app and scheduled a meeting in Swinney’s office. They prayed together, then Spiller spoke first.
He asked about Pearman’s use of the slur. He then shared things he had experienced: how isolated he sometimes felt at Clemson, how vulnerable he occasionally feels, how disconnected the football program keeps players from other black students. He closed by saying the division that has defined this year could be rewritten if Swinney and others have “20-20 vision” about the broken systems and notions surrounding them.
After their meeting, Swinney scheduled a gathering at his home with Clemson’s seniors. He invited them to share their experiences. He took calls, some of them tense, with black former players. He listened to McCorvey talk, words from employee to boss unfiltered, as they took a chartered flight to Pittsburgh to check on an injured player.
“Just he and I, one-on-one,” McCorvey says. He prefers to keep most of the conversation’s details private, but he says he told Swinney that his initial comments after Floyd’s death were insufficient — that it hadn’t been the time for Christian testimony. McCorvey also confronted Pearman after he admitted to using the n-word. “Shoot yeah, I said something to him. Sure did.”
Interested in sharing?
“Nope,” he says before changing the subject, to the sound of birds singing outside his office window at Clemson’s football facility. His window overlooks terrain that has dramatically shifted over the centuries and is doing so again. “The thing to always look at is how my people endured all of this,” McCorvey says. "Everything that they did to help build these buildings, and they didn’t get the recognition for it. And then giving me the opportunity to work at a place like this now … .”
McCorvey trails off. He’s asked whether his boss is capable of understanding that and of updating his own views. Swinney, after all, is a part of the campus and culture now, an important monument to Clemson’s revitalization. And monuments, even in places like this, are either modified to reflect changing attitudes, or they get torn down.
“If you don’t,” McCorvey says of Swinney’s ability to adapt, “you’re going to be lost. Because every day, every year, you look at your players — they’re changing. And if you don’t change with them, you’re going to be lost.”
Spiller, too, is encouraged that Swinney is listening. He was heartened that, after their meeting, Swinney marched alongside Clemson players at the Black Lives Matter rally. He has chosen to believe Swinney’s words, on his third attempt, were genuine.
“I’m embarrassed to say there’s things on this campus that I didn’t really understand,” Swinney, wearing a black T-shirt and reading from prepared remarks, told the crowd assembled on the field in front of Tillman Hall. “I knew the basics but not the details. But I’ve learned. And I’ve listened.”
On the day of their meeting, though, Spiller didn’t know what might come of it. He and Swinney stood and hugged when they finished, smiling as they attempted to move on. Then Spiller said goodbye and departed a structure that didn’t exist even a decade ago, thinking about how so many things around here look — and feel — so different than the way they used to.