Within the usual byzantine coaching structure of an American football program, Clemson football players had noticed something almost aglow in the practices and the office hallways of the mid-2000s. They could not help but detect a sort of magical person often literally on the edges — he coached receivers — who managed that rarefied mix of being unusually demanding and exceptionally engaging. One needn’t be a receiver to tell.
“Looking at the way he coached his guys, how hard he coached his guys, a standard that he wanted his guys to play to, the attention to detail, you can’t help but notice,” said former Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, who would amass 4,935 total yards in the NFL with Buffalo, New Orleans, the New York Jets, Seattle and Kansas City. “He was very detailed with the way he wanted them to practice. He wanted them to be the standard, like everybody had to practice to the receiver standard.”
Piled atop that, and as a recruiter also, Dabo Swinney seemed to know everybody at every position, and seemed to have instilled everybody at every position with the feeling that he cared about everybody at every position. Referring to Swinney’s personality as “dynamic” and “personable” and relatable,” Willy Korn, then a Clemson quarterback, said, “He doesn’t know any strangers.”
That’s why when, 10 Octobers ago, they had themselves a doozy of a Monday in northwest South Carolina, when the athletic director visited the longtime head coach’s office, and the longtime head coach resigned, and both agreed Clemson should take the eccentric step of elevating the receivers coach, Swinney, to interim head coach, the players could peer through their confusion and spot logic. That logic seemed clear despite the bizarre employment situation, in which a promoted individual (Swinney) wound up removing one of his bosses, the offensive coordinator (Rob Spence), setting the latter upon quite some trail.
By now, as No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) prepares to play visiting No. 16 North Carolina State (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday, any college football Mount Rushmore of the moment absolutely would include Swinney, a vocal Christian even an atheist might find charismatic. As the Clemson head coach freed of the word “interim” in December 2008, he has gone 78-11 in the last seven seasons and 85-15 in the last eight. He has graced three straight College Football Playoffs, including that 2016-17 national championship won so goose-bumpily on the 68-yard drive steered by Deshaun Watson, maestro.
When Swinney stands among Clemson reporters nowadays and utters things such as, “I just think, again, pressure is self-induced; I think you can control all that stuff,” it feels like an established part of the national tapestry.
On Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, it all just seemed quirky.
“You can imagine that day,” Spiller said this week. “It was shock and then guys were just really trying to catch their breath. It was a crazy scene for everybody including the coaches. Probably one of the longest Mondays that we ever had. It just felt like a whole week’s worth in one day.”
For nine-plus seasons, Tommy Bowden had served as Clemson’s head coach and as a Clemson synonym. He had gone 72-45 even if the 2008 season had sailed sideways to 3-3, beginning with a 34-10 ransacking by that refreshed power, Alabama, and thudding with a 12-7 dud at Wake Forest the previous Thursday night.
“Nobody on that roster had ever expected a coaching change,” Spiller said. “You see it on the news. You see it in other programs. Then when it actually hits home, it’s a different feeling.”
Whispers swept town. Opposite emotions spent the day mingling: “You feel happy and sad at the same time, if that makes sense,” Spiller said.
As Korn said about college-aged young men, “Your frontal lobe is not yet developed.”
At midday, Bowden became that rare coach to appear at a news conference on a final day not quite of his choosing, if also not technically a firing. His brief remarks concluded with, “I will be their biggest fan on Saturday,” and then he bounded up and exited, stage right. By 4 p.m., Spiller said, the players and their new interim coach gathered.
“I remember him asking the coaches to leave and it’s just the players,” said Korn, through his keen lens as a 29-year-old receivers coach at Coastal Carolina.
Then, Swinney spoke at least two things that lodged in memories.
One: “‘Hey, you know what, I know we’re in a difficult situation and I know this isn’t what you guys signed up for,’” Korn recalled.
Two: “If you decide not to be part of this team anymore, I’ll grant you your wish” and honor the scholarship, Spiller recalled.
“That’s very powerful because I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen all the time,” Spiller said. “Every guy in that room knew that he meant it” because, for one reason, Spiller also said, “You can really tell when a coach is being real and when one’s being fake.”
Said Korn, “You feel a tremendous amount of pride to know you were in that room for that first team meeting,” quite a telling statement from a man who wound up transferring out in 2010 yet, to hear him talk, without bitterness.
By 8 p.m., with Swinney so clearly interim, the air swirled with names of potential permanent successors from around the land. It got so that WYFF-TV reporter Geoff Hart, standing in the room that awaited Swinney, felt moved to say, “Certainly it’s not exactly great journalism to be throwing all this around right now, because it’s simple speculation, so we don’t necessarily want to be doing that.”
Yet the interim coach long had prepared himself for the moment, even though he appeared at that news conference saying his wife had to bring him clothes because he had figured to spend the day in sweatpants studying blitz packages; even though, damn, he looked young, even younger than his 38.
“Welcome to the second press conference of our doubleheader today,” media relations guru Tim Bourret cracked.
“I appreciate all y’all showing up,” Swinney said. “I’m sure there was a baseball game on tonight or something like that, that might have been a lot more interesting TV. You know I’m gon’ apologize to you, ahead of time. This is gon’ be a pretty raw press conference, probably, for some guys that you’ve had. You know, I obviously hadn’t prepared anything for this and, you now, let me just start by saying that this is a very bittersweet day for me. You know, I’ve dreamed of being a head coach, but I certainly never dreamed of getting my first job this way.”
He told a long story about being a walk-on receiver at Alabama, a harbinger of his (welcome) capacity for long stories to come. He told of rearranging the staff: “The decision to move in a different direction from Coach Spence” — the offensive coordinator — “was mine, and let me say this: I love Coach Spence. I’ve enjoyed my time with him. He’s one of the best offensive guys I’ve worked with. He knows a lot of football. I’ve learned a lot from him. But this is a situation where if you’re gonna have a fresh start, it’s just kind of time for a change and move in a different direction, and that’s what it kind of boiled down to.”
Spence declined to comment for this story but, hired that December by Doug Marrone at Syracuse, would say, “The issue about being at Clemson and being with Coach Bowden, Coach Bowden hired me, and I was tied with Coach Bowden, and I was loyal to Coach Bowden. And that’s probably where the discussion can begin and end, is the best way to put it.”
Spence’s astounding zigzag from there would go like this: offensive coordinator at Syracuse (2009), receivers coach at Temple (2010), offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman (2011), quarterbacks coach at Rutgers (2012-13), head coach at Chattanooga (Tenn.) Christian High (2014-15), receivers coach at Chattanooga (2016), offensive coordinator at Morgan State (2017) and now, offensive coordinator at Georgetown.
Spiller would play on and tack on a still-ripe Swinney memory from his senior season (2009). “His big thing is he doesn’t like guys walking off” the practice field, he said of Swinney. Spiller did so one day, and recalls, “He pretty much made an example of me. He made me go back and jog all the way off.”
The thinking: “If I let you get away with it, the walk-on will do it.”
The upshot: “I just love the consistency that he has.”
And: “The thing I love about him is he’s not afraid to call you out in front of anybody, but you know he’s not doing it to embarrass you at any time.”
Eventually, on the night in Tampa in January 2017, Watson drove, and Swinney exulted, and Spiller watched from the sideline.
“Tears,” he said.