The Clemson Tigers have made significant progress under Dabo Swinney at erasing their past reputation, but the dream of a national title still remains.
This story appears in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
On a hot, muggy day in August 2012, as Clemson football practice came to an end, coach Dabo Swinney gathered everyone for his closing remarks. Some players noticed a few Rubbermaid troughs stationed about and figured they were heading for the cold tubs. Instead, Swinney announced that one of their teammates, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would be getting baptized on the field. Everyone was invited to stay and watch.
Few players or coaches left, if any. They gathered around one of the tubs, which was filled with water, and Hopkins climbed in, still dressed in his jersey and pads. Jesus is the most important thing in my life, Hopkins said, and I want you guys to know I’m living for him. A pastor from NewSpring, a local Baptist church, baptized him, and the crowd cheered.
One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out. The photo caught the media’s attention and made national headlines. After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.
At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, Bible studies and organized church trips.
Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that educates the public on First Amendment issues, recently reviewed the FFRF’s claims against Clemson. “I don’t think this is a close case,” he says. “Clemson University is clearly violating the First Amendment.”
In 2014, Clemson indicated it would review the FFRF’s claims too. But five years later, Elliott says the organization hasn’t received word on what changes, if any, the university has made.
In the meantime, Swinney has built Clemson into a one of the premier college football programs in the country, while keeping religion front and center. Swinney has hired a team of Christian coaches and support staffers; he’s used faith as a selling point for recruits; and he’s created an environment where players openly discuss and bond together over their Christianity. Steeped in religion, Clemson has won two of the last three national championships, and is ranked No. 1 again this season.
Last year, when D.J. Uiagalelei, the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2020 class, visited Clemson, he noticed the deeply religious culture. Uiagalelei is a devout young man himself, and after touring the facilities and meeting with Swinney, he called his mother all excited. You can feel the presence of God here, he said. He’s here, Mom. He’s here.
Dabo Swinney, of course, is not the first football coach to make religion a tenet of his program. He’s not even the first Clemson coach to do so. Swinney’s predecessor, Tommy Bowden, the son of legendary coach Bobby Bowden, was a God-fearing man, too. Every morning Bowden would read the Bible for 30 minutes alone in his office. He prayed with his players, made a team chaplain available to them and held chapel services every Friday: all common practices in football today.
But Bowden wanted to do more than just offer his players a religious outlet. He felt as though it was part of his job, part of his duty as a good Christian, to develop his players spiritually. As Bowden writes in his book Winning Character: “My players needed somebody in their lives who was constantly encouraging them to stay close to the Lord.”
Once a year, usually during training camp, he arranged for the team to attend services at a local church. Church Day, they called it. He also instituted the Spiritual Two-A-Day program, a service that matched players with a spiritual mentor from the community. Bowden made the mentors and the Church Day trip voluntary, but the majority of the team usually took part.
These were only the official programs, too. Bowden’s assistants also advised players behind closed doors. One of those assistants was Dabo Swinney, who arrived at Clemson in 2003 as a 33-year-old receivers coach. He showed early on he had a gift for connecting with his players. He’d invite them over to his house for cookouts, ask about their families, have his wife make them sweets. At least a few times, he had a receiver babysit his kids.
In the meeting room, Swinney often told the receivers stories from his own life: how he’d lived through his father’s alcoholism, how his mother had moved in with him during college at Alabama, how he’d worked his way up from a walk-on player to scholarship player to contributor on the 1992 national championship team. He’d usually drive home “how the Lord made it possible for him to be where he’s at today,” says La’Donte Harris, a Clemson receiver from 2004 to ’07. Swinney preached to them about the importance of “having that spiritual balance and that purpose,” says Curtis Baham, another receiver from those Tigers teams. At times, one former player says, Swinney sounded like a Baptist preacher.
Each week the receivers also had an open invitation to join Swinney at church. He’d even give them a ride. Swinney attended services at NewSpring in Anderson, S.C., about 15 miles from campus. NewSpring is sleek and modern, resembling a tech startup space. Parishioners arrive dressed casually in shorts or jeans. A rock band plays the hymns. The pastor gives easily digestible sermons.
In time Swinney created a small community in which a number of receivers followed his every lead. “Dabo would open himself up to be involved with his life,” says Jeff Ogren, another Clemson receiver. “If you thought that was attractive, cool. Like, I’m basically going to mimic what Dabo does. There were players on the team that would choose to invest themselves in whatever Dabo was doing and offering up.”
But Swinney had trouble reaching one receiver in particular: Kelvin Grant, a former four-star recruit who was a redshirt freshman when Swinney arrived. During his redshirt year, Grant had, by his own admission, developed some “bad habits.” He says he abused marijuana and struggled academically. He'd been labeled a problem child.
Swinney took it upon himself to try to rehabilitate Grant. He lectured him one-on-one, called him out in front of his teammates, and made him do punishment runs after practice. After Swinney had exhausted all of his other ideas, he turned to the one thing he could always count on: his faith. One day, Grant recalls, “He pulls me into his office and he gives me this sermon about where I could end up if I continue to progress [down this path]. He was like, ‘Have you ever thought about giving your life to Christ? Everything else falls into place. You get your health right, you get your spirituality right, everything falls in line.’”
Swinney gave Grant “a template” he says, “a routine of how I should operate every day.” Swinney instructed him to wake up early each day, so he could pray, meditate and read scripture. For a while, Grant started attending church regularly. He eventually decided to get baptized. Grant wanted Swinney to attend the ceremony, but Swinney was out recruiting and unable to make it. He sent his wife instead. “He led me to get baptized,” Grant says. “He didn’t force me to do it. He’d speak about God and some of the sermons and testimonies would really motivate me. It really would, truly. I got baptized because of Coach Swinney.”
Midway through the 2008 season, Tommy Bowden was reading his bible one morning in his office when Terry Don Phillips, the Clemson AD at the time, came knocking at his door. In the previous nine years under Bowden, the Tigers had never won more than nine games. That year, the Tigers were 3–3 and heading toward another unremarkable season. After speaking to Phillips, Bowden offered to resign later that day. Soon after, Phillips named Swinney the interim head coach. Swinney finished the regular season 7–5, and earned the permanent job.
As Swinney started building his own program, he kept a few of Bowden’s initiatives in place: the Church Day, the Friday chapel services, the team prayers. At times, Swinney probably sounded like Bowden, pushing the same Christian values. But the difference between Swinney and Bowden—and every other religious coach, for that matter—came in how Swinney delivered, and reinforced, his message. He cultivated an environment in which he connected with players over faith, just as he had with the receivers, but now on a bigger scale.
He started by hiring coaches and staffers who were as religious as he was, some of whom were outspoken about it, too. This included prominent assistants, like the current offensive coordinator Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. But it also included key figures who worked behind the scenes, like Jeff Davis, whom Swinney installed as the director of player relations. Davis had been a Hall of Fame linebacker on the 1981 Clemson national championship team and, in recent years, had been working as a major fund-raiser under Tommy Bowden. Davis had also been serving as the pastor at a local church. He had a reputation for giving powerful sermons.
Swinney brought on James Trapp, another former Clemson player, as the team chaplain, too. Trapp played 11 years in the NFL and, after years of abusing alcohol and marijuana, found religion. Like Davis, Trapp had a way with words. At one point, Swinney put him on the payroll, so he’d be authorized to speak to recruits, which is rare for a public school team chaplain.
“[Dabo] just built a team of believers,” says Brandon Maye, a Clemson LB during the transition from Bowden to Swinney. “He just cloned himself over and over, through his coaches and support system.”
When Swinney met recruits, he often spoke about his faith. He talked about developing them into well-rounded men—not just physically, but mentally, spiritually. For some players, or at least their parents, it was a real draw. “Everybody [at Clemson] loves the Lord, and for a mom, it can’t get any better than that,” says Tausha Uiagalelei, the mother of D.J., the top 2020 recruit.
“It’s an integral part of the package that Clemson presents to players,” says Barton Simmons, 247Sports’s director of football scouting. “Kids regularly bring up that Clemson is a fit for them, principle-wise. The things that Dabo believes are in line with what they believe.” Other coaches may tout religion, Simmons says, but Swinney is “at the front of the line.”
Once these players arrived on campus, Swinney offered them lots of religious resources. He discussed his faith occasionally during team meetings. Then he’d have Davis and Trapp, his two spiritual leaders, attend practices and games, and make themselves available to the players during down time. They had offices near each other in the team facility, and players dropped by to discuss everything from football, to personal issues, to the Gospel. Many players attended Trapp’s “Battlegrounds” spiritual workshop series, and on Sundays, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, as many as 20 players visited Davis’s church to hear him preach.
If players weren’t religious before, they found it easy to buy in. Swinney recruited heavily in the South, from around Clemson’s South Carolina base. Lots of players came from religious families, and Swinney, Davis, and Trapp spoke a language they’d heard at home. “Everyone had the same idea: that faith was No. 1, God was No. 1,” says Marquan Jones, a Clemson receiver from 2008 to ‘11. “We were all from the South, the Bible Belt. Most of the athletes down south are strong in their faith. I don’t know if that’s something they look for in recruiting, but it’s something that comes natural for a lot of us, something that we already have.”
At the same time, Clemson started winning. From 2011 to ’14, the Tigers posted four consecutive 10-win seasons, a feat they hadn’t accomplished in more than 20 years, and some of Clemson’s best players also happened to be its most devout. Many of them attended NewSpring services on Sundays, including Tajh Boyd, the starting QB from ’11 to ’13, and Sammy Watkins, a star receiver who attended services with his position coach, Jeff Scott. “Even some days after we were partying, I would still get up and go,” Watkins says. At least a few players, Watkins included, also received mentorship from NewSpring staffers.
Meanwhile, Vic Beasley, a star defensive end, and a few offensive linemen attended a Bible study taught by leaders of the local Clemson Presbyterian church. In fact, the Tigers had a few different Bible studies going at once, involving various cliques within the team.
Some players felt so inspired that they wanted to profess their faith publicly. At Church Day 2012, Swinney took the team to NewSpring, and Watkins and Malliciah Goodman, a starting DE, got baptized in front of the congregation.
A few weeks later, DeAndre Hopkins got baptized after practice, also in front of the team. The following year, James Trapp, the team chaplain, taught three workshops on “being baptized” and held the sessions at the football facility, according to an internal e-mail obtained by the FFRF. Now anyone who saw Hopkins’s baptism could follow the same path.
Some apparently did. Shaq Lawson, another star defensive end, estimates that in his three years at Clemson, from 2013 to ’15, he had somewhere between 10 and 15 teammates get baptized. “We had a little pond by our practice field. A lot of guys got baptized during camp,” Lawson says. “Just from the word, what Coach Swinney was telling us, how he was preaching to us.”
After receiving upward of five complaints about the Clemson football program, the Freedom From Religion Foundation opened an investigation around early 2014. Elliott, the FFRF attorney, obtained a trove of internal e-mails between Swinney and his religious advisors, and sent Clemson a letter of complaint in April 2014. The FFRF accused Clemson of creating a culture that pushed Christianity on its players and violated the First Amendment.
Elliott uses DeAndre Hopkins’s public baptism as an example. As an individual citizen, Hopkins has the right to express his faith, Elliott says, but the issue arises when Swinney—a public school employee—appears to openly endorse Hopkins’s religion, in full view of the team. For one, Swinney gave Hopkins a platform, allowing him to get baptized after practice. Then Jeff Scott, Hopkins’s position coach, tweeted a photo of the ceremony along with the caption, “highlight of my week.” “They’re putting out there: ‘Hey, we want people to do this. We want people to be baptized and commit their lives to Jesus,’” Elliott says.
Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Clemson, thinks Swinney should consider the optics of these group activities, and how they might affect his non-Christian players. “You see DeAndre Hopkins get baptized and all the Christians are like, ‘That’s amazing. That’s wonderful,’” Whitehead says. “But what if you’re not [Christian]? How would that make you feel? It’s raising those questions and thinking about the implications, I think.”
Paul Putz, the assistant director of Baylor’s graduate-level Sports Ministry Program, fears that non-Christians might feel excluded, or worse, feel some need to conform and join in the group ritual. “Are there players who feel ostracized?” Putz asks. “Are there ways in which they feel they need to become one of us? They need to become one of us to be fully accepted?”
The FFRF argues the First Amendment should protect players in such situations. The Supreme Court has long upheld that it’s unconstitutional to proselytize in public schools at the K–12 level, ruling against practices as common as praying at football games and graduation ceremonies. In these cases, Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and another First Amendment expert, says the courts have essentially ruled that “kids are impressionable, they might feel like they’re being coerced, and the government is supposed to be neutral [on religion].”
The courts don’t often rule on these cases at the college level, because, Garnett says, college students are considered adults and can discern between what is state-sponsored prayer and not. “We’re talking about adults here,” Garnett says, referring to the Tigers, “there’s not a danger of coercion.”
But Elliott, the FFRF attorney, makes a case that there is. He points to a 2003 case involving the Virginia Military Institute, the oldest state-supported military college. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that VMI had coerced its cadets into participating in a dinner prayer, in large part due to the school’s regimented training methods. The court noted how VMI cadets often had to “submit to mandatory and ritualized activities,” because “obedience and conformity remain central tenets of the school’s educational philosophy.”
Elliott sees a lot of similarities between VMI and the Clemson football program. Like military officers, coaches also hold immense power over their charges. “They control several aspects of the players’ lives,” Elliott says. “Their playing time, their ability to have a scholarship, potentially their future career.” If a coach were to endorse a religious activity then, Elliott says, the player might feel pressured into participating.
After the FFRF made its complaints public in 2014, some Clemson players came out defending Swinney, saying that the Church Day, the bible studies and the public baptisms had been voluntary. “[Swinney] is not smashing Christianity in anyone’s face,” says Watkins. “He’s just trying to help us be better men. He’s not saying, 'You’ve got to be Christian.' He wants you to be a good person, a good man.”
Back when Swinney was the receivers coach, he had a wide receiver named Aaron Kelly, who’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Kelly says he did feel “almost like an outsider” during the faith-based activities. “Sometimes you look at it, and because some of those things are bonding experiences, you kind of feel left out,” he says. “You wonder, maybe I should be doing this?”
Kelly remembers being nervous when he first approached Swinney to say he wouldn’t be able to participate in Church Day. But Kelly found Swinney to be kind and understanding: “He said, ‘Aaron, that’s a really big deal. We all have our beliefs, and I want you to feel comfortable.’” Kelly stresses that he never felt as though Swinney had held his faith against him. “I tell people, hey, I didn’t follow his religion and I started for four years under him.”
If any player has felt uncomfortable playing under Swinney, they have not yet come forward. Perhaps the only way Clemson could be challenged in court, Elliott says, is if a dissenter were to emerge. But he doubts one ever will. “They’re not going to go against their coach,” Elliott says, “because it’s high stakes for them. They have a lot on the line.”
Perhaps that person doesn’t exist. After speaking openly about his faith for years, Swinney has made it clear to recruits where he stands. “I think, a lot of players are self-selecting in,” says Whitehead, the Clemson professor. “If that isn’t something that they’re interested in, maybe they don’t come here.”
In 2014, around the time the FFRF went public, Swinney addressed the issue during the team meeting. He informed the players what the group accused him of doing. “They tried to paint Coach Swinney as someone who was forcing his faith on everybody,” says Stanton Seckinger, a Clemson tight end from 2012 to ’15. “He said, ‘If any of y’all feel like that’s the case, please come talk to me about it so I can see your side of it.’ But, you know, everyone was like, that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
After the FFRF inquiry, Clemson football took off. The Tigers made the national title game in 2015 and ’16, and won a championship under the guidance of Deshaun Watson, another devout QB. Watson has said that the religious culture played a small part in his choosing Clemson. “It was part of it, of course,” Watson said, “knowing that my coach is a Man of God.”
Last season Swinney won a second national title with Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman, as his QB. At the start of his first year at Clemson, Lawrence got baptized in a private ceremony at NewSpring, started receiving mentorship from a NewSpring pastor, and regularly attended bible study sessions taught by the same person. As Lawrence quarterbacked the Tigers to a perfect season, he could be spotted at NewSpring most Sundays, usually sitting near the front. (As Clemson football has risen, coincidentally, so has NewSpring. The church now has 14 locations spread across the state, including one in Clemson, about two miles from Memorial Stadium.)
Other than the hardware in the trophy cases, not much has changed at Clemson since FFRF made its complaints. In 2015, Dan Radakovich, Clemson’s current athletic director, told the AP that, after the FFRF reached out, the school reviewed the situation internally and found the football program had been compliant with the law. (SI requested interviews with Swinney and members of his staff. Through a team spokesman, Swinney declined to speak or make his staff available.)
Once Lawrence moves on, Swinney’s run on Christian QBs should continue. D.J. Uiagalelei, the No. 1 QB prospect of the 2020 class, recently committed to Clemson, citing religion as the No. 1 reason. “Jesus is number one in life, so that was my main priority in choosing a college,” Uiagalelei says. “It was: who’s going to support it? Or: where am I going to feel most comfortable about it?”
D.J.’s mother, Tausha, still remembers the promise Swinney made to her during the recruiting process, as they discussed their shared faith: “He said to me, ‘We’re going to win some games and lose some games. But I guarantee you that every single player that comes through this program will hear about the Gospel of Christ.’”