When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was promoted from an interim role to his current position after the 2008 regular season, he made a lengthy list. "It was everything we hadn't done in a million years, had never done or couldn't do," Swinney said during a recent interview. "To change Clemson, we had to do it from the inside out. If we focused on the inside, eventually it'd blossom on the outside."
One of the items on Swinney's list was a 10-win season, which at the time Clemson hadn't achieved since 1990. Now, the Tigers have had five straight, which included a school-record 14 wins last season and a berth in the College Football Playoff championship.
During his interview with Campus Rush, the folksy Swinney discussed lessons learned from his team's championship loss, why he calls junior quarterback Deshaun Watson a "unicorn," and the criticism Swinney has endured for being outspoken about his Christian faith.
Campus Rush:Now that you've had some time, what's your takeaway from just how close you were to beating your alma mater, Alabama, in the College Football Playoff championship?
Dabo Swinney: Everything in life is how you respond to it. If everything went perfect all the time—you never lost a game, you got to the championship every time, you always won, you always got the top recruit, you always made the A—you really wouldn't truly appreciate all that goes into it. Our guys have responded well. As I've said many times, it's one thing to dream about something, it's another thing to experience it. It's one thing to think you're good enough, it's another thing to know you're good enough. We didn't win the game obviously, but I think our brand won. I don't know how to explain that other than Alabama has been kind of the standard. When you consider we out-rushed, out-passed, out-gained, out-sacked, out-tackled-for-loss them, we really played great, outside of four plays defensively. Physically, we matched up. We had a lot of things validated for our program.
CR:So what's your emphasis for this year's team?
Swinney: There are certain things you don't control, but it starts with doing the little things right. Don't get bored with doing that. If you go back into the championship game, I pulled up a few plays and I put this video up there [for the team]. It had nothing to do with the opponent. Like up three points in the fourth quarter [when we're] on their 40–yard–line and they really hadn't stopped us all day and we fumbled the exchange. Ball-handling. So this spring when we're doing ball-handling, it's important, man. It's national championship important. Those things didn't have anything to do with the opponent, but they impacted the game and were 100% within our control. When we tell our guys, their eyes need to be on this, here's why. It's just little things because if we focus on that, we know we're good enough.
CR:The little things are inevitably the toughest, right?
Swinney: There's a lot of oops from us in life as people. I always say that God never says oops. That's just kind of how I've always lived my life, but we're so imperfect that there's a lot of times that we say, "Oops my bad." We've got to eliminate that. Just that little something extra. It starts with self-evaluation. It's hard for me to come up with a plan and hold my players accountable until I self-evaluate and hold myself accountable. I look at everything from our practice schedules to you name it, our off-season, recruiting. I self-evaluate my staff and then we go through and evaluate the entire season. We spend a lot of time on our quality control. I don't just want to start over and practice. I want to be very purposeful, focused and direct when we go back to practice. I want to say, "We had 18 sacks last year and here's why. Six of them were on the quarterback, so now specifically, Deshaun [Watson], here's where I need you to improve. Offensive line, we really did a poor job on our cutoff blocks." All year long, it kept showing up in our quality control. I want to make sure our drills are designed and specific to what we've got to do to improve. Maybe it's something I'm going to challenge the coaches with like, "Hey, I didn't feel like we did a good job with the relationships in this room." It's a holistic thing. Everybody has things they have to do and then it has to be articulated. We spend a lot of time in the offseason studying ourselves.
CR:What's something that emerged from that self-evaluation?
Swinney: We played 968 snaps of defense. We were top 10 in total defense and two guys, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, were in the top five for tackles for loss. We gave up about 4,700 yards on those snaps, but over 50% of those yards—2,500 yards—came on 71 plays. So why? Did we not practice the right way? Did we not articulate the right way? Did we have some guys that were just not quite as accountable and not paying attention to details? That as an assessment big picture-wise is really disappointing. That was the No. 1 thing defensively. We had some guys that didn't play to their potential and it cost us. We were way too charitable. I mean non-competitive plays. It's one thing to give up a big play, it's another when no one's touching anybody because you busted. Sometimes when you give up a big play, a guy just makes a great play. I've got no problem with competitive plays. It's the non-competitive big plays that come from busts that have to change. In 2014, we were number one in total defense. We rarely made a mistake. The frustrating thing last year was a couple of our veteran guys. I thought we were kind of a little bit dysfunctionally good. It's not like we were bad. That's the major thing. We've got to be more consistent and not be a feast or famine group.
CR: You do have consistency in your quarterback, Deshaun Watson, though.
Swinney: He improved a ton last year. He's working on mastering his footwork, just really being disciplined in that area on some things where he can from time to time rely on his athleticism. We want him to cut down on the 13 interceptions he had last season. When you evaluate that, you have a tipped ball or guy drops it and the ball tips up, we don't grade him down on that. But these other things, "Hey, you made the wrong decision because the ball flight wasn't the way it needed to be. Your footwork wasn't where it needed to be. You were late." Cutting down on things like that. He makes so many decisions in a moment. It's run, pass, keep. He's got all these things going on. He did a phenomenal job for us. I'll give him an 85 in his decision-making in the run game. We want to put that to 90-plus. That's a couple more touchdowns. Maybe it makes us a little better in the red zone. It's the fundamentals of his position. We miss a throw in the national championship game because he just fundamentally didn't roll out like he needed to. It was going to be a 50-yard touchdown. It's just a play in the game and everyone thinks, "Oh, just go to the next play," but we sail the ball. There was no pressure. It was just a breakdown mechanically. He has to be fanatical about his mechanics like Peyton Manning. I want to see that come out of him this year.
CR: Your co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott mentioned that he would like for Deshaun to have a greater leadership presence for your team.
Swinney: I really want him on a daily basis to be the leader of the program. You can be loud with your actions. You can be quiet but loud. Just really asserting himself as the leader because these guys have such great respect for him. Nobody works harder than Deshaun. Nobody prepares more. He stays after practice every day. He works on the little things. He is focused and driven. He's graduating in December in three years.
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CR: Have you seen signs of that leadership?
Swinney: Absolutely, he'll stand up and say something in a meeting. It's his confidence in how he responds to things. Watching him at practice, he's not yelling but he might go over to one of the receivers and say, "Hey, what do you think of this?" Watching him work with Mike Williams (the record-setting wide receiver who missed nearly all of last season after fracturing a bone in his neck in Clemson's opener) ... Deshaun hasn't really played with Mike a whole lot. To see Deshaun take that ownership are the types of things I'm always kind of looking at. I haven't had to challenge him one time.
CR:What do you make of speculation that Deshaun could be the first pick of the NFL draft if he were to leave after this season?
Swinney: He's the franchise. He's the unicorn. The guy has no flaws. He's so talented, but he's a better person than he is a football player. He's so intelligent. He's brilliant. He just gets it and he wants it. He's hungry and humble for it.
CR:You continue to be vocal about your Christian faith. There's been some controversy about it. What do you think of that criticism?
Swinney: I never think about it. I learned a long time ago if you can't handle criticism, you better go work a job where nobody's ever going to notice you. That just comes with this territory. I spent 13 years at Alabama. You're going to learn to handle criticism. I spent seven years on a daily basis with [former Crimson Tide coach] Gene Stallings. I watched people who don't even know him personally criticize him. I spent five-and-a-half years here with [former coach] Tommy Bowden, and people didn't know him, but they personally criticized him. What I've learned over the years is you're never going to please everyone. You've just got to be who you are. I think people even if they don't agree with you, ultimately if you're consistent, they'll at least respect you for your values and what you believe in. I just think it's a sign of the times that we're in right now for whatever reason. I'm not better than anybody else. I don't judge other people. I just try to live my life according to my faith. It's not something I'm ashamed to talk about. People ask me personal questions all the time, and I give them answers. I want people to know who I am.
CR:It's seemingly had a profound impact on a lot of people.
Swinney: If I can have a positive influence on somebody's life, I think that's great. I really do. I think if my faith is inspiring to other people, that's pleasing to God. Because according to my faith, you're not supposed to hide it. You're supposed to live it. My job is to coach and win football games. I'm very thankful to my maker because I know how blessed I am just to have today and to have the opportunities that I have. He's given me a platform. Sometimes people ask me questions, and I'm in the moment. I'm just talking to somebody. I'm not thinking about how many people are watching this. There's times when I am thinking about when I go and speak, where I want to be very purposeful and passionate about my message. I mean what I say. There's a lot of people that don't like people who express their faith. I don't have a problem with people who don't have faith. I really don't. To each their own. At the end of the day, you've got to be who you are.
CR:Could you ever see yourself going into ministry?
Swinney: Maybe in some type of capacity. I like to speak. It's just hard with three kids, but I do feel it as an obligation. I try three or four times a year to use my background to inspire other people and to express my faith in maybe a way that is different than they've heard it before. I enjoy it, but I don't know that I would ever become a minister. My daily life is just trying to minister to people.
CR:What's it like to see just how far this program's come during your tenure?
Swinney: It's humbling to me to see God's plan for my life unraveling. One of the reasons that I got into coaching is it gave me clarity for my life. It brings clarity to me on what God was preparing me for. You go through adversities and things like that. I'm not overwhelmed. I'm just incredibly humbled. It's not been me. It's been how God's pulled it all together and how He's done it. He's given me the wisdom. That wisdom and vision comes from Him. Whether it's people I surround myself with to decisions that I make. The messages that He inspires me with. At the same time, this is exactly where I thought we'd be the day I got this job. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. Just like it says in Galatians 6:9, I've lived by that from day one. We're not going to grow weary from doing what's right and good. At the appropriate time, you'll reap a harvest of blessing. We're just now beginning our season of harvest, man. We're just scraping the surface. The best part about it is how we do it. It's been a lot of fun because I think there's this mentality and perception you can only win a certain way. We have proven that's not the case. We've done it and we've done it our way.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.