At one point, Jeff Scott thought the only way he’d ever leave Clemson was if the Dallas Cowboys called.
While that might be a stretch even for one of the most coveted coordinators in college football—and Scott was mostly kidding when he said this—his point has merit. Scott has been coaching at Clemson, his alma mater, for 11 years. He’s climbed the ladder from graduate assistant under Terry Bowden to co-offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney. In that time span he’s recruited and developed some of the best players in the country, from Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, to Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. He’s helped Clemson win five ACC titles in a row, make it to five straight College Football Playoffs, and win two national championships. The Tigers have a shot at a third on Monday when they face LSU in New Orleans.
It makes sense that Scott piqued interest from other programs over the years, joining colleagues Tony Elliott and Brent Venables as some of the hottest names on the market. And while various opportunities have crossed his desk, none of have lined up perfectly. One reason being that Swinney hadn’t given his blessing.
“Sometimes I could get frustrated by that,” Scott said at the Fiesta Bowl. “There was a struggle with me inside knowing that one day I was going to leave for a job, and if Coach Swinney wasn’t on board with that, that would be difficult because of my respect for him.”
Scott, 39, has maintained that he would never leave a great job at Clemson for just any head coaching job. It had to be right. Plenty of former assistant coaches have been in similar situations, seeking counsel and approval from their bosses before getting serious about a new gig. High-profile examples include Kirby Smart and Nick Saban, Tom Herman and Urban Meyer, Ed Orgeron and Pete Carroll, and Jeff Hafley and Ryan Day.
Last month, Scott finally found that elusive opportunity when he accepted the job at South Florida. While USF isn’t the Dallas Cowboys, or even the college football equivalent, it’s the right move for Scott. He’ll coach one of the top Group of Five programs in the country, he has experience recruiting the state and he’s from Florida. His father, Brad, graduated from USF and later became an assistant for Bobby Bowden at Florida State when Scott was young. He used to go with his dad to Seminoles practice and watch him work, which had an impact on his own career path.
At Clemson, staff turnover is so rare that when someone leaves, it’s a big deal. That’s unlike Alabama, where it’s normal for Nick Saban to lose assistants annually. Scott is the first coordinator to leave Clemson since Chad Morris bolted for SMU before the 2015 season. That departure helped elevate Scott and Elliott into the co-offensive coordinator roles.
It’s clear though that when Swinney likes an opportunity, he goes all in. When Scott accepted the offer from USF, Swinney took out his rolodex to try and build up his staff. Scott hasn’t finished making hires, as he prepared first for Ohio State in the playoff semifinal and now for LSU in the title game. But so far there are a few new USF coaches with Clemson ties. Da’Quan Bowers, who played defensive end at Clemson and has been assisting the Tigers’ defensive line, was named Bulls’ defensive line coach; Xavier Dye, who played for and later served as a graduate assistant for Scott at Clemson, will coach wide receivers; Trumain Carroll, who worked for former Clemson assistant Chad Morris at SMU and Arkansas, will be the strength coach; and Daniel Da Prato, who also worked for Morris at Arkansas, will be the special teams coordinator.
Swinney was so excited for Scott that he basically accepted the job on his behalf. USF athletic director Michael Kelly had been in touch with Swinney regarding Scott the week before the Tigers played in the ACC championship game. Swinney and Kelly’s relationship dates back to the athletic director’s days working at the ACC and the playoff. On Dec. 2, the Monday before the game, Swinney called Scott at 11:30 p.m. to give him the update. “I was trying to figure out which one of my players was in trouble,” Scott joked. Swinney told Scott about the gig, about Kelly and why he liked this spot for him. “This is one of those jobs you want,” Swinney told Scott.
“When I hung up, to be honest, I knew that I was going [to USF],” Scott said.
Scott spoke with Kelly on the phone that Thursday and was also going to meet his future boss for an in-person interview at 3 p.m. Sunday, the day after the conference title game. But after an 11:45 a.m. Clemson team meeting on Sunday, Swinney told players that Scott was leaving for South Florida.
“I felt like it was a little bit like an arranged marriage,” Scott said, chuckling. “That’s how Coach Swinney works. It just felt like both sides felt like it was going to be right.”
Scott always wanted to be a head coach but was nervous about how the transition would be leaving Clemson. While he’s never told Swinney how much he values his endorsement, it’s always been important to him. After all, Swinney was the one who promoted Scott from graduate assistant to recruiting coordinator to wide receivers coach to co-offensive coordinator.
“He’s one of my top mentors in my entire life,” Scott says. “There was no way I’d be able to leave Clemson and take a job if he was not on board supporting that.”