One Losing Season Helped Swinney Build Clemson Program
As hard as it might be to imagine, not everyone was thrilled to see Dabo Swinney hired permanently as the head coach at Clemson.
Swinney was named the interim coach midway through the 2008 season following Tommy Bowden's departure. While some fans were hoping a more established name would be brought on board full-time, Terry Don Phillips, who was the Clemson Athletic Director at the time, chose to go with the young and inexperienced Swinney.
In his first full season on the job, Clemson won their first Atlantic Division title and made their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers were bested by Georgia Tech in that game, but after one season Swinney had mostly silenced his critics.
However, the 2010 season would play out in an entirely different fashion. The Tigers finished just 6-7, including an embarrassing loss to South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to end the season.
It was the first time Clemson finished under .500 since the days of Tommy West roaming the sideline. Ironically, that 6-7 season would eventually become one of the building blocks of the program.
"We had a decent first year," Swinney said. "We actually played for our championship the first year and it was a good step. Then the next year we kind of hit that roadblock and had a disappointing season."
While the results may not have shown up in the won-loss column, all the little things necessary to build a successful program were taking place behind the scenes. Swinney knew they were on the right track.
"It was really that year that I knew I had total confirmation that we really were on the right path," Swinney said. "And that our culture was really taking root. Even though we didn't see the results that year. I was more convinced then than ever after that season."
Some of the fans could not see past the losing record though. They didn't care that the team lost five games by six points or less, with two coming in overtime, including one to eventual national champion Auburn.
After only two seasons, some of the more impatient fans were ready for a change. Swinney's message never wavered though. He knew things were headed in the right direction.
"I know we're disappointed right now," Swinney said at the time. "But man, what I saw this year, what I saw from the team, what I saw from how the guys stayed together, how they competed. Those are the things you build a program with."
Swinney has always insisted on his players that they not be defined by their failures. He tells them to use their failures to be better and to develop into better players.
It's a philosophy that he also abides by when it comes to building the Clemson program.
"You don't always get the results you want," Swinney said. "And you know, you can't just be defined by that. Because we get all caught up in this moment. And we're so blinded, we don't see the future. We don't see the potential, we don't see the good because we're blinded by the bad."
"I really believe a big part of our success is some of the failure that we've had to endure. A lot of people don't want to look at it that way. You know, let failure define them instead of develop them."
Despite turning in a losing season in 2010, Swinney knew that he and the rest of the staff had been hard at work at creating a winning culture. One that not only produces winners on the field but one that produces winners off the field as well.
Building that kind of program takes time though — more than two years. And Swinney insisted to his players they stay focused on the task at hand and not let themselves get caught up in any noise from the outside.
"I think you change something from the inside out," Swinney said. "And, you know, that was my message to the team. I said, you know, we can sit around and focus on that, or listen to all the people remind us. Or we can look inside. Because if we're going to change that, we have to change it from the inside-out and do the right things. And eventually, it will blossom on the outside and not be distracted by those things."
Ten years later, that season is still the only losing one in Swinney's career. In fact, the Tigers have won 10 or more games in every season since 2010, including national titles in 2016 and 2018.
After that 6-7 season ended, Swinney sat down and told everyone what was on the horizon. Almost as if he had a crystal ball. His message was simple. And every word came to fruition.
"But my message (then) was," Swinney said. "Listen, I know we didn't have the type of season we wanted. But I really believe that when 2020 gets here, we're going to look back and this is going to have been the best decade in Clemson football history. That's what I believe."