The Clemson coaching staff sat in a meeting room at 10:30 on the morning of Oct. 14, still in shock over head coach Tommy Bowden's ouster. The assistants had learned minutes earlier that Bowden had resigned under pressure. Their thoughts had turned to their own employment when athletic director Terry Don Phillips pointed at receivers coach Dabo Swinney.
"Dabo, you're the head coach," Swinney remembered Phillips saying. "In five minutes, meet me in my office."
In those five minutes, Swinney had to conjure a thumbnail sketch of how he might fill out his staff. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence also had been dismissed, leaving Swinney two staff openings with a game against Georgia Tech only five days away. So Swinney decided to give two graduate assistants the opportunity of a lifetime.
Lost in the stories about millionaire head coaches are the graduate assistants, the coaching hopefuls who spend 16-hour days breaking down film, running the scout teams and acting as quasi-peer counselors for players while the head guy grabs the glory. The GAs make less than a burger-flipper, and they must take graduate-level classes while working slave hours for slave wages. Jeff Scott and Mike Dooley each held such a job until Swinney invited each into his office that day. Each man emerged from the office with something their fellow GAs would sacrifice a limb for - a six-game stint as a full-time, full-pay position coach.
"When you decide to make a run at being a college coach, it takes a tremendous amount of commitment," said, Clemson offensive line coach Brad Scott, who also is Jeff's father and the former head coach at South Carolina. "There is a tremendous financial hardship as well. There also is a lot of luck involved. There are a lot of good GAs out there who never get the opportunity to be a major Division I coach."
Jeff Scott, the defensive GA-turned-receivers coach, and Dooley, the offensive GA-turned-tight ends coach, don't know if they'll be employed this time next week. Phillips has interviewed several potential head coaches, and while Swinney remains a candidate, he's no lock for the job.
"Human nature makes you want to look around and see what's happening [with the coaching search]," said Scott, a 27-year-old former Clemson receiver. "But the best thing you can do in this situation is concentrate on what you can control."
Scott and Dooley had zero control after Swinney went into the meeting with Phillips. They knew that, eventually, Swinney would call them and announce their fate. Scott, the head coach at Blythewood (S.C.) High in 2006 and an assistant at Football Championship Subdivision school Presbyterian College in 2007, called his wife, Sara, a middle school special education teacher. He told her he might be unemployed in a few hours. Scott remained in the dark even after his father met with Swinney and learned the younger Scott would not only be retained but promoted. After Jeff Scott finally did meet with Swinney, "he came down with a big smile on his face," Brad Scott said. Jeff's first call was to Sara. "I told her I had slightly better news," he said.
Dooley crossed his fingers as he walked into Swinney's office. "I was nervous as all get-out," he said. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't know if I was going to be interviewing. I didn't know if he was going to let me go. I just didn't know. I went in there, and he said, 'Look, here's what I'm going to do. If you're all in, let's go get this thing done.' I was all in."
Scott stayed until 2 the next morning teaching himself the offense. Dooley, a 33-year-old, single former high school from a blue-collar family in Toccoa, Ga., rarely has left the office since his promotion. "There have been a lot of sleepless nights," he said. "I've got my couch over here with my pillow and blanket."
Since Swinney took over, the Tigers are 3-2 with losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State and wins against Boston College, Duke and Virginia. If they beat rival South Carolina on Saturday, they'll be a lock for a bowl game at 7-5. Swinney said he gradually weaned himself away from supervising the former GAs at practice every day. He said he trusts each completely with his position group.
"I'm not surprised at all. I'm happy they were here," Swinney said. "I'm actually very fortunate that we had guys that were so qualified. ... They were way overqualified to be GAs, to be honest with you."
Scott quickly dropped his classes. He already holds one master's degree, and he only took the classes because the job required it. Dooley, meanwhile, has kept up with his classes as he pursues a master's in Youth Leadership Development. Dooley also has had to keep up with some of his old GA duties on top of his new ones, which also include on-the-road recruiting. "I've got a lot on my plate," Dooley said. But, Dooley said, the extra pay - GAs typically make below minimum wage if their pay is calculated hourly - has helped him recoup some of the savings he lost when he decided to chase the dream of becoming a big-time college coach.
"I think I'm going to live like a poor GA for a while until I save some money," he said. "I took a pay cut to come here, so I need to build some funds up."
Jeff Scott already knew about the harsh realities of the coaching world after watching his father rise from GA to offensive coordinator at Florida State and then to head coach at South Carolina. The younger Scott also weathered the fallout from his father's firing in 1998. But, Brad Scott said, Jeff didn't learn his lesson. The elder Scott often jokes about the difference between Jeff and brother John, who is in medical school at Vanderbilt. "John listened," Brad said. "Jeff didn't."
Jeff may succeed in spite of his father's warnings about the family business. So, too, might Dooley. Even if the men don't get retained at Clemson, they'll have a resume line that represents six games of tangible proof that they can hold their own at the Division I-A level. That thought made Dooley remember the day he picked up an NFL assistant from the airport. The coach said he felt lucky because he had one of only 32 jobs like his in the world. "I guess I'm one of only 120 major college tight ends coaches," Dooley said with a laugh.
Dooley and Scott have the proper attitude, said Swinney, a former Alabama GA who got his first shot as a position coach after an end-of-season staff shakeup.
"Just enjoy the moment. Just like for me," Swinney said. "This is an opportunity for me to smell the roses for me, so to speak, and it's the same thing for them. Who knows what's going to happen in a couple weeks - for me or for them. So have fun."