By Andy Staples
May 20, 2009

Dabo Swinney would make a lousy Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras client. Those superagents would scoff at the five-year deal Swinney signed after Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips removed Swinney's interim tag and put him in charge of the football program.

Swinney's deal guarantees him $800,000 in this first year, about $200,000 more than the Tigers will pay in a buyout installment to Tommy Bowden, the coach whose departure last October thrust Swinney, then the team's receivers coach, onto the bridge of the U.S.S. Howard's Rock. Miami coach Randy Shannon's and Boston College coach Frank Spaziani's contracts aren't public record, so it's impossible to be sure, but Swinney probably clocks in at No. 12 among ACC coaches in salary. His guarantee is $1 million less than Bowden's was and less than half what hated rival South Carolina will pay coach Steve Spurrier.

But if Swinney, a former Alabama walk-on receiver, wins the ACC Atlantic Division, his pay will rise to equal the median salary of the other 11 ACC coaches. If he wins the ACC title, his pay will rise to match the average of the league's seven highest paid coaches. The discrepancy in guaranteed dollars doesn't seem to bother Swinney, though. "I was a walk-on football player," he said. "I'm kind of a walk-on coach. If I do a good job, I'll get rewarded."

What a novel concept. Offer a coach a (relatively) reasonable salary and give him an incentive to excel. Even better, Phillips didn't have to ram the contract down Swinney's throat, because Swinney probably would have coached for free as long as Clemson gave him the money to hire a quality staff.

That's why Swinney, 39, probably will remain a head coach for a long time. He has a plan. On the day Clemson forced Bowden out and Phillips tapped a stunned Swinney to serve as interim coach, Swinney laid out several changes he'd like to make, from instilling a new offensive philosophy to adding a "Tiger Walk" through the parking lot to the hill at Tiger Stadium on game day. Swinney, who had never even served as a coordinator, clearly had drawn a blueprint for how he would run his own program.

Hiring a staff that would allow Swinney to succeed was paramount in that plan. "I think he's done a nice job of putting it together," Phillips said. "It's one of those things where you can take more guaranteed up front, but if you don't have the staff and support around you, that's going to be a short life."

And so Swinney started with the support. Not long after Phillips removed the interim tag, Swinney hired former Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey as Clemson's director of football operations. McCorvey, Swinney's position coach at Alabama, also had served at Clemson under Danny Ford and at Tennessee under Phillip Fulmer. McCorvey had agreed to become South Carolina's receivers coach, but he backed out of the deal when his former pupil called.

Under Swinney, McCorvey will fill a role similar to the one Gerald Jack served for former Alabama coach Gene Stallings. Swinney calls it "Associate AD-Football." While the 58-year-old McCorvey won't coach on the field, he'll make sure Swinney has everything he needs to succeed. He'll also serve as a sounding board, a coach for the coach. "He's somebody I know and trust," Swinney said. "He's not just somebody that was there that I'm working with. This is a person I would trust with my children. I know he's got my back."

Swinney also raided the staff at his alma mater, brining in Dillon, S.C., native Kevin Steele as his defensive coordinator. Last year, Steele's Alabama unit finished third in the nation in total defense (263.5 yards) and seventh in scoring defense (14.3 points). Steele won't have nose tackle Terrence Cody or linebacker Rolando McClain at his disposal, but he will have sophomore defensive end DaQuan Bowers, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2008. Playing in Vic Koenning's read-and-react scheme as a freshman, Bowers managed only one sack, but that likely will change thanks to Steele's attacking style.

Later, Swinney hired Dan Brooks to coach the defensive line. Brooks, who molded Leonard Little, Shaun Ellis, John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth at Tennessee, should mesh well with Steele. "When you hire an assistant coach, they've got to align with you and fit your personality," Swinney said. "They also have to fit your school, your fan base, recruiting territories, all those things. Otherwise, you're trying to push a square peg in a round hole. If Clemson is a round hole, Dan Brooks is a round peg. He's a perfect fit." Plus, when the coaching staff swaps recruiting fish stories, Brooks can brag about landing the biggest lunker. Swinney, an ace recruiter himself, could spin the tale about how he swiped tailback C.J. Spiller of Lake Butler, Fla., from under Florida and Florida State's noses, but Brooks still has him beat. While serving on Galen Hall's staff at Florida, Brooks led the charge to sign a tailback from Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., named Emmitt Smith.

The defensive staff Swinney has carefully assembled will face the ultimate test early this season. Five days after the Tigers open against Middle Tennessee State, they'll travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech and coach Paul Johnson's option offense in a Thursday night game on ESPN. Preparing for the option in a typical game week is tough enough; this time, the Tigers will have only about two practices to install a plan to beat it. Thing will be interesting on the offensive side, too, as Swinney said it may take a few games before he can choose between redshirt freshman Kyle Parker and sophomore Willy Korn at quarterback.

But if Swinney, who went 4-3 as Clemson's interim coach, and his staff can harness the talent in the program, they can compete for Clemson's first conference title since 1991. In terms of resources, fan support and facilities, Clemson is an SEC program trapped in the ACC. The Tigers have recruited well enough to be an elite team in either conference, but, for whatever reason, that hasn't translated on the field. Swinney will have to change that.

If he does, he won't be the lowest paid coach in the ACC for long. "As he becomes successful," Phillips said, "the other part takes care of itself."

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