No. 2: What It Takes
Dabo Swinney and the road ahead
College football fans are conditioned to appreciate success on a generational level. Millions of them happily attend games at approximately 100 FBS schools knowing that they will almost certainly never witness their team win a national championship.
But what if, all of a sudden, after a few years of climbing college football’s social ladder, they found themselves in a position they had never considered? What if they reached the precipice of a championship — a national championship — and won?
“I got emotional. It was hard to breathe. I was a season ticket holder from the age of seven. This is actually impossible.”
That, alas, is not the memory of a college football fan. It is instead Gary Lineker, a former professional soccer player whose hometown team, Leicester City Football Club, beat perhaps the longest odds of any champion in the history of team sports. They did it just this past season, winning the English Premier League in May and making the few people who took the 5,000-to-1 bet very, very rich.
We won’t be seeing anything quite like that. The English soccer system involves relegation and promotion between leagues, not to mention dizzying financial chasms between clubs. Leicester’s triumph would be like Appalachian State jumping into the SEC and proceeding to go undefeated.
Still, if you survey the sporting world, English soccer is as close as you’ll come to college football’s ecosystem. It is a national game with regional allegiances, and a few very old powers hoarding the lion’s share of the hardware, the money and the talent. Those keen on improving their stature, or fearful of losing it, often make the same sort of hair-trigger decisions at the top — the kind that eventually will come to define them.
When Leicester City made a coaching change prior to their dream season, Lineker — the aforementioned hometown hero — took to Twitter to ask of the hire, “Really?”
The reaction wasn’t much different in 2008, when Clemson pulled the interim tag off of wide receivers coach turned interim boss Dabo Swinney.
“Swinney was part and parcel of a failed season, but somehow got a promotion out of the deal,” Pat Forde, then of ESPN, wrote of the hire. “Who knew that beating Duke and Virginia could lead to such ample rewards?”
Dabo, whose name had been known to the wider world for less than four months, was suddenly in charge of a program with moments of power in its past, but a steep road ahead to climb back to national prominence. Having fired a Bowden (Tommy), while drifting further behind longtime rival Florida State, the hire appeared bizarre and unambitious, though players and recruits reacted positively.
The same month, Auburn made a hire that was perhaps even more perplexing, “poaching” Gene Chizik from Iowa State, where he had gone 5–19.
Over the next 24 months, Chizik hired Guz Malzahn, lured Cam Newton, won a national title and was well on the way to losing his job (to Malzahn, who is now two-thirds of the way through a matching whirlwind himself), all while Dabo found his coordinators and groomed his first winning QB.
Most programs never muster an elite team.
Even among those that do come up with a real contender, most can’t sustain it. The flashes in the pan usually combine an experienced roster with an innovative coach or coordinator, and an otherworldly QB. And the program usually subsides to its usual simmer, or something close to it, fairly quickly once one of those ingredients is removed.
Oregon thrived with Marcus Mariota after Chip Kelly left, but has now had to re-think its defense and QB recruitment strategy. Florida — the only program to win its first national title in the past 20 years — brought a seemingly safe hire on board only to see Will Muschamp nearly sink the whole ship.
Even bona fide blue bloods struggle to maintain their success. USC hasn’t figured out life in the post-Pete Carroll world. Michigan is very publicly making its return to prominence with Jim Harbaugh. Charlie Strong has been desperately trying to cook a feast at Texas without the turkey — a halfway decent QB.
Urban Meyer, coincidentally or conveniently, has seen a grand total of four classes through from recruitment to graduation during his career as a head coach.
The machine that Nick Saban has created and meticulously maintained in Tuscaloosa is an extraordinary achievement — to the extent that teaching large teenagers to play a brutal game can be considered an achievement. And others attempting to follow his lead, or Meyer’s, or anyone else’s, seem to routinely run face-first into this painful reality.
Taking a program without that recent level of success and building it into a competitive powerhouse? The ambition of it is enormous and dumb and consuming. It can lead people to make decisions ranging from risky (hi, Ole Miss) to morally detestable (Baylor).
And yet that’s what we’re all here for. We’re not expecting to see a new, different type of football or the greatest team ever assembled. We’re here to see that good thing that happened once become the good thing that happens all the time. We’re here to watch the stadium expand.
We’re waiting for a statue to arrive.
Here’s the trick: We know what the powerhouse looks like, and we know the first few steps, the general direction.
Step one: You need a moment, something that says you’ve arrived, that convinces top recruits to make their way to your school, even though they haven’t before. Dabo is basically the human answer to that particular requirement. He is the most quotable person in the sport, and players seem to have believed long before anyone else. Clemson produced a 1st-team All-American on the defensive line in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Tajh Boyd was a very good college quarterback and Deshaun Watson has already proved himself to be a great one.
Step two: With that stockpile in tow, you need at least one system that turns a group of very good players into an elite unit of scorers or stoppers. And you probably need two or three years of relatively consistent talent with a relatively consistent group of coaches to get it tuned up just right. Claiming no personal genius on either side of the ball, Dabo hired Chad Morris, and then maintained stability in his offense when Morris left for a head coaching job. He installed Brent Venables on defense.
Step three: So, you’ve unearthed and developed a top QB, put NFL talent in the trenches and made inspired coordinator hires. The schedule looks favorable. Let’s do this. Look out for that bad-weather game, and for your rivals.
Most don’t get to this point. Dabo and Clemson made it, and then put on a clinic in the playoff semifinals, displaying how and where good recruiting makes its mark. Their lines eviscerated Oklahoma while Alabama did an even more extreme number on Michigan State.
Then it was right there. The lead in the National Championship game was there for the taking.
Alas, the receiving corps was thinned by attrition, by the loss of top wide receiver Mike Williams — so the undersized walk-on from Myrtle Beach, Hunter Renfrow, was going up against Alabama’s basically professionalized secondary.
And lo and behold, Hunter Renfrow was winning.
We know what happened next. Alabama pulled a 5-star tight end off the bench (just hadn’t seen the need to play him all year), created a matchup problem, and won. Again.
That’s how it usually ends. There are benefits, to be sure: Another year of even bigger, better recruits coming to town. The experience of last year’s pressure, of last year’s success, and of last year’s one failure.
Clemson, though, has something that most others that have reached this stage did not: They have another year of Watson. They have all the coordinators back. They have Dabo.
Now, all they have to do is repeat it, with a little something extra — a little extra oomph, or a couple more bodies, or something. We just don’t know what it takes to make this type of move in this era — the last coach to bring a program to this particular Fountain of Youth was Steve Spurrier — but it’s fairly clear that Dabo is doing something differently.
The Ol’ Ball Coach undoubtedly left the map on a golf course somewhere long, long ago. And that’s probably for the best. You’ll never get anywhere new following directions.