Clemson Football: Why Dabo Swinney's Selflessness Has Stabilized Tigers' Staff

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Clemson Football: Why Dabo Swinney's Selflessness Has Stabilized Tigers' Staff
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CLEMSON, S.C. – When Dabo Swinney met with media last week to discuss Clemson’s 2014 recruiting class, he made a point of crediting his entire coaching staff, from offensive coordinator Chad Morris and recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott to graduate assistants and recruiting assistants.

That’s Swinney’s style. If something goes wrong with the Tigers’ program, it is his fault, his responsibility to bear.

If good things happen? Well, the credit is spread far and wide, to everyone who had a part except Swinney himself.

That style has worked well on the field. Over the last three years, the Tigers are 32-8. 2012 and 2013 marked the first back-to-back 11-win seasons in program history, and this is the program’s first stretch of three consecutive 10-win seasons since 1987-90. In 2011, Clemson won its first ACC title since 1991, and last month won its first-ever BCS game, taking a 40-35 Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.

The Tigers own wins over top-10 teams in each of their last two bowl games, beating then-No. 7 LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl and the No. 6 Buckeyes in Miami.

In addition, they finished 2012 and 2013 in the top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll, the first time that has happened since 1987-88.

How has Swinney done it? With a stable, well-compensated staff, one that was built in part by his unselfish nature.

Change is a way of life in college football, and successful programs’ staffs are targets for less-successful programs trying to climb the college-football mountain.

Over the last two years, Swinney and Clemson have bucked that culture. The only on-field assistant to leave in that period was defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison, who departed for Auburn in December 2012.

RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press
Chad Morris and Dabo Swinney are a formidable coaching pair.

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has been the subject of multiple rumors regarding his status (he interviewed with Texas Tech and was connected to the Auburn and N.C. State openings last year and the Wake Forest and Vanderbilt openings this winter), but he’ll return for his fourth season guiding the hurry-up, no-huddle offense in 2014.

In fact, barring a very unexpected change, the Tigers’ entire staff will return intact for 2014.

Swinney likes to promote a “family” atmosphere around his program, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that his assistants are exceedingly well-compensated for their efforts.

According to a USA Today study of NCAA assistant salaries, Clemson’s assistants made $4.215 million in 2013. That was third nationally among FBS programs behind only LSU ($4.565 million) and Alabama ($4.462 million).

RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press
Chad Morris is college football's highest-paid assistant coach.

Morris ($1.3 million) was the highest-paid assistant in college football in 2013, and defensive coordinator Brent Venables ($800,000) was tied with Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson for seventh.

Swinney’s generosity toward his assistants, along with the Clemson administration’s financial commitment, has fueled that large assistant salary pool.

When Swinney was hired as the full-time head coach in 2008, he signed an incentive-laden deal with an $800,000 annual salary. Clemson’s 2009 Atlantic Division title kicked in a clause that raised his salary to the average of the ACC’s top nine coaches, $1.75 million annually.

The 2011 ACC title kicked in another clause that boosted his salary to the average of the ACC’s top seven coaches, or around $2.2 million. However, Swinney exercised another clause in his contract which allowed him to distribute part of the raise ($265,000) to nine assistants. Clemson kicked in another $185,000, bringing the total to $450,000.

In January, Swinney got another raise. He agreed with Clemson on a new eight-year deal totaling $27 million; the Charleston Post and Courier reported that if Swinney is fired anytime in the first three years of the deal, it is fully guaranteed.

He is scheduled to make $3.15 million in 2014, $3.3 million in 2015 and $3.45 million annually over the final six years of the contract.

College Football's Highest-Paid Assistants in 2013
Coach School Position Salary
Chad Morris Clemson Offensive coordinator $1.3 million
Kirby Smart Alabama Defensive coordinator $1.15 million
John Chavis LSU Defensive coordinator $1.1 million
Greg Mattison Michigan Defensive coordinator $851,000
Todd Grantham Georgia Defensive coordinator $850,000
Justin Wilcox Washington Defensive coordinator $800,004
Brent Venables Clemson Defensive coordinator $800,000
Ellis Johnson Auburn Defensive coordinator $800,000

USA Today Sports

The contract will average $3.39 million annually, but it looks like a bargain compared to contracts signed by a pair of peers.

In December, first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn signed a six-year deal that will pay him $3.85 million in 2014 with an annual $250,000 yearly raise built into the deal, according to AL.com. He’d make $5.1 million by the contract’s end in 2019.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher signed a five-year deal which will pay him an average of $4.015 million annually. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida State’s staff will also receive a $500,000 cumulative raise, but even with that increase, it will still make only about $3.3 million, or around $1 million less than Clemson’s staff received this year.

And more raises could be coming for the Tigers’ staff: Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich told the Post and Courier in December that he’d explore raises following the Orange Bowl.

Swinney could have commanded a deal similar to that of Malzahn and Fisher, but by taking less, he’ll have more to spread to his assistants.

He knows that a successful staff with full pockets is a happy staff.

Clemson’s staff won’t stay intact forever (Morris will be one of the hottest head coach prospects again in 2014), but by spreading the wealth and serving as the staff’s CEO, Swinney has found a formula for sustainable success.

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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