How Dabo Swinney Went from Bad Hire to Hot Seat to National Championship Game

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How Dabo Swinney Went from Bad Hire to Hot Seat to National Championship Game
Joe Skipper/Associated Press

In football, it has become a race: Who can fire coaches fastest and most often? The NFL can't even wait till Black Monday anymore. At the college level, coaches are fired at just about every stage of the season. Illinois' didn't make it to the first game.     

Here's the thing: Constantly jerking the rug out from under everyone is no way to build anything.

It's time for the sport's leaders to take a breath, stop overreacting to boosters or the Twitter mob for a minute and look over to the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night.

Clemson under Dabo Swinney
Year W-L Bowl
2015 14-0 Orange Bowl-W
2014 10-3 Russell Athletic Bowl-W
2013 11-2 Orange Bowl-W
2012 11-2 Chick-fil-A Bowl-W
2011 10-4 Orange Bowl-L
2010 6-7 Meineke Car Care Bowl-L
2009 9-5 Music City Bowl-W
2008 4-3* Gator Bowl-L

* Swinney replaced Tommy Bowden midseason. Clemson went 7-6 overall. Source: sports-reference.com.

It's Alabama vs. Clemson. That's Nick Saban vs. Dabo Swinney. So it's a dynasty coach vs. a newcomer trying to climb. And one thing is undeniable: Under the way the sport is run now, there is no way the climber, Swinney, should have lasted long enough to reach this height.

No. Way.

Swinney should have been gone in 2010, after a 6-7 season that ended with a loss to South Florida in a no-name bowl game. Former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips, who hired Swinney in 2008, said he almost was.

"I was lucky to have a great president [Jim Barker]," Phillips said. "He was under pressure—from the trustees all the way up—to fire Dabo in 2010. There would have been a lot of presidents to acquiesce to public sentiment."

I wonder how many Clemson fans, if they are being honest, are looking back and trying to forget what they felt about Swinney at the time.

The truth is, he was a bad hire in the first place. Sure, it doesn't look that way now, but in 2008? He had never been a head coach. He had never been a coordinator. He was Tommy Bowden's guy, and Bowden had been fired midseason. To give Swinney that big-time job after just a few games as an interim coach was absurd.

Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press

"Obviously, people felt like it was the wrong decision to hire him," Phillips said. "Before I hired him, I'd talked with several head coaches and coordinators who all were, on paper, much stronger than Dabo. I believed it was worth the risk. But it was a hire where, if it didn't work out, we both would have been out the door at the same time.

"There was significant—and I might be understating that—pressure about both of us."

That was when Swinney was hired. Two years later, when Clemson had a losing record...well, do you think he could have survived today?

You don't let a coach learn on the job at a big-time program. That's what Mid-American Conference schools are for, what major college teams without big TV contracts are for—for coaches to make mistakes, and learn from them, without the world watching.

Then they're ready for a place like Clemson.

But Phillips was sold on Swinney and knew he just needed time to grow into the job. What sold him was watching Swinney as an assistant. Phillips said that he went to practices regularly but usually just watched defense. One day, there was some yelling going on with the offense, and he found Swinney.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"He was making a point," Phillips said, laughing. "He was tough, but at the same time those kids knew he supported them. I started migrating over to watch them."

Phillips noticed when he went through the football offices that players—and not just receivers—were always in Swinney's office hanging out with him. Barker also was impressed on a personal level after meeting Swinney at an alumni function in Alabama and running into him several times with his family at Clemson getting ice cream.

Still, Phillips said, he searched the country before giving Swinney the job permanently after the 2008 regular season.

"Some people hire to win the initial press conference," Phillips said. "That wears thin. At the end of the day, you see someone you believe has very strong qualities—not only from a coaching perspective but from a personal perspective. Those are intangibles you just can't explain."

Phillips told Barker that Swinney would be a top head coach someday. Why not at Clemson?

But that didn't sell the fans, and neither did a 15-12 record in his first two full seasons. And Swinney clearly felt that pressure. In November 2010, sitting on a 4-4 record and 2-3 in the ACC, he said, according to 247Sports' Paul Strelow:

Ninety-five percent of Clemson fans are some of the best people you'd ever meet in the world. Just great people. Then there are 5 percent of them who, Lord have mercy, it's just crazy. … There are certainly people who expect the team to show up every week, lay it on the line, play with passion, play with toughness, win every game, and as soon as something doesn't go the way they want, they turn and run and quit and cry and fire the coach and fire this guy and fire this player and all that stuff.

Phillips said that social media only intensifies the pressure, giving more people a voice. But he credited Barker with deciding that Swinney was still right for the team and the school.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Barker acknowledged that he might have had to talk some big-dollar boosters into the idea of keeping Swinney but said the boosters don't usually demand change—rather just a chance to be heard.

Clemson did eventually fire both coordinators, bringing in Chad Morris from Tulsa in 2011 to run a wide-open offense and Brent Venables from Oklahoma in 2012 on defense. But Swinney survived the Black Mondays of 2010.

"The president gave us a chance to turn this thing around," said Phillips, who retired in 2012. "If it hadn't been for him, Dabo wouldn't be here now."

And now, here Swinney is, a few days away from giving Clemson a whole different type of Monday.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him @gregcouch.

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