Dabo Swinney has joined the elite ranks of college football coaches, leading his Clemson Tigers to two national championships in the past three seasons. Swinney spoke at ACC media days on Wednesday. Here’s everything the coach said.
You can see the full transcript from John Simpson, Tanner Muse, and coach Swinney here.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Coach Swinney.
Q: You’ve been in Charlotte a lot lately. How important is Charlotte for you guys? How important is Charlotte for the ACC?
DABO SWINNEY: Charlotte has been great, really has. This is a wonderful city, has a great infrastructure. Actually came up here for the All-Star basketball game this year. That was pretty cool.
It’s a great venue that we’re blessed to play in here in Charlotte. It’s one of our goals every year, is to try to get here. Love everything about this city.
Q: Seems like every team today has been asked how they might be able to close the distance with Clemson. Knowing you still have that giant target on your back, how important is it for you to keep hammering those things that have made you successful to this point?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, it’s kind of business as usual for us, to be honest with you. It’s just what we do every year. We’ve had eight 10-plus winning seasons in a row, been very consistent. The reason for that is we start over. You heard these guys talk about it. Truly, we don’t carry everything over. It’s a new team, there’s new challenges. You got to redevelop the leadership, reinstall the core values.
I start my meetings tomorrow with the coaches. We have five days. Even though we’ve all been together for a long time, when we meet tomorrow, it’s as if we just showed up and met each other for the first time. We’re going to install the program, what we do, how we do it, why we do it that way.
Then we just go execute the plan. That’s just the mindset that’s woven into the culture. It’s always about what’s next. You got to show up every year with something to prove.
That sense of urgency, we create that all the time. It’s in our off-season, our strength and conditioning program, the way we practice, the way we meet and message with our team.
For us, that’s what we do. Then you got to continue to recruit the right people, develop your players. We’ve been able to consistently do that.
Q: Over the last several years you guys I think are 34-2 against ACC foes. You beat them by an average of 22 points. Seems like most teams you’re rolling over. The last couple of years there’s one team that has given you fits, and that’s Syracuse. Why have those guys been able to play with you? Do you view them as your biggest obstacle in your path of where you want to go?
DABO SWINNEY: We’ve had a lot of teams give us fits. We’ve had some good wins and some games we’ve been able to get control of. I mean, shoot, we had three games with Louisville go down to the last play. Epic battles with NC State. I know Florida State this year was a different type of game, as they’re transitioning. Unbelievable battles with Florida State, on and on and on.
Syracuse, Dino has just done an unbelievable job. It’s a great place. It starts with him. I mean, he’s put a good staff together. They have a good philosophy in place. They’re well-coached. They recruit well. They develop well. You can tell that it’s a relationship-driven program. He does a great job in connecting with his players. They play hard. They play hard.
He’s created the belief in his team that they can win, regardless of who they play. That’s what it takes. He’s done an awesome job of instilling that mindset into their team. He’s had good players, some really good players.
So I don’t see them going away any time soon.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) July 17, 2019
Q: Last season I asked you about faith. There’s obviously something else with this team than just simple recruiting and wins and losses. What can you say about the culture that you have that’s developed at Clemson and the fact this team not only wins games but does it professionally in a humble way? There’s obviously pillars to the foundation.
DABO SWINNEY: Well, that starts with the process that we go through tomorrow starting with our staff, making sure that everybody’s on the same page. Again, we’ll have five days from about 8:30 to 5:00, no phones, we don’t leave. When we walk out of there, we’re ready for the year.
It starts with the people involved. I’ve got I think 19 former players on my staff in different roles. It’s very connected. It’s very relationship-driven. I got relationships with — I mean, you look at my staff. Woody McCorvey was my coach. Lemanski Hall, Thad Turnipseed, Mickey Conn, I played with them. Danny, I coached with him. He was one of my coaches when I was playing. Tony, I coached Jeff, Tony was a GA for me. It just kind of keeps going on and on and on.
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I work with a group of people that I love. We have great relationships. So Clemson is a special place, there’s a quality of life and a simplicity of life in Clemson that’s really special, that’s just kind of a natural resource that you really don’t understand until you have lived it.
I think that’s part of it. When this is your profession, I think our staff, especially the staff that have been other places, they realize how unique it is to be able to live in a place like Clemson, then had this unbelievable stage to do what you love to do on the weekends.
Then they all leave (smiling).
It’s just an awesome place, a bunch of good people. We have a great administration. There’s a great chain of command, an alignment with our board and our president and our AD. We’re just all on the same page. And we like each other.
We’ve built our culture through loving our players, graduating our players, equipping them with the tools they need to go be successful in life, making sure they have a good experience, and that they win, but in that order.
We’ve kept the main thing the main thing. We haven’t changed anything since 2009 when I got the job. It’s the same thing. Same deal. We stayed the course. We stayed committed to the vision of the program even when sometimes it didn’t make sense to other people or other people wanted us to do this, do that. We stayed the course.
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) July 17, 2019
I think God has blessed us with an amazing journey, great group of people, group of young men that have chosen to come in and buy in and believe. I can be the greatest coach in the world, but if the players don’t buy in, don’t believe, it’s not going to work.
We’ve had a bunch of selfless players and staff that have bought into the philosophy of the program, how we do things. It’s been a great journey. But we’re just getting going. We’re just getting going. It’s been a fun time. I can’t believe I’ve had 10 years already under my belt. My 11th full-time year. Going to be my 17th at Clemson.
Love what I do, who I do it with, where I do it. I’m excited about this challenge and this journey and the story that this team it’s going to write as they go through the season.
Q: This year you will play 10 out of your 12 regular-season games in the Carolinas. Do you look at that as an advantage or a luxury considering how far you’ve had to travel for games before?
DABO SWINNEY: Wow, I didn’t know that. Didn’t even think about that.
Obviously I don’t look at that as a luxury (laughter). Haven’t even thought about it. But that’s great.
I think we had one stretch, I think we went, like, 17 out of 18 road games or something where they were night games. I mean, it was like crazy. You’re getting home at 6 a.m. We won most of them.
But it’s nice. That’s nice to know that when you do go on those road games, and you don’t ever know when you’re going to play, but it is nice to know it’s a short trip whenever the game is over. It’s not like you’re having to go a long way.
But, no, that’s pretty cool. Be great for our parents. Most of our parents, families and fans, easy for them to get to the games also.
Q: As Todd Bates enters year three with Clemson, what does he mean to you and your program?
DABO SWINNEY: Todd has done an awesome job, just really proud of him. I would equate Todd replacing Dan Brooks to these young D-linemen trying to replace Christian and Dexter and Clelin and Austin and Huggy, that group. Kind of the same thing.
I’m really proud of him. He’s a guy that I kind of had my eye on for a while. Just a matter of whenever that time came. Dan decided to retire. This is one of the greatest coaches of all time, Dan Brooks. When he decided to retire, after the championship in ’16, I was able to go hire Todd. He was at Jacksonville State. He has done a phenomenal job in connecting with our players. Nobody works harder at trying to be a great coach and a student of the game, learning. He’s been great with Brent. Brent has really enjoyed him.
He’s an unbelievable recruiter. He’s passionate about what he does. Got a wonderful family. He has twins getting ready to be born literally any minute. Just really proud of him.
It was a great decision to bring him to Clemson and we’re thankful he’s still here.
Q: A lot has been made about your leadership. Who are some of the leaders that you admire, that you’ve learned from, not necessarily in the football world, maybe a book you’ve read?
DABO SWINNEY: Oh, man. A lot of my teachers growing up. My coaches. I learn from everyone. You don’t have to have a Twitter follower account for me to think you’re a great leader or something. I think everybody has a chance to be a great leader. You have an opportunity to learn from everyone as you go through life.
Man, some of my coaches that I’ve had all the way back to Coach Tohill back in high school. I grew up in one town. I had relationships with my teachers, small town, kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school. I’m so thankful for all the teachers that shaped me, disciplined me, encouraged me, equipped me with an education, helped stoke that belief.
Same thing with my coaches. Coach Stallings has been one of great mentors in my life. A lot of great leaders I never met. I grew up, Bear Bryant was one of my heroes growing up. I loved Coach Bryant. Never got to meet him. He was one that I followed and read about and things like that.
Bobby Bowden is I think a man that I have learned a lot about, got to know obviously with my relationship with Tommy. Just so many people. So many people I’ve never met, then some people I’ve than fortunate to meet.
A guy like Tony Dungy. I read his books, read his daily devotional. I’ve had an opportunity to visit with him. He’s spoken to the team. I’ve really met some neat people along my journey that have been great leaders for me.
But I study anybody and everybody. I think we can learn. It’s a constant process, never ends. I learn from my kids. I learn from my players. I learn from the staff. So it’s a never ending process for me.
Woody McCorvey, who was my position coach, been one of the great mentors in my life, one of the wisest men I know. Lots of them. My wife. Don’t leave her out (smiling). Known her since the first grade. She’s been a great leader in my life, for sure.
Q: The other room just now you were talking about that recruiting cycle when you got K’Von and Isaiah late in the process. Is that a situation you could see yourself using the transfer portal, if there had been one back then?
DABO SWINNEY: Probably not. To me, I mean, like I say, we haven’t recruited a transfer portal. Not anything wrong with that, it just hasn’t been what we needed to do. Hope we don’t have to do that.
I think at that time those guys were seniors. I still prefer to recruit the high school kid, do a good job of evaluating and develop. That’s just my mindset. That’s my philosophy.
There may come a day where maybe we have some guys leave that you didn’t know, all of a sudden you get some guys injured, something like that. Maybe it’s later in the process, maybe spring or summer, something like that, where you might have a specific need.
I don’t know. Figure that out as I go. It’s not really where we are right now.
Q: There were an eye-popping 18 punts returned for touchdowns last year. Clemson ranks among the ACC’s elite in net punting, even though you don’t punt that often. In this ACC, how important is it to pay attention to things like punt coverage, kicking away from the dangerous return man?
DABO SWINNEY: I mean, special teams are critical. People talk about defense wins championships. I always laugh at that. Defense don’t win championships. Teams win championships. It takes a team to win a championship, not an offense, not a defense, not special teams.
But special teams are a critical part of that team because it’s field position, it’s the hidden yardage. I mean, you can go back to our first national championship game when we got beat. We gave up doggone kick return to Drake I think was his name, Kenyan Drake, great player, one play, one play. They had the on-side kick in that game. That’s not why they scored, but they got great field position, the middle of the field.
Special teams is critical. I mean, it impacts the game. So it’s something, I mean, we work very hard on, all aspects of it. We’ve had our share of success and we’ve had our share of bad plays, too. But just like your offense and your defense, it’s critical. Oftentimes can be the difference, all things being even.
THE MODERATOR: Clemson, thank you. Good luck.
DABO SWINNEY: Thank you. Appreciate it.