Clemson fans in Birmingham, Ala., showed up to an alumni event to hear from university president Jim Barker on a spring evening in 2003. Barker, now retired as president and a professor in the university’s school of architecture, had flown in with his wife, Marcia, to give the type of update on Clemson that is common for administrators.
But when a 33-year-old man approached Barker at the pre-event reception to introduce himself, the whole tone of the evening changed.
‘“Hi. I’m Dabo Swinney, and I’ve just been hired by Tommy Bowden to be the wide receivers coach,’” Barker recalled Swinney, the former Alabama player/assistant and commercial real estate agent, telling him. “‘I’m so excited to get back into coaching.’”
Barker welcomed Swinney to Clemson, even though they were in Alabama, and made a mental note about the stranger’s energy. He found Swinney to be authentically positive and energetic. When the organizers of the event got word that Bowden’s newest assistant coach was present, they asked Swinney to say a few words.
“He spoke before I spoke,” Barker said. “I remember (thinking), ‘I don’t want to follow this guy because it was so good, it was so genuine. It was so — unusual.”
About 18 years after that night, college football has a power imbalance. It has become nearly impossible for programs to crack the upper echelon and stay there. With one exception: Clemson, led by its former receivers coach, has become one of the teams that win over and over again.
Swinney has been able to do what his peers haven’t. The former Alabama walk-on, who was never a coordinator, has gone from an under-the-radar receivers coach to the mastermind behind Clemson’s ascent to blue-blood status. Clemson has established a seemingly permanent seat at the table with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the sport, making six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances while winning two national championships.
How has Clemson done it?
There’s not one singular reason for the Tigers’ success, but rather a mix of factors that include a vision Swinney laid out years ago, financial investment in facilities, alignment among Clemson’s administration, staff retention, recruiting and, of course, a forgiving conference.
On the flight back to Clemson from Alabama nearly two decades ago, Barker turned to Marcia to see if his wife left with the same impression of Swinney. Nothing about the current run Clemson is on surprises him.