Dabo Swinney: Where Clemson Football Has Gone Wrong

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney after his team's blowout loss to Duke. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney after his team's blowout loss to Duke. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports /

Stubbornness. It can be hard to get rid of, in practice and naturally by definition. For many viewers of the primetime football game Monday night, it was an awakening to the stubbornness of the Clemson football program and its leader, Dabo Swinney.

For others, it was a confirmation of what has been going on within the confines of Dabo Swinney’s football program for the past several years. Not every part of the program, but Dabo Swinney himself.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, that means it extends into every crack and crevice of the team until it ultimately implodes from the inside. Although it may seem new, these cracks have been surfacing in the foundation for years, and there’s no rebuilding at this stage. It’s too far gone to teach an old dog new tricks, especially one that seems far too content with sticking to the tricks he had years ago.

At South Carolina, Shane Beamer has embraced the transfer portal and social media, maybe more than any other SEC coach besides the ever-entertaining Lane Kiffin. He’s young, sure, and maybe that’s got something to do with it. But credit is due where credit is due.

Beamer understands the changing landscape of college athletics, specifically the ins and outs of the modern college football world.

Look no further than the Soulja Boy video at SEC media days, the Sopranos intro spoof, the Friends intro spoof, and basically every other video on the Gamecock football Instagram page. That same Instagram page that is seen by hundreds of players and recruits, and doesn’t cost more than a few dollars to produce. But it isn’t just social media attracting players to a program, of course, it’s also NIL money and transfer opportunities.

When it comes to Dabo Swinney, the two latter ideas are basically chopped liver. Why import quitters into the team when the players he handpicked and recruited are even better? And why allow players to get paid, when that’s what the NFL is for?

Per Swinney in 2015, “But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” Is it really entitlement? Keep in mind that Swinney gets paid nine million dollars a year.

His players (which he wouldn’t make a single penny without) shouldn’t get even a fraction of that? That attitude isn’t really telling prospective recruits “this is the place that will care for you for 3-4 years.” A restaurant or small business pays its employees for working for the business. Without them, the business would fail. Why should players (who devote years of work towards a team) not be compensated fairly as well? Ask Dabo Swinney.

NIL is here to stay, even if it is bound to evolve over the next few years. Despite what appears to be the new norm in high-revenue college athletics, Swinney is reluctant to even consider the possibility that the Clemson football program needs to compensate athletes.

Now, that sentiment shared by Dabo isn’t exclusive to just him. Plenty of players really like what Dabo has to say, and feel as if they made the best choice regarding their college career. To each their own. But a very large percentage of recruits would be turned off by a coach completely working against their own interests. Dabo’s words continuously speak to a small fraction of players while excluding a large portion of recruits in this day and age.

South Carolina’s NIL collective, Garnet Trust, works to help players with endorsements and compensation for their talents and likeness. It’s not perfect, as it’s hard for any program to truly become a well-oiled NIL machine after the player compensation system basically turned into the wild west over the past two years. But at least it’s embraced.

Beamer knows he can’t build a program without it. Same with the transfer portal. Coaches might not like the chaos and tampering involved, and there are definitely issues with the new system of transfers and under-the-table booster money. But no sane coach can look a person in the eye and say they can build a championship program without help from outside transfers.

Yet, Dabo Swinney is trying with all his might. It isn’t working. Not because the college football system is built against him, but because Dabo’s system isn’t built for this type of college football.

There are two options, and neither are good. Either Swinney knows his anti-NIL, anti-transfer portal mentality is tearing down the program, and he is too stubborn to admit he needs to change, or Swinney is so far lost that he still truly believes that his old-school program-building method is still able to compete with programs like Colorado bringing in 51 players with college experience in an offseason.

That Colorado team went 1-11 last year and scored 45 points on the national runner-ups, but Clemson can only produce 7 on Duke. If that doesn’t speak to Dabo, then there is no saving the Clemson football program.

“Oh, but Dabo fired his offensive coordinator and brought in Garrett Riley. He’s finally reacting positively to change in the college football world.” No. Claiming Swinney is a changed man just for a staff change that literally 59 other programs made just this offseason is laughable.

Changing would be not allowing 12 players to transfer out while bringing in a single (1) transfer who isn’t going to play. That was just this offseason. In 2022, 11 players left Clemson while Dabo brought in a single, yes, just one, transfer. He didn’t play either. 2021? 8 players left. Dabo didn’t bring in a single one. In fact, since 2019, Clemson has lost 42 players to the portal and brought in exactly 2. Neither played.

Surely that’s a winning strategy that allows the vaunted Clemson program to separate the true Clemson football players that don’t play for money from the fake Clemson players that only want to play for cash. At least, that’s what the mind of Dabo Swinney thinks.

That’s how to build the best program with absolutely no distractions. No distractions such as, gasp, Black players wanting equality on campus. No distractions such as not choosing to stand for the national anthem. (Keep in mind that college football teams aren’t typically even on the field for the anthem anyway.)

Staff can be fired for poor performance, but racial epithets are apparently not a fireable offense. A coach (Danny Pearman) who admitted to using the n-word in a conversation with a Black player is, you guessed it, still a member of the football program.

For a coach who plays a roster of dozens of Black players, Swinney consistently demonstrates an unwillingness to support them or an inability to put himself in their shoes. In the incident with Pearman using the slur, Swinney actually defended the coach.

For Swinney, it appears permanence and stagnancy in the football world isn’t enough. The idea of changing or challenging tradition at any level of US culture is simply not for Dabo’s mind space.

In the same tirade about the national anthem protests, Swinney defended his stance on the peaceful demonstrations, stating “A lot of these things in this world were only a dream for Martin Luther King…Not a one-term, but a two-term African-American president. And this is a terrible country?” Using Martin Luther King to defend his own non-support of peaceful protests was tone-deaf as a coach of Black men.

In contrast, at South Carolina, Shane Beamer welcomes NIL and fair player compensation. In fact, not only does he support it, but he has voiced concerns about groups promising money to players then not coming through with their end of the bargain. Beamer is able to understand the direction of college football and look out for his players at the same time.

That allows him not only to build a better team culture, (which is an overused term in and of itself, but the sentiment remains) but also to create an environment in which recruits want to play.

Maybe the head coach’s personal views differ from what he puts out on the air, and maybe they don’t. What’s important is that Beamer either embraces his beliefs on the new system, or, if they differ from what he’s publicly said, he puts them aside to do his best attempt to build a modern college football program worthy of contention.

But at Clemson, it’s not Dabo Swinney’s views that get him in hot water. It’s his words and actions. His decision to wear a “Football Matters” shirt on social media at the height of the 2020 protests for social justice. Swinney feigned ignorance and said it was not meant to mock the ongoing movement for social equality.

Either way, it reflects badly on the coach. Either Swinney knew it would cause outrage in his decision to wear it, which I admittedly believe is far-fetched, or he was truly unaware of how the shirt would come across to anyone that isn’t in a life situation such as himself.

It remains a possibility that Swinney’s worldview is so narrow that he could not even think of how his actions reflect on Clemson and the program as a whole, let alone how players on his team would feel about it. Swinney is unable or unwilling to change to a changing landscape, both in the nation as a whole and in the football world.

In these situations, it’s possible to glimpse into Dabo’s mind and understand how this Clemson team is 0-1 with a 28-7 loss to Duke to open the 2023 season. It’s through stubbornness: stubbornness to change to an ever-changing landscape and stubbornness embedded so deep into a program that there is no turning back.

There’s not a “how long until Dabo flinches and capitulates to modern football?” It’s too late for that. The Clemson football program is too far gone. Readers may think “oh, that’s a reactionary take.” But in reality, it’s not reactionary enough. This could be a 6-7 win team in a soft ACC conference. How many transfers will the Tigers lose this offseason? It’s anybody’s guess, but one thing is for certain: it’ll be several more than however many transfers they bring in.

Florida State has built its roster on the transfer portal. They just beat #5 LSU by 21 points. Clemson has to host the Seminoles on September 23, and they more than likely will get shelled.

Maybe Swinney will blame the other team. Perhaps he’ll blame the media. Or even his own fans? The fact is, he’ll blame everybody and everything before he blames anything on his approach to maintaining a football program.

Sure, he’ll shoulder some blame for in-game coaching mistakes, but never the way he runs the team outside of the game. That’s untouchable territory for Dabo Swinney. And therein lies the issue. The Scrooge of College Football needs the ghosts of College Football Future and College Football Present to pay him a visit, but Swinney is in love with the past.

Even though Dabo Swinney is worshiped in Clemson, eventually time and patience will run out. A victim of his own success, 7-5 and 6-6 seasons won’t cut it in the 2020s. The Tigers have a young AD in Graham Neff, and if he has to choose between modernity + a winning football program or a program that still resides in the 2010s, he’s picking the former.

It’s “modernize or die” in college football, unfortunately or fortunately. Every other program in the country has adapted. Mack Brown has adapted. Kyle Whittingham has adapted. Nick Saban is the king of adapting. It’s not an issue of age, clearly. It’s an issue of stubbornness. Is Dabo Swinney really going to let a personal vendetta against change run his football program into the ground? All signs point to yes, actually.

Ask Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron. Ask Manny Diaz and (in a couple of years) Jimbo Fisher. Life comes at you fast, and in an environment where teams are completely transforming their rosters in one year, there’s little margin for error. Clemson and Dabo Swinney have been skating on the margins for a couple of years now.

Sure, I’m a South Carolina fan writing for a fan website. But this article doesn’t border between objective and speculative, it’s dancing the tango with objectivity. Yeah, I’d rather hope Swinney never changes. But I don’t have to hope. He’s doing it for me. Dabo Swinney has Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence to thank for the successes of Clemson football. But he has himself to thank for the current and future state. I’ll grab my popcorn. This is going to be fun.