How Dabo Swinney is influencing the next generation of coaches

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Will Healy was bounding through the back roads of rural Alabama in search of a recruit when his phone buzzed. He looked at the caller ID. It was a South Carolina number he didn't recognize, but he picked up.

"Hey, this is Dabo Swinney," said the voice on the other end.

Healy was shocked. He was 31 years old, in his first year as a head coach at Austin Peay State University, and he idolized Swinney. In part, it was because of all the success Swinney had enjoyed at Clemson. But more than that, it was how Swinney won. Healy had never met him, but from the outside, it all seemed so genuine: the slogans, the dancing, the fun. That's how Healy wanted to coach, too.

Swinney was calling to inquire about a job for one of Clemson's graduate assistants. Healy was filling out a staff, and Swinney thought his guy would be a great fit. They talked for a few minutes about the coach, then before hanging up, Healy interrupted.

"You don't know me from Adam," Healy, now the head coach at Charlotte, said during that conversation. "But I just want to say thank you for what you've done for this profession, because the people getting in it now know you can do things the way you and I believe and still have success."

To date, Swinney's coaching tree has but one branch -- former offensive coordinator Chad Morris is Arkansas' head coach. After Clemson demolished Alabama last season for its second national title in three years, not one assistant departed for a better job, while Nick Saban's staff lost six coaches. But Healy's speech underscores the significant impact Swinney's success at Clemson has had on the next generation of coaches. They're doing it the Dabo Way, even if they didn't learn the system from the man himself.

Healy still hasn't met Swinney in person, but that will change Saturday, when his 49ers travel to Death Valley to take on the No. 1 Tigers (7:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The outcome isn't likely to favor Healy's guys. Swinney has built a monster at Clemson. The seeds of a successful program are being sown at Charlotte now, however, and it has started with a blueprint designed by Swinney.

IF BRENT VENABLES is being honest, this isn't the way he'd run a program. It's no criticism, mind you. Venables, Clemson's defensive coordinator, has seen too much success doing it the Dabo Way to argue. But Venables is a gung-ho guy, all energy, and all football coach.

"You ask if I want to give the players an extra day off or do an extra walk-through, I'm taking the walk-through every time," Venables said.

That's not how Swinney operates, though.

Coaches get 20 hours per week to work with their teams, according to NCAA rules. Clemson never hits that number. Swinney gives players two extra weeks of downtime beyond what's required during the offseason. Game weeks are perfectly scripted routines that are as likely to involve meditating using an app on their cellphones ("Mental Mondays") or a talk session on what's to come on game day ("Focus Fridays") as they are a grueling day of practice. Even during Clemson's recent playoff runs, Swinney took time out of the practice schedule to discuss life lessons.

"He's got a unique way of management and when to pull back and when to push," Venables said, "and it's very profound."


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To be sure, Swinney makes his guys work, too. This is the great misnomer about the Clemson coach, that he's all about fun and, somehow, it just turns out his team is really good, too. That's not what's happening here. It's just that Swinney finds a way to make even that work seem ... fun.

Look back at the 2015 ACC championship game, when punter Andy Teasdall executed an ill-timed fake punt. Swinney was livid. He chewed out Teasdall on the sideline, blasted him during his halftime interview, thrashed him again when it was over and Clemson had won. Four weeks later, the Tigers took on Oklahoma in Swinney's first college football playoff game, and wouldn't you know, he ran the same play, with Teasdall tossing a pass to Christian Wilkins that worked to perfection.

Mess with winning football games and Swinney's not laughing. But give it a little time and he can't help but find the fun in it.

"It's not all giggles and the happiness camp," Morris said. "He has a pulse on every part of that program, and he knows what he wants it to look like. He has a way of getting that message across. Sometimes that message is very stern and direct, but there's a great respect among his coaches and players."

Current Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott says there are a lot of coaches who think everything is about the grind and going 100 percent all the time.

"Sometimes there can be negative consequences of that," Scott said. "I think when your players know how much you care about them and you spend time talking about things other than football, when you talk football, you have their attention and they're willing to run through a brick wall for you."

SWINNEY IS NOT without criticism. He's outspoken about his faith, and he has been accused of foisting those beliefs onto his team. He has denied this repeatedly. He makes $9 million per year, but he is staunchly against paying players. While there have been relatively few off-field transgressions in recent years, the suspension of three players before the 2015 Orange Bowl or the failed PED tests for three others before last year's Cotton Bowl make it clear that even Clemson is not immune to mistakes within its ranks.

When it comes to culture, though, it's tough to argue with Swinney's results. He created the P.A.W. Journey to aid players in doing everything from writing résumés to starting nonprofits. During the team's bye week each season, the Tigers do charity work. Clemson has a long history of investing in players who don't perform well early but blossom late in their careers.

"In our sport today, there's two ways of doing things," Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. "There's the football factory, which is building them big and strong and survival of the fittest. Or there's building a football culture that's winning and still teaching 18- to 22-year-olds to be the best version of themselves. I've always viewed my vision as empowering and inspiring and unifying young people and not compromising our values off the field to get what you want on the field."

This isn't a knock on the football factories. Saban's coaching tree extends from Tuscaloosa to all parts of the college football universe. Urban Meyer's protégés now lead programs from Ohio State to Texas to Boston College. Saban and Meyer have nine national championships between them.

"Nick and I are similar in a lot of ways, that we're both incredibly detailed, incredibly passionate about what we do, and we're both teachers, both fully committed and believe in how we do things," Swinney said. "We're very different, too, in how we go about it."

The point is simply that Swinney's success at Clemson has proved that his way can work. That's what Healy's speech was about. He wasn't crediting Swinney with inventing fun, just for making it OK for everyone else to do it, too.

"Can you really sustain success though culture?" Campbell said. "That was my interest in what I saw in the Clemson program."

Campbell spent a few days visiting Clemson, and what he found was a place where culture trumped everything. Swinney's first commandment was to inspire the young men he coached, and that hit a nerve with Campbell.

Louisville coach Scott Satterfield saw the same things during his time with Swinney. Plenty of programs are run by a leader at the top who inspires fear and uses it to get results.

"We try to lead with love and not fear," Satterfield said. "That's probably a big difference. Some programs are going to make you do things. I want these guys to want to do these things, and to me that's Clemson's model."

There's no certainty that approach will be replicated with more success than Meyer's or Saban's, of course. The way Healy sees it, though, if he's going to fail, better to do it this way, having a few laughs and building lasting relationships along the way.

"My philosophy is, I'm going to enjoy what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with," Healy said. "If you don't enjoy that time, the profession's lost its value."

After Healy's second year at Austin Peay, four of his assistants left for better jobs. They had helped take a team that had lost 45 of its previous 46 games to an 8-4 finish in 2017, and it's hard to keep guys at an FCS school after that. But when he got the job at Charlotte, all four of those assistants returned to his staff.

"I don't have a bunch of yes-men," Healy said, "but I do have a bunch of best friends, and that's really cool."

PUSH SWINNEY TO name a young coach who's doing it the Dabo Way and he stumbles. He's not really keeping an eye out for protégés in the business. There's Morris, of course. Healy's a good one, Swinney said. Satterfield, too.

Swinney thinks for a moment. You know who's really doing it like he is? Mack Brown.

OK, so the North Carolina coach might not qualify as young in the coaching profession, but his relationship with Swinney is unique. The two met in 2009, before Swinney's first full-time season at Clemson. Swinney had called and asked to shadow Brown for a few days at Texas.

"He was full of energy and wanted desperately to be a great head coach," Brown said. "But he also cared about kids. That's where he and I have bonded so much."

In the years that followed, Brown's career diverged wildly from the ascendant Swinney. At Texas, the wins were harder to come by. Brown, whose outlook had always been parallel to Swinney's, grew obsessed with turning things around.

"I got stuck in that hole where winning becomes everything," Brown said, "and that's a very dangerous and dark hole."

"We try to lead with love and not fear. Some programs are going to make you do things. I want these guys to want to do these things, and to me that's Clemson's model."
Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield

Brown was fired after the 2013 season at Texas, and he took a job as a TV analyst. With a little distance from the demands of coaching, he saw clearly how toxic his situation had become. In his new job, he'd travel from one campus to the next, and he kept finding that same toxicity he'd just escaped.

"There are so many miserable coaches," Brown said. "They're worried about being fired, worried about whatever the media says about them, mad if fans say something to them."

There was one guy who wasn't miserable, though, one guy who seemed to be enjoying every moment he had as a coach. Brown talked with Swinney and found the same eager, energetic guy he'd met back in 2009, before the wins and championships and catchphrases.

"That won't change no matter if he wins 15 games or no games," Brown said. "He'll still say, 'Bring your own guts,' and he won't care. He really seems to be having fun and enjoying their success, and quite honestly I'm learning from him now."

Even outside of football, coaches are lining up to learn the Dabo Way.

Each summer, Swinney takes his three boys on a road trip. This year, they traversed the country. At each stop, coaches, players and GMs all wanted to meet and talk about how Swinney has built Clemson into the best college football program in the country.

En route to Toronto, Swinney texted a friend in hopes of snagging tickets to the Raptors' playoff game against Philadelphia. No problem, the friend said. Just one catch: Toronto coach Nick Nurse would like some time, too.

So the two met and chatted for more than 90 minutes, with Swinney grabbing a marker and using a whiteboard to sketch out his vision for building a program.

"He's such a walking motivation," Nurse said. "He's one of those people that everything they say is good stuff, and I find that inspiring. Who doesn't like to be around that stuff?"

IT'S MID-AUGUST, and Charlotte has just wrapped a scrimmage. Healy pushes his guys hard during practice. It can be jarring to new players, but he quickly wins them over with constant reminders of why the effort is necessary. A few days earlier, he'd stopped practice to chew out his offense for not celebrating enough after a touchdown.

The day before the scrimmage, Healy took the team to a Carolina Panthers preseason game. It was the first time walk-on defensive back Christian Haynes had been to an NFL game, so he was a bit dumbfounded when, late in the second quarter, a cameraman showed up in front of him and his face appeared on the giant video screen. The announcer says his name. Suddenly his teammates are piling on top of him, celebrating. He'd gotten a scholarship. From a row behind him, a teammate hands him a phone. His parents are on the line. They're celebrating, too.

Now, in the aftermath of the scrimmage, Healy has the whole team gathered again, and kicker Jackson Van Sickle is lining up for a field goal try. Make it, and he gets put on scholarship, too. Miss it and ... well, Healy hadn't thought that through. He had confidence in his guy. The kick goes up, the ball sails through and the team celebrates.

Before the team exits the field for the locker room, every fan in attendance is invited to meet the players. One after another, players introduce themselves, ask if they enjoyed the scrimmage, invite the fans out for another game. Haynes said he finds himself talking to complete strangers on campus now. It's habit.

Healy didn't crib any of these details directly from Swinney. They all sound like things Clemson's coach would do, too, but they're genuine products of Healy's imagination. This, he said, is the real genius of Swinney's philosophy. It's not meant to be copied because the blueprint, at its core, is just one rule: Be yourself.

"There's a fine line between doing things the way Dabo does them and doing what you believe in," Healy said. "At some point, something's going to come across your desk where you don't know how Dabo would handle it, and you better have your own ideas."

In March, Healy attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Charlotte where Swinney was the keynote speaker. For three hours, Healy listened to Swinney talk about coaching and faith and developing young men. He was hooked.

"You hear coaches sell things that you know what he's selling is different than what he's delivering," Healy said. "Dabo lives it. You watch all the haters try to pick apart something he does, but when he talks about his culture, any other coach in the country, they'd mock them and give 50 reasons they're lying through their teeth. Dabo says it, and it's just like, 'Oh that's Dabo.'"

The Dabo Way is no magic bullet for building a program, nor a proverb about the folly of the Football Factory. Swinney is just being himself, the only way he knows how to do the job. That's Swinney's real mark on the coaching profession -- not a sprawling coaching tree but an idea on how to plant new trees, strong and solid, and each one a little different from all the rest.

"It always comes back to the people involved," Swinney said. "That's where people make mistakes. They think because somebody's worked for somebody, they'll be a great head coach. That's not always the case. You have to be who you are and do what you believe in for the right reasons."