Why there's only one way the Dabo Swinney-to-Alabama thing would ever make sense anymore
In April of last year, Dabo Swinney made a trip to Tuscaloosa to be inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. The Clemson coach was 1 of 8 new inductees.
Paul Finebaum served as the Master of Ceremonies for the induction, which meant he got an up-close look at Swinney back in his old digs. What Finebaum said on WJOX following the weekend of festivities made the rounds.
“Who knows when (Nick) Saban’s day will come, but I’m going to put a couple chips down on the long-shot now,” Finebaum said. “It’s no longer off the board. I saw it. His wife grew up in Alabama. His family is from Alabama. That will be a fascinating gravitational pull when Alabama calls and says, ‘OK, Dabo. It’s time to come home.’ I don’t know if it’s as absolute as it was a couple months ago.”
It was a point that, while Finebaum admitted it was a long shot, was still not totally out of the realm of possibility. Besides the local ties pulling at Swinney, he was coming off a 3-possession loss to Alabama in the Playoff semifinal. If that 2016 title did just feel like Swinney capitalizing on having a once-in-a-generation quarterback like Deshaun Watson, perhaps the Alabama itch would increase as Saban neared retirement.
But yeah, that was then, and this is now.
Now Swinney is enjoying the most dominant victory over a Saban-coached Alabama team ever. Now Swinney is coming off his fourth consecutive Playoff berth and second title in 3 years. Now Clemson is recruiting better than ever and looking like a juggernaut for the foreseeable future.
And now, Swinney to Alabama looks like it’s all but off the board. There might only be 1 scenario in which that would make any sense.
Before we dig into that, let’s break down the 2 main reasons that coaches decide to leave one school for another.
The first is the ability to compete at the highest level. There’s a reason that Group of 5 jobs and lower-tier Power 5 programs struggle to retain quality coaches. They lack the resources needed to compete for national titles on a consistent basis.
Clemson, clearly, isn’t one of those teams. In the early part of the decade, its facilities and recruiting as a national brand weren’t on par with the likes of Alabama or Ohio State. That’s obviously not the case anymore when Swinney is able to go into Alabama and pluck its top recruit (Justyn Ross) and do the same thing in the state of Ohio (Jackson Carman). Swinney just had the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, Trevor Lawrence, out of Georgia, lead the program to a dominant title game win as a true freshman.
Nothing is holding Clemson back from sustaining its success in those areas. And when it comes to the other thing that coaches usually leave for, Clemson isn’t lacking in that department, either.
Swinney set to make an average of $6.75 million on his current deal, which runs through 2024 (he actually made $8.5 million in 2017 after his new deal included a $1.5 signing bonus and a $1 million life insurance policy). Another raise and extension is coming for Swinney, who just finished his seventh season working with Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich.
Speaking of Radakovich, he’s an important part in this whole thing. As the person who will ultimately have to come up with the dollar amount that keeps Swinney from leaving for Alabama, Radakovich had this interesting quote before the Sugar Bowl last year when asked about what that salary ceiling could look like.
“You know, that’s really hard to say. Five years ago, if somebody would have said we would be paying coaches what we’re paying them, I would have said, ‘Well, that’s well beyond the limit.’ So I’ve learned over time not to talk about limits.”
After Clemson did what it did to Alabama a couple weeks ago, you can bet there’s even less of a “limit” on Swinney’s future earnings now. Radakovich’s job security is tied to doing whatever he can to keeping this thing rolling, and he’ll get whatever financial support needed to make that happen. With the ACC Network set to launch in 2019, Clemson’s pockets will be deeper than ever in the coming years.
It’s rare, but coaches with national titles have left powerhouse programs and gotten more money elsewhere. Look at Jimbo Fisher in 2017. He watched Florida State crumble, and ultimately left for an absurd $75 million guaranteed at Texas A&M.
What’s stopping Alabama from making a move like that to get Swinney? Well, beyond the money with Fisher was his broken relationship with the atypically-structured Florida State administration, which didn’t cave to his demands for upgraded facilities and more control over the program.
Swinney already cleared that hurdle. Ironically enough, he was probably part of the reason Fisher felt FSU was lacking in those key areas.
So let’s get back to the main question here. That is, what’s the one scenario that Swinney could leave Clemson for Alabama?
It’s simple, really. Boredom.
If Swinney continues to win national titles and dominate the college football world, the only thing that could pique his interest would be to try and tackle a new challenge.
It’s now at the point where it’s no longer whether Alabama could elevate him into becoming one of the all-time great coaches. He can do that at Clemson. Based on everything we’ve heard from Swinney and people close to Swinney, all signs suggest he will do that. No, I wouldn’t look too far into Swinney’s comments in November about the fan base not appreciating a 12-0 season.
But even if Swinney had a little frustration/boredom with his current situation, it would take perfect timing on both sides.
Is Swinney really going to be bored with winning national titles by the time Saban is ready to retire? I wouldn’t bet on it. Swinney hasn’t even turned 50 yet, and he acts as energized and joyful as ever. If he continues to rack up rings while Alabama stays a step behind, Saban won’t stick around for another 6-7 years. Why would he?
The reality is that as intriguing as it was for Alabama fans to think about Saban one day passing the baton to another all-time great in Swinney, that window on that just closed even more.
It’s not shut just yet, but if you were putting chips down on the long shot like Finebaum, now might be the time to cut your losses.