Is Dabo Swinney an all-time great coach? This unprecedented juncture will tell all
It might be strange to say that a coach with 2 rings and 6 Playoff berths has something to prove, but here we are.
It’s time for Dabo Swinney to prove himself.
We’re not talking about proving himself as one of the sport’s best coaches of the 21st century. The aforementioned rings and Playoff berths already took care of that. Besides Nick Saban, Swinney is the only other active head coach with multiple rings.
But if Swinney is going to be considered an all-time great coach and in the same breath as Saban, he has to prove that he can overcome his most significant personnel shakeup to date.
Most major programs aren’t supposed to have 1 coordinator stick around for 7 years, much less have 2. But now, Brent Venables is off to be the head coach at Oklahoma after a decade of running Clemson’s defense, and Tony Elliott is off to be the head coach at Virginia after 11 years at Clemson, the last 7 of which were as the team’s primary offensive play-caller. Swinney promoted senior defensive assistant Wes Goodwin to DC and QB coach Brandon Streeter to OC.
Oh, and just in case that wasn’t enough, the athletic director who oversaw Swinney’s rise into the college football elite, Dan Radakovich, left to take the same job at Miami.
We wouldn’t have these questions about Clemson had just played in its 7th consecutive Playoff. But that’s not the case. Instead, Clemson finished the year in the ever-eventful … Cheez-It Bowl. Yeah. Just a touch different.
It’s Swinney’s worst season since 2014, though the silver lining to that 10-3 campaign was that a young Deshaun Watson showed promise. There’s not a Watson or a Trevor Lawrence waiting to turn around Clemson’s No. 78 scoring offense. Preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner DJ Uiagalelei led a passing attack that ranked No. 103 in FBS. He had multiple touchdown passes twice and he didn’t throw for 250 yards in any individual game. Needless to say, the Dr. Pepper pitchman didn’t come close to becoming the next great Clemson quarterback.
Maybe 5-star 2022 signee Cade Klubnik will be that guy. That’s still far too early to tell.
If you’re keeping track, that’s 4 things that Swinney hasn’t dealt with in the past 7 years. As in, Swinney has never had to make one of these adjustments since Clemson began its run of dominance alongside Alabama.
Speaking of Alabama, you know who has a bit more familiarity with change? Saban. After losing the offensive coordinator who led the 2 most prolific offenses in school history, Saban hired Bill O’Brien, who was in the ear of Bryce Young during a year in which he became the first quarterback in program history to win the Heisman. Despite what some may think, no, not just any random play-caller could’ve done that. Saban picked right. He has a habit of doing just that with hiring his top assistants.
Since the end of 2014, look at all the coordinators Saban hired:
- Lane Kiffin, 2014-16
- Steve Sarkisian, 2016 (national championship)
- Brian Daboll, 2017
- Mike Locksley, 2018
- Steve Sarkisian, 2019-20
- Bill O’Brien, 2021
- Kirby Smart, 2008-15
- Jeremy Pruitt, 2016-17
- Tosh Lupoi, 2018
- Pete Golding, 2019-21
And yet, during that stretch, Alabama made 7 Playoff berths, played in 6 national championships and won 3 titles. The common denominator in all of that success, of course, is Saban.
Swinney still has to prove that he’s the common denominator of Clemson’s success. If the Tigers don’t bounce back with a Playoff berth in 2022, it’ll be fair to wonder just how big of a part Venables played in getting Clemson into a different stratosphere than it was in pre-2015. We already saw 3 IMG defensive recruits drop their Clemson commitments in the wake of Venables’ departure. Who knows how that’ll impact the future talent level of Clemson’s defense.
(The defense wasn’t the reason for the 2021 letdown. The Tigers had the No. 2 defense in FBS behind only Georgia.)
If Saban had fallen off once Smart left for Georgia, he would’ve been criticized for it. Instead, he not only made sure that his program didn’t fall off, he beat Smart’s squad every chance he got.
Swinney, by virtue of winning national titles, put himself into a spot to be scrutinized more than any non-Saban coach in the sport. Great coaches roll with the punches. To Swinney’s credit, he really hasn’t taken many punches because he hasn’t had to fill a bunch of key spots on his staff. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott left Clemson to take the USF job at the end of the 2019 season and offensive coordinator Chad Morris left Clemson to take the SMU job at the end of the 2014 season.
He can deny it all he wants, but now is when we’re really going to see what echelon Swinney belongs in. He had rare stability, and he benefitted from it. With all the vacancies that Venables was linked to in recent memory, it was surprising to see it take so long for him to finally sign up to become a Power 5 head coach. And usually a guy with the words “primary play-caller for Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence” at the top of his résumé doesn’t stay in that role for 7 years.
Five years ago, we wondered if Swinney could win a title without Watson. Clemson then rattled off 4 consecutive Playoff berths, 2 national championship appearances and 1 Watson-less title. Even with the 2021 dud, those 5 post-Watson years exceeded expectations. Time will tell if Swinney will repeat that in these next 5 years.
A legacy-defining juncture awaits.