AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — It’s fair to say that 2019 has been good to Dabo Swinney. He won a national title by upending the Alabama juggernaut for the second time in three years. He’s on track to nab Clemson the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class. He just signed a 10-year, $93 million contract that makes him college football’s highest-paid coach.
It has been an astonishing journey for a guy who went from a walk-on at Alabama to a real estate agent to an interim coach to the top of the profession, but Swinney is not big on reflecting on all he has accomplished. He’s still focused on a future that has Clemson once again poised for a College Football Playoff run, and he talked with ESPN during the ACC’s meetings this month, touching on everything from keeping his coaching staff intact to his oft-criticized stance on player compensation.
Here’s our conversation with Clemson’s $93 million man.
ESPN: After last season, six of Nick Saban’s assistants got hired away. None of yours did. Chad Morris, a guy who went to the NFL, a guy who retired — that’s pretty much the entire turnover since 2012. Why is that?
Dabo Swinney: Some of them just haven’t had the right job. I’ve got guys on my staff that will be great head coaches, and there’s some really — I’m not going to say bad [athletic directors], but some ADs who’ve missed out on some great opportunities with some guys on my staff. But their time will come. They’re well prepared. It’s [that] guys are willing to be patient at Clemson for the right job. It’s a great place to work, it’s a great environment, and we have everything we need to be successful. And it’s a great place to live and raise your family, and that’s a thing that gets devalued a lot. Just as a person, raising a family, being a husband, it’s hard to beat Clemson. Most of my guys have been with me for a long time. A lot of them played for me. There’s great relationships.
We’ve had change from time to time. Chad left in ’14. He took several of my support staff guys who are on his staff now. All those guys got opportunities to go coach. And it created opportunities for me to bring other people in. Dan Brooks retired. Marion [Hobby] went to the NFL. We got a 10th coach. I look at it as a positive. I love continuity. But it’s not a necessity. But certainly we’ve had several guys have many opportunities, but it’s not been a job that was worth leaving Clemson.
ESPN: I feel like there’s this idea among a lot of ADs that if you hire a Saban guy, you get a little of the Saban magic with it. But the Dabo magic all belongs to Dabo, so your guys aren’t going to re-create the same thing. Is that fair?
Swinney: We have a process in place, but it always comes back to the people involved. 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. There’s a lot of great assistants who become great head coaches and a lot of guys who don’t. A lot of times guys take bad jobs, quite frankly, because they’re not patient. A guy like Kirby [Smart] is a great example. He was patient and got the right job. And he could be patient. He was well compensated.
I think 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. But we’re very different too in how we go about it. But that’s why we’re both successful: You are who you are. People who try to be something they’re not — if I tried to do it Nick’s way, I’d probably fail. You have to stay true to the things you believe in as a coach. I had a clear vision for how I wanted to be a head coach and build a program and the type of people and culture I wanted. Nick’s the same way. That doesn’t mean one of us is right or wrong or better than the other. We’ve both won. It’s just — be who you are and do what you believe in for the right reasons and not to be like somebody else.
ESPN: You’ve been outspoken about your concerns about paying players. The NCAA is launching a working group to look at allowing players the rights to their name and likeness. What are your thoughts on that?
Swinney: I don’t know all the dynamics, but there are a million questions about how it works. You get into equity sport to sport. Is it different for positions? I love the collegiate model. I love the model of education. I’ve always valued that. The game has changed tremendously in a positive way, and I think a lot of people aren’t informed and don’t understand how we’ve improved the game from a financial standpoint. The value of a scholarship is incredible. The improvements of meals and stipends and paying for parents to travel. There’s a lot of positives. Health care. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room to improve things, and you’ve got to always look for ways to get better. That’s the job of the NCAA.
The value of a college education is enormous when you put it on paper when you talk about scholarship and housing and tutoring and training and the value of education. It’s enormous. Sometimes when we talk about changing the model, we don’t talk about the education piece. That doesn’t count. There are things I’d love to see in continued improvement, but I think everything should be tied to education and graduation. The very few, the 1.6 percent that get to go on to the NFL, for those who don’t — maybe there’s an annuity or stipend that when they graduate, they get that. That’s a model that can be an improvement. Maybe it is the likeness. I don’t know. Then you have others out there who say we should just professionalize college athletics.
ESPN: There was a lot of criticism of your stance against paying players in light of your new contract. I think I know what your answer to this would be, that you didn’t earn $93 million at your first job either, but …
Swinney: I got paid $400 a month. I put the work in and grinded. I’m never going to apologize for working to be at the top of my profession. I didn’t get into coaching for that, but that’s how my career has gone. The CEO of Delta makes a lot of money, too, and he has a lot of people that help him be successful. What’s the average income in this country? $45,000? If we really want to professionalize it, let’s pay them $80,000. Let’s pay them $100,000. But they’ve got to pay taxes. They’ve got to pay for college. They’ve got to pay rent. They’ve got to pay their meals. They pay for their tutors. That’s the real world. You can’t have it both ways. It’s a complicated issue. It doesn’t matter what you say, so I don’t get distracted by it. Did I ever think I’d have a contract like this? No. But there’s a market, and markets drive everything.
ESPN: Well, I think that’s really the criticism, right? That the market for players isn’t as open as the one for coaches.
Swinney: And listen, I don’t have an explanation for all that. People smarter than me figure values. But I think the game’s better than it’s ever been. I think the players are in a good spot. I think there’s definitely room for improvement and it’s great we have committees that are looking for ways to burnish the student-athlete model. That’s great. But to professionalize college athletics would be — there’s just a lot of challenges that come with that when it comes to equity and Title IX. And I don’t think anybody will ever be fully satisfied. But I like that there are other options. Not everybody wants an education. I respect that. I think an education is the foundation for people’s lives. It’s hard without it.
ESPN: Even the ones who make it to the next level often aren’t there long.
Swinney: It’s a short shelf life. If you don’t have that degree, you’re limited on what you can do. So most of the time, guys value it down the road more than they did in college. We all change and mature. But the XFL — I love the fact that if someone wants to go and play right out of high school, great. They can do that. It’s probably not feasible from in the NFL to go straight from high school. It’s incredible the development part of this game to play at the highest level. But I love that there’s an opportunity if a guy doesn’t want to go to college, he’s got a chance to go make $100,000. But at some point, that’ll end. College athletics has changed people’s lives through the experience and education and preparation for life. I value that part. There’s always an argument — and listen, a good argument. People have every right to say coaches shouldn’t make this, or players should get all this money. Everybody has their opinion, and I respect that.
ESPN: What was the significance of the Alabama clause in the new contract?
Swinney: That’s something they presented when they presented the offer, and I didn’t have a problem with it. I think I’m one of the few coaches — they said, OK, here’s [your] market, and that was what they looked at doing the contract. I think I’m one of the few with a buyout.
ESPN: Do you find it amusing or annoying or just a fact of life that so many people assume you’ll inevitably replace Nick at Alabama?
Swinney: I don’t pay any attention to it. I don’t let that stuff distract me. People always like to say one plus one equals two, and it’s a simple thing. But I don’t pay any attention. I was at Alabama 13 years. I love Alabama and always will. That won’t change. But I’m going on my 17th year at Clemson, my 11th as head coach. I love where I am, love what I do. Who knows what’s going to happen down the road? I have no idea. I don’t even think about it. People are always distracted by other things and don’t try to be great where they are. I just try to be great where my feet are. That’s my focus every day.
Who knows? They may do away with college football in three years. There may be no college football. They may want to professionalize college athletics. Well, then, maybe I’ll go to the pros. If I’m going to coach pro football, I might as well do that. I may get a terrible president or a terrible AD one day. I don’t know. I have no idea what’s down the road. But I know what we have at Clemson is special, and I wanted to make a commitment to the university. That’s what the message of the contract was. When you talk about 10 years, the numbers add up. Nick’s still got more, and he only has four years left. So numbers add up, but we wanted to make a statement that we’re in a good place here and we’re both fully committed to each other.
ESPN: Do you ever think back to the day you drove down to Mobile to meet Tommy Bowden about a job or the day you walked into Terry Don Phillips’ office thinking you were about to get fired and then think about where you are now: two national titles, a 10-year contract?
Swinney: I’ve always dreamed of being a head coach, but I never dreamed of some contract. I always wanted to be great at what I was doing. That’s why I stayed at Clemson. I could’ve left when I was an assistant a couple times. I stayed because I’m loyal, committed and happy and focused on what I needed to do. I know God has a plan, and this is his plan for me. But I didn’t just fall off a truck and get here. I’m 49 years old. I’ve been working at this since I was 23. I’ve worked a long time and made a lot of good decisions and some bad ones, too. But way more good than bad. I’ve just kept my eyes on the right things, treat people the right way and do a good job at whatever job I was hired to do. The rest just happened.
When I came to Clemson, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I didn’t know why or how long. Quite frankly, I thought maybe a year or two. But I knew I was supposed to be here. A lot of people tried to talk me out of taking the job. That was a tumultuous time. It was Tommy [Bowden]’s fifth year and it was one of those have-to-win type of years. I walked away from a lot of security, money that was owed to me that if you’re not there, you don’t get. But I knew, and had total peace, that I was supposed to go to Clemson. But that’s what faith is all about. And it’s been an unbelievable journey. And if you’d told me in 2003 that, just sit back and relax, you’ll be here going on your 17th year, I’d have said, “Yeah, right.” It’s been amazing.