CLEMSON -- Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips has a story he likes to tell about his billionaire friend T. Boone Pickens.
Before Pickens amassed his wealth, he worked as a wildcatter, one who searches for oil in fields not known to contain oil. Approached by a driller, Pickens was offered either $10,000 for one of his surveys, or a percentage of royalties should they strike oil.
It was nearly Christmas and Pickens needed the money. He had a young family. But of all the surveys Pickens had in his desk, he felt the strongest about the survey of interest. Pickens chose risk and royalties. Pickens chose wisely. A well was struck and pumped for years.
Pickens' friend Phillips also has a track record of trusting his own personnel surveys, hiring assistants like Les Miles at Oklahoma State.
The decision to hire Dabo Swinney as Clemson's head football coach was another example of Phillips trusting his survey and knowing some risk can potentially result in considerable reward.
"You hear that you need a proven head coach, and I appreciate that," Phillips said. "I think you take risk with any coach, but the risk factor is somewhat higher with an assistant coach. But we have seen head coaches that were very successful in one environment, but in another environment they weren't.
"I also know I've never seen a head coach become a head coach without being an assistant."
Phillips says he was influenced by his experience under Frank Broyles at Arkansas, where Phillips saw assistants like Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson and Joe Gibbs elevated to head roles and go on win Super Bowls and
While hiring assistants is perceived as a higher risk, is the belief accurate?
In examining head coaches in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big 12, those who were promoted from assistant positions have combined for a higher winning percentage (65.9) than coaches who were hired from head positions at non-BCS schools (58.4), and coaches who were hired from head positions with NFL or BCS teams (57.1).
Promoted assistants include Bob Stoops, Jeff Tedford and Joe Paterno.
When examining coaching success relative to programs' historical performance (see chart), four of the top 10 coaches were plucked from assistant positions.
Perhaps Phillips' approach is correct, but it isn't the only road map.
Other athletic directors like Georgia Tech's Dan Radakovich are more risk-adverse.
Paul Johnson has been the best coach in the ACC and SEC the last three seasons, relative to program history after extensive experience and success as a head coach at Navy and Georgia Southern.
"Each job opening is very different," Radakovich said. "When we were replacing (Chan) Gailey it was high on our list to replace him with someone who had been a head coach, hopefully at the collegiate level."
Radakovich did not look at Johnson's option offense as a risk.
"I thought it was a strength in so far as there were not a lot of people running it," Radakovich said. "I saw it as strength given the demands of Georgia Tech and our (recruiting)."
To Johnson, where you come from does not matter. "Coaching is coaching," says Johnson, who says he hasn't changed philosophically since his days at Georgia Southern.
"I don't think it matters what level you are at," Johnson said. "When I was in the Southern Conference, I can assure you the coaching was just as good there as anywhere else I've been.
"It's like anything else. If you are coaching better players, you are a better coach. If you are teaching smarter students, you are going to do better."
Perhaps the lesson of Johnson and Swinney is to be open-minded and not rigidly adhere to labels.
"Sometimes people say, 'Well you were never a coordinator,' " Swinney said. "I could have gone and been a coordinator at several places ... I've never been a guy chasing (a job), climbing the ladder. ... It's about vision, singleness of purpose. I think that's why a lot of people miss out on some good coaches. ... We're going to see though. This chapter is going to get written.
"I hope Clemson will hang in there with me. Because we are going to get it done. We are going to win. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).
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