CLEMSON — Swarmed by a throng of autograph-hungry kids, Dabo Swinney is running late. His secretary, Beth Douglas, jokes the only person more popular in the Upstate is Santa Claus.
Forty minutes later, Swinney enters his office through the back door, seeming half-serious when he says, "Beth, never let me go down there alone again."
It's the lesson of the day for Swinney, who is entering his first full year as a head coach: bring someone else along to be the bad guy.
Swinney is hoping he can be something of a football savior, a cowboy in white.
Taking the talk-radio pulse, some are pleased with his hire, some are skeptical of a jump from receivers coach to the head position.
Everyone, it seems, is curious.
They are wondering how this fresh-faced, amicable, come-from-nowhere Cinderella man will fare.
The Post and Courier sat down with Swinney recently to see what he learned about his team this spring, and to learn some more about the man.
So a lot of us wanted to talk about Willy Korn and Kyle Parker this spring, but you consistently talked about things like tempo and quality practice reps. It seems one of your goals, if not the No. 1 goal, was to really change the culture this spring. Did you accomplish that?
"We got as much done in 15 days as I think we could have. The other thing we did is had about 1,100 competitive reps — good on good — which is fantastic, so it was extremely competitive. (Tracking the competitive practice reps) is something Kevin Steele brought. He said they probably had 900 at Alabama last spring. He was blown away with the amount of competitive reps we got. I can tell you we didn't have near that many competitive reps last year. That's a result of tempo and how we structure practice. It was get better or get exposed. … If the attitude is not right we don't have a chance. The main thing is creating an attitude of winning again, an attitude of expectation. An attitude of 'hey, hard work is OK, I have to pay the price.' "
That's interesting that you tracked competitive reps. I guess you are a believer in the 10,000-hour rule: 10,000 hours of good practice, combined with talent, can create greatness. Malcolm Gladwell cited the theory and how it related to the Beatles and others in his book "Outliers."
"If you do something enough, it becomes fundamental. It becomes habit, and when you get in the heat and walk out there in front of millions, (the Beatles) were not thinking, they were just reacting. Tiger Woods every time we see him hit a big shot. He's hit a thousand just like that with no one looking … it just becomes a reaction. He probably creates competitive reps as he is practicing, 'OK, down two strokes, got two holes left' … if you are doing things the right way, your fundamentals will hold up under fire. It's very important. Football is a fundamental game, a technique game. Look at a guy like (former Boston College quarterback) Matt Ryan when he beat us out here two years ago. I wasn't surprised. He rolled right, came back and hit that guy wide open on third and forever, might have been fourth, to hit that guy for a score. He just reacted. … People are so clueless when it comes to doing that. Greatness is achieved, it is not a given. Yeah, you are born with talent. Take Jerry Rice for example — he is the greatest wideout every to play the position. It is not even close. He was not the most talented. The reason he was great is his work ethic and commitment to little things. He worked on his mind, he took care of his body. He pushed himself further than anyone else was willing to go."
So do you instill that work ethic and drive or must you recruit it?
"I can draw Xs and Os all day on that board; a lot of coaches come in and do great things on the board, but coaching and leadership is really about getting people to do things they don't want to do, getting them to places they can't take themselves. Motivating people to be great. … Coach (Bear) Bryant also talked about there are four kinds of players. You've got those players that have it and give it, like C.J. Spiller. You have players that have it but won't give it — you want to get rid of those guys. Then you have players that don't have it — and this is what the majority of your team is — but don't know they don't have it and give way beyond their ability. And then you have the guys that don't have it, and know they don't have it. You want to be nice to them because they will make great alums. … You've got to be able to motivate all those different guys. … I think that's what separates good coaches from bad coaches."
Do you have an example of someone you coached who had it and didn't give it, and you were able to push to give more?
"Aaron Kelly. I thought he was very lazy and didn't understand the type of commitment required. He was a go-through-the-motions guy that didn't take practice seriously, didn't take the offseason seriously, and I rode him. I promise you he didn't like me his first three years at Clemson, but that is what that kid needed. I'm not here for him to like me, I'm here for him to 10 years from now thank me, to see him eventually give in and say 'let's do it this way' and blossom."
From observing you during practices, it seems you have two personalities: the jovial CEO off the field and the Bob Knight-type on it.
"I've always had a mentality when it's time to play focus on your business. Off the field you are who you are, so don't try to be something you are not … . I like creating the edge at practice. It's a work zone, not a play zone."
You say you have tried to model yourself after coaches who you believe have similar personality traits as you. Could you divulge some of those coaches?
"Coach (Gene) Stallings … I look at a guy like John Wooden, I don't know him, but I read his books, he thinks out of the box at times, he's a thinker, a motivator, he really spent a lot of time on that side of things. Mack Brown, I see some similarities in how we think. I look at a guy like coach (Bob) Stoops, Mark Richt, those are coaches I respect and admire."
There is also this about you, your business background. Not too many coaches have gone away from the game to earn an MBA and then come back to it. And it seems like having the team managers wear name tags might have a corporate-inspired touch.
"One of the reasons I got my MBA is I wanted to be a bit more well-rounded, have other options. I started over in something I had no idea what I was doing … all those lessons I learned in football carried over into real estate, all things directly related to what I was doing in the business world. (As for the nametags) I don't want to say 'Hey guy, bring me something.' I think when it is personal it means more."
You haven't given anyone an advantage at quarterback, but could you address some of the things you learned about the roster?
"We made a lot of strides at every position. Team chemistry is headed in the right direction … We have got people in the right places. We have starters on the offensive line in Chris Hairston and Thomas Austin. Same thing with the young backs, they're hungry … We made big-time progress at kicker. That was the one area I'm still a little concerned about. We are dealing with elite-caliber athletes at quarterback. …. I think we are headed in the right direction."
Reach Travis Sawchik at email@example.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks.