CLEMSON -- The most prominent photo in Terry Don Phillips' office is a Laurel and Hardy poster, the madcap comedians in vintage black and white.
"I just love that line, 'Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into,' " Clemson's athletic director said. "It's always been one of my favorites."
Less than a year ago, Phillips was in quite a pickle, reportedly nearly fired by Clemson president James F. Barker in December amid a vicious online swirl spinning faster after a second straight football loss to South Carolina.
But, hey, check out those updated Bowl Championship Series standings:
No. 1 LSU. Phillips was Oklahoma State's athletic director in 2001 when he took a chance on a Dallas Cowboys assistant, giving Les Miles his first head coaching job. LSU's "Mad Hatter" is plotting for next week's showdown with No. 2 Alabama.
No. 3 Oklahoma State. Phillips insisted that Miles accept Mike Gundy as offensive coordinator, essentially making the former Oklahoma State quarterback a "head coach in waiting." Well done.
No. 5 Clemson. Dabo Swinney had never been a coordinator or head coach before Phillips tabbed him to replace Tommy Bowden. Growing pains, yes, but hard to argue with 8-0.
"I'm very happy for Les and Mike and Dabo. Extremely happy," Phillips said. "What they're doing is significant. They're great people and have great families."
Phillips this week is the smartest man in college football. Those hires weren't just good, they were innovative and frugal.
Forget football. We need people like this running for office.
Miles and Gundy
Oh, and about the other two programs ranked in the BCS top five.
No. 2 Alabama is Swinney's alma mater. The work ethic Swinney gained while helping Alabama win the 1992 national championship after joining the Crimson Tide as walk-on receiver was not lost on Phillips.
No. 4 Boise State got its national-caliber program going under Dirk Koetter, also hired by Phillips. For a few minutes, anyway.
Phillips said he had an agreement from Koetter to come to Oklahoma State in 2001 but that Koetter changed his mind to become head coach at Arizona State. Koetter was a mediocre 40-34 in Tempe and now is the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator.
Miles, Phillips' second choice, has won a national title.
"Sometimes," Phillips said, "you get lucky."
Yes, as with Gundy.
"I wanted a succession plan at Oklahoma State," Phillips said. "I wanted to be able to project a head coach from Les' staff, and Les agreed with that."
Clemson was 6-6 last December when Phillips went to Barker's office for a meeting some people thought
Phillips might leave with a pink slip. Back-to-back losses to South Carolina for the first time in 40 years and perceived slippage has a way of grabbing negative attention around Pickens County.
Some Clemson trustees peppered Phillips with questions.
"That's their fiduciary responsibility to look into a situation that's being complained about," Phillips said.
A very good AD
But Phillips says the football situation wasn't that bad, that the 2010 Tigers were a few injuries away from "a different season." He also sold Barker on an incoming recruiting class that would include big-play specialist Sammy Watkins, academic progress, overall citizenship and financial stability.
"There were a lot of things written online that fed into a rumor mill," Phillips said. "I'm not saying everyone with a blog has an agenda, but some people do."
Big-time college athletic directors are two things: The won-loss records of the head coaches they have hired in the two or three sports most important to the school's fans, and cash flow relative to other schools in the same conference.
Phillips is a very good athletic director, having hired Swinney and basketball coaches Oliver Purnell and Brad Brownell at a relatively low cost per victory.
As Laurel and Hardy know, things can get suddenly messy.
"Regardless of the type of season you're having, every week is a new week," Phillips said within eyeshot of his favorite poster. "You never relax."
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