SUNSET - He always stayed out of the way, but Terry Don Phillips enjoyed perusing the football practice fields on occasion to watch the various position groups go to work.
DABO THROUGH THE YEARS
Clemson's record with Dabo Swinney as full-time head coach:
2009: 9-5, 6-2 ACC, beat Kentucky in Music City Bowl
2010: 6-7, 4-4 ACC, lost to South Florida in Meineke Car Care Bowl
2011: 10-4, 6-2 ACC, lost to West Virginia in Orange Bowl
2012: 11-2, 7-1 ACC, beat LSU in Chick-Fil-A Bowl
2013: 11-2, 7-1 ACC, beat Ohio State in Orange Bowl
TOTAL: 47-20, 30-10 ACC
In the middle part of last decade, Clemson's former athletic director couldn't keep his eye off a wiry, exuberant young coach who was always intense, always demanding with the wide receivers.
"It didn't matter whether you were on the first rung or the last rung," Phillips recalled this week, "he was going to coach you the same."
Practice wasn't all that stood out about the Tigers' assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.
"His relationships with the players off the field - I'm not just talking receivers, I mean players at every position - he had a great rapport, and players migrated to him," Phillips said.
Almost six years later, Dabo Swinney remembered how he thrived in his evolution from assistant to top dog.
"You never know who's paying attention to what you're doing," Swinney said Tuesday at his media golf outing at The Reserve at Lake Keowee. "So do a great job, whatever it is you're doing. If you're the person cleaning the building, be the best, and be passionate. Bloom where you're planted.
"And, prepare for your opportunities when they come. I prepared my whole life to be a head coach."
Those quiet observations milling about in Phillips' head were the genesis for where Clemson's football program stands now: an ACC champion in 2011, an Orange Bowl champion in 2014, and one of eight teams with double-digit wins in each of the past three seasons.
Swinney's a little older, a lot wiser and just as energetic as the day Phillips made the risky decision to lift the interim title from Swinney's head coaching title, following Tommy Bowden's exit midway through the 2008 season.
It's a far different role Swinney, 44, serves entering his sixth full year in the big chair, where he often is more CEO than coach.
"There's a lot of things he has to do, a lot of things outside of football," running backs coach Tony Elliott said, "because he's managing a company, so he's got to be involved in everything. Yes, we have to teach and recruit, but he takes a lot of that external stuff off of us so we can focus on football."
Players deal with everything from girl troubles to struggles in school, from the devastating to the stressful.
Defensive end Corey Crawford lost his mother to breast cancer two and a half years ago. Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins was involved in a fatal car accident taking his cousin last September and defensive tackle D.J. Reader lost his father this summer.
Ultimately, Swinney sees himself as the father of more than 100 young men within the program.
"(Fans) don't know what he has to do behind the scenes," offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said. "They only see what he does on Saturdays."
Caldwell, the only assistant on Swinney's staff with any head coaching experience (Vanderbilt, 2006), wouldn't bite when asked if Swinney is underappreciated, though his tone seem to indicate so.
"I'm not sure all the Clemson people know what they have in Coach Swinney," Caldwell said. "He's a really good fit for here, growing up in this state, seeing all the coaches who have been through here. The players sure don't know what they have because they've never been anywhere else. I have. I've seen how other people do it. He's a caring man."
Life as a CEO
As far as the football side, Swinney has learned to trust his troops.
"I'm much more efficient and organized. I'm a much better delegator than I probably was early on," Swinney said. "The tendency early on is you probably do too much."
It starts with his well-paid coordinators, Chad Morris (the highest-paid offensive assistant in college football) and Brent Venables on defense, who have lifted their respective units' profiles since their arrivals.
"Now, he lets his coaches coach, he doesn't usurp what his position coaches are doing, but he's involved with his opinion. He's not a hands-off kind of guy," Phillips said. "Certainly, he interacts with his players; if he sees something he doesn't like, he's going to jump in on it, but he does it in a way that doesn't alienate his staff."
In an April article ranking ACC coaches, Athlon Sports called Swinney "at his best in the program CEO role" but listed him a surprising sixth in the league - perhaps discrediting his coaching acumen.
If Swinney's a CEO, his employees believe he's a good one to work for, as evidenced by seven of the nine assistants entering at least their fourth year on staff.
"I think he's a fabulous CEO, but obviously he knows a great deal about football," said Venables, who served 13 years at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, another governing-type figurehead. "That's how he earned the opportunity he has today. This is a relationship business, and the most successful coaches can teach and inspire."
Added Elliott: "He's just a great manager of people. He doesn't micro-manage; he lets us do our job, but he holds us to a standard. And he's got an unbelievable vision, and a plan to accomplish that vision."
In that winter of 2008-09, fans wanted to fire Phillips and Swinney - "it got a little testy," Phillips said with a chuckle - but he's glad he stuck with his instincts.
"I honestly felt Dabo had the attributes to be a great head coach. Where the program is now, it doesn't surprise me," Phillips said. "I'm very proud of what he and the program are accomplishing. I think he's got a wonderful future ahead of him, and he's only getting started."
Swinney is 47-20 in his full five years as a head coach, the exact same mark as Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer in that time frame. Jimbo Fisher at Florida State is 45-10 in four years; no other man has more than 38 wins as an ACC head coach since 2009.
"Just like anything, you get better. Man, I know I'm a better coach than I was 20 years ago, five years ago, last year," Swinney said. "Just got to continue to strive to be the best I can be."
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