Clemson's Dabo Swinney: 'Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program'

Clemson NCAA college football head coach Dabo Swinney listens to a question at a news conference in Clemson, S.C. , Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

A week after the Freedom from Religion Foundation's complaint to Clemson University over the football program's faith-based culture captured headlines, head coach Dabo Swinney addressed the issue Wednesday.

"Over the past week or two, there has been a lot of discussion of my faith," Swinney said in the statement. "Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program. All we require in the recruitment of any player is that he must be a great player at his position, meet the academic requirements, and have good character."

The FFRF, a national nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., sent a letter of complaint to Clemson University citing "constitutional concerns about how the public university's football program is entangled with religion."

The foundation says it is the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 20,000 members nationwide and about 150 in South Carolina. According to the FFRF, Swinney has promoted a culture in the program that violates constitutional stipulations of the separation of church and state.

"Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson's football program," wrote Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "We are concerned that this commingling of religion and athletics results, not from student initiative, but rather from the attitudes and unconstitutional behaviors of the coaching staff."

Swinney did not directly address whether Clemson's operations were constitutional, but explained his philosophies.

"Recruiting is very personal. Recruits and their families want - and deserve - to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are," Swinney said. "I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith. I am proud of the great success we have had in developing good players and good men at Clemson.

"We win at the highest level and we graduate players who excel on the field and in life because of their time in Death Valley. I want to thank Clemson University and all the people who have reached out to offer their support and encouragement over the past few weeks."

The foundation has recommended the elimination of Clemson's chaplaincy position, currently held by former Clemson player James Trapp. It contends that Swinney and Trapp have used their positions in the program to proselytize, by arranging Bible studies, organizing devotionals and distributing Bibles and other religious materials.

"What we have observed in the records is that the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes," Elliott said. "While student-athletes can pray, conduct Bible studies and engage in religious activities, the coaching staff, as public employees, should not be doing that with their student-athletes.

"What we'd like to see is the end of this chaplaincy position and end to Bible distributions by coaches, an end to devotionals scheduled and put on by coaches and staff. The coaches need to step back and just coach (football) and not coach in religious matters."

Asked about the initial complaint during an ACC coaches teleconference Wednesday, Swinney said, "I was a little caught off-guard by it."

"(The statement) pretty much sums up my thoughts," Swinney said. "I'm very proud of how we run our program. I'm very proud of the culture we have here and the young men we develop at Clemson. There's already been too much talk about all that."

Does Swinney envision changing any of his faith-based practices as Clemson's head football coach?

"No. We do things the right way, and always have," Swinney said. "We'll continue to run the program the way we always have."

Later Wednesday, following a press conference to announce Cole Stoudt as Clemson's starting quarterback entering the 2014 season, Stoudt didn't mind speaking on behalf of the current team in defense of Swinney, as numerous former Tigers have done over the past week.

"When that came up, everyone on the team was kind of shocked by it. The reason we came here was because of Coach Swinney's values and his beliefs," Stoudt said. "I've been a Christian ever since I was born. I'm always going to be. We're not going to let anyone say we can't be. We're not going to change anything; we're going to listen to Coach Swinney and we're going to stay Christians. I'm not going to let some FFRF group in Wisconsin say we can't pray or anything like that. I'm a Christian, I always will be, by choice and not by force."

Swinney pointed out he had differing religious views with former receiver Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah's Witness, but they were able to co-exist. Stoudt said his teammates who aren't as deeply religious - or follow other faiths - are not made to feel uncomfortable.

"That's what the people at Wisconsin are not seeing, that everything we have is voluntary," Stoudt said. "We haven't had a situation where Coach Swinney has said, 'Oh, he's not a Christian, he can't play.' We have guys that are Mormons on this team, and we've never had a conflict with anybody about religion on this team. We're all respectful of each other's faith and we're all together."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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