It’s trendy for struggling college football programs to seek The Next Nick Saban with the hiring of Saban staffers. SEC schools in recent years have tried hard …
Florida (Jim McElwain), Georgia (Kirby Smart), South Carolina (Will Muschamp), Tennessee (Jeremy Pruitt).
But why try to be like No. 2 Alabama?
School presidents and athletic directors looking to spend a January evening or two or more on the College Football Playoff trophy stage can get there if they just find the next Dabo Swinney. He is 119-30 with four straight playoff appearances and two national championships. As I wrote last month, Swinney, 49, is constantly sought out for advice by up-and-coming college football coaches, NBA championship coaches and Major League Baseball managers.
Here’s the formula, exactly what an ambitious program should look for if attempting to capture No. 1 Clemson’s Swinney magic:
• Start with a catchy nickname that draws more interest than something like a given William.
• Mix in a personality widely labeled as “genuine.”
• Make sure there is some childhood adversity. Swinney with his mom and brothers had to evade an alcoholic father while growing up outside Birmingham, Ala. It helps with character building. It helps when recruiting players from various backgrounds.
• Get someone who has played college football at the highest level (Alabama for Swinney).
• But try to find a former walk-on, a badge of courage steeped in modesty.
• Did he win? Did he do something cool like help Alabama win its only national championship between 1979 and 2009?
• Seek someone with an MBA from an accredited school. Such a huge edge for a corporate manager in today’s competitive world.
• Yes, sports-life balance. If you can get a coach that has stepped away from the biz for a while, that’s good for perspective. Especially if it’s someone with the commercial real estate savvy to go to Las Vegas and have a hand in helping launch a major national brand such as Nothing Bundt Cakes.
• If your head coach openly shares his faith and routinely thanks the Lord for success and if he says “players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program,” that seems like a nice environment for life lessons.
• See to it that the top guy has studied football as a major college assistant coach (Alabama and Clemson are good stops), ideally within the same recruiting footprint.
Evolving from 6-7
• Know that teachable setbacks early are good for a head coach — as long as there is a trusting athletic director like Terry Don Phillips nearby to ward off criticism when a team looks lackluster while falling to 6-7 after losing the Meineke Car Care Bowl to South Florida.
• Make sure the man you hire has a good group of longtime friends and advisers. Loyalty is a great indication of character.
• Make sure the man you hire can fire friends on the staff. Too much loyalty is bad for job security.
• Know that victories plus gregariousness equal larger booster contributions than if you have just one or the other.
• A willingness to evolve — to let outsiders such as play-calling whiz Chad Morris and defensive mastermind Brent Venables come in and do their things — is such a plus.
• Smile when the coach and his father mend fences long before the old man dies.
• Quotable quips are contagious. “Bloom where you’re planted,” for instance.
• Almost every coach has a strong, remarkable, influential wife. Extra points if the couple has been together since middle school.
• Yes, deep ties are so important. Swinney’s offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and assistant head coach Danny Pearman played at Clemson. Four other top football staffers went to Alabama (Woody McCorvey, Todd Bates, Mickey Conn and Lemanski Hall).
Family and culture
• Insist that the head coach insists that his assistants spend time with their families or they get fired.
• Find someone who turns a downturn into an uptick the way Swinney did with an 0-5 stretch against archrival South Carolina.
• Make sure the school is willing to spend money on football (but admit that it's excessive, at times).
• Have a guy who dances when he wins. The kids love that.
• Hope that your kind coach starts his own charitable foundation.
• Cement the family atmosphere by hiring someone with football-playing sons who eventually become part of the team.
• Remember that any terrific coach can win big once in a while but that the great ones keep doing it with “start over” tactics early each year that include quotes such as, “You have to fight like crap to protect your culture. In every area. For us, I don’t assume anything. I teach everything over. I re-install everything from coaches to players, you name it.”
And if that simple profile doesn’t work at all schools or in all parts of the country, you’re going to have to go with a backup plan that includes the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl as a reachable goal.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff