Teleconference transcript with Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban


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Transcript from Monday's Head Coaches' teleconference featuring Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban:

CLEMSON HEAD COACH DABO SWINNEY: Okay, thank you. Good to be with all today. Obviously we're just really excited to be a part of the National Championship game and really proud of our team for just the work that they've put in this season and our staff, to earn the right to be in this game. We're coming off a great performance in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma.

We're excited about getting back to work, and we know that we've got an incredible challenge with Alabama. We've got great respect for the University of Alabama and Coach Saban and their staff and what they represent. They certainly have been the standard in college football for a long, long time, but especially since Coach Saban has been there.

It's a great honor to be able to go and compete at the highest level with the team that represents the best. We know that we're going to have to have great preparation here and play very well to have a chance to win the game. But again, just proud of our team and our staff for the type of season that we've had. We look forward to a great game out in Arizona and traveling out there and competing one last time and hopefully playing our best four quarters.

Congratulations to Alabama and Coach Saban again for the great year that they've had and winning their league and winning the College Football Playoff game that they were in, as well.

ALABAMA HEAD COACH NICK SABAN: First of all, I'd like to thank the executive director of the College Football Playoff, Bill Hancock, and his staff for all that they've done to make this such a great competitive venue for the four teams last year as well as the opportunity that Clemson and we have created for ourselves to play in the National Championship game. I'm extremely proud of our team and what they've been able to accomplish, the improvement that they've made, the hard work that they've done. Our players, our staff, everybody in our organization has done an outstanding job.

Also like to congratulate Clemson on what they've accomplished in winning their conference and being in the National Championship game. This is certainly going to be the most challenging game we've had to this point. Clearly Clemson is a team that is good in all facets of the game. Very, very good offensive team, great defensive team, play well on special teams, very well-coached. Dabo has done an outstanding job, and they have a lot of good players that are very well-coached that play very well.

I think as it should be, this is a game that two great teams are going to have a great opportunity to compete in, and it's something that we're certainly looking forward to and pleased that we've created the opportunity for ourselves to do that.

Looking forward to being a part of this National Championship game.

Nick, I understand that 2008 is an awfully long time ago. That Clemson game was a big win, and that was the first really big win for a bunch of guys on your team who hadn't had a ton of success. When you look back at sort of the development of your program or maybe just the development of that team, do you look at that Clemson game as something of a mile marker for your program?

NICK SABAN: Well, you know, as you said, it's a long time ago. You know, we were building a program. It was our second year here. Clemson was a good football team, and you know, it's the first time that I think we beat a team that was ranked or whatever.

But let me say this: That's ancient history compared to the kind of team Clemson has now and the kind of team we're going to play against in this game. Even though it was something that helped us establish a foundation for the program here a long time ago, I don't think it has much significance in what's going to happen in this game.

Dabo, how would you describe this Alabama defensive line, and is there anything you can compare it to?

DABO SWINNEY: Oh, they're by far – clearly the best that we've seen. I mean, they're as good as it gets in the country, No. 1 in about everything defensively, but the biggest thing is they just have great depth in their defensive line. I mean, they've got – they roll them guys in there, play a lot of guys, a bunch of subs, and they all play at a really, really high level. That's why they're a great team.

We were No. 1 in the country in defense last year, and we had six seniors on that defensive line. We had such great depth, experienced depth, and that's what I see with Alabama, a bunch of guys, bunch of seniors and juniors and all those guys are starter type of bodies: Big, strong, physical guys, and obviously well-coached.

But that's the biggest thing that jumps out at you. Most teams that you play don't have the type of depth that Alabama can present.

In general I'm told that's the hardest position to recruit. Is that true? How hard is it to get quality D-linemen?

DABO SWINNEY: Well, I mean, it's tough. Everybody is looking for those guys that are difference makers at that position. It's one thing to sign D-linemen, it's another thing to sign difference makers. Alabama has got a bunch of them. There's doubt about it. A bunch of those guys, most of them will have the opportunity to play on the next level.

That's kind of how we've been here. We've built this team in the trenches, and most great teams, that's where it starts. You've got to be able to control the line of scrimmage and have some type of running game and stopping the run, and certainly that's been what Alabama has been for a long time.

We've tried to do that here. We've tried to go the best we can and getting those guys to help us be dominant up front, and we've done a good job of that. We don't have the experience that they have this year. Our first-line guys I think are really, really good, but our depth is really young. They're growing up. Austin Bryant went in and played the whole game the other night when Shaq got hurt and played great as a true freshman.

They look a lot like we looked last year in that defensive line as far as the experience and the depth that they have up front. And again, that's why they're No. 1 defensively.

Dabo, I was wondering if you have an update on Shaq Lawson and whether he'll be able to play.

DABO SWINNEY: We'll get him back out there today. He looked pretty good, so, so far so good. We'll see him out there today, but I think the prognosis is good at this point. But got to get out there and run around a little bit today, and we'll kind of go from there.

I'm very optimistic that he'll be able to play.

What about the way the defensive line was able to play without him last week and the way Bryant stepped up in his place?

DABO SWINNEY: Well, that's what it's all about. It really is. That's been the key for us this year. We knew coming in losing – we lost six defensive – 10 guys off of last year's defense went on to the NFL and six of them were D-linemen, so we knew coming into this season, a real key for us, we thought our front-line guys, Shaq and Dodd and Reader and Carlos and those guys would be more than as good as what we had last year, but we just weren't going to have the same type of depth. Last year we were taking Vic Beasley out and bringing in Shaq Lawson. We're going to be very young. You're going to have guys like Yeargin and Austin Bryant and those type of guys, Pagano and Christian Wilkins, a lot of young players, so we were hopeful that we could get through at least the first half of the season and stay healthy so that we could develop those guys a little bit, and I think that's what you saw in the bowl game, is even though Austin has played, not as much as Shaq, but the cumulative effect of his experience and the practice and just being able to bring him at a healthy pace has been very beneficial for us, and it paid off in the game the other night because he was ready to play, and he was confident, and we've seen that grow and mature all year long. He's going to be a great player.

Really proud of him. It was huge. The 4th and 1, the initial hit, was Austin Bryant, and it was Austin Bryant, Dorian O'Daniel and Kendall Joseph, another freshman who hasn't played a lot, but those three guys were two freshmen and a sophomore making a big stop on 4th and 1, which was a key play in the game. But that's what you hope to get throughout the season is the development of some of those young guys.

Really proud of how they competed. And Kevin Dodd took his game, I thought he stepped up and led us and Reader and all those guys inside played a great game for us.

Nick, I was wondering if you could give a couple of examples of your process and how you fight complacency and just the human nature of being so good year after year.

NICK SABAN: Well, I think that you always try to create a standard of excellence and define exactly what the expectation is for the players that you have on this particular team, and each team is a little bit different. Whatever has been accomplished in the past certainly doesn't have anything to do with what the future holds. The future is really in front of our team and our players all the time. This team has done a particularly good job of sort of having the kind of competitive character and want-to that you like to see in a team. They've worked really hard to improve, and they've always competed well whenever challenged.

Some of the teams it's been a little more challenging to get that. They get a little bit satisfied when things go well. But I think the early loss to Ole Miss probably did a lot to jilt the attitude of this team in helping them do the things they needed to do to be what they could be and follow and do the things that were necessary for them to be a good football team.

As far as your game against Michigan State, was that as close to a perfect game as you've had a team play?

NICK SABAN: I wouldn't say so, but you're always critical as a coach. There was a lot of good things that we did in the game, and very pleased and happy about that. But you know, there was a lot of things that we could do better, and hopefully our players will look at that and try to go to work and improve on the things that would help us play better in the next game.

Dabo, I think for some people Alabama is a rivalry stirring some memories of the 1991 Fiesta Bowl and the MLK controversy. I wonder what your memories were at that time and how much attention you were paying to it.

DABO SWINNEY: We got our butts kicked. That's what my memory is. Browning Nagle became a first-rounder. I mean, we were really – ooh, that was a bad night. But I remember just for our team, we didn't really have any issues on our team. It was Coach Stallings' first year. We started out 0-3 that year. It was my sophomore season, but we finished really strong and beat Auburn in Birmingham and earned a ride out to the Fiesta Bowl. But we just weren't very focused, and it showed in how we played. I don't think that we had great preparation, and we got what we deserved.

That's about all I remember. It's kind of foggy from that particular night.

But that spurred us on to some great things. We lost one game the next year, my junior year, and then we didn't lose one – went 13-0 my senior year, and then I started coaching, and I think we won about 26, 24, 25 or 26 in a row, something like that. Sometimes you've got to fail to really be successful, and I know that particular game, as crazy as it sounds, kind of helped build a foundation for what we became after that.

Do you remember if there was much discussion about the whole holiday issue and the state's rejection of a paid holiday, or do you think the players were more focused on the game?

DABO SWINNEY: No, I think the players were focused. I know that players participated in – I remember that somebody – the guys had towels or whatever, but it wasn't a real distraction to be honest with you, but I don't remember all the details about it. But I do know that there were some issues.

What's the status of Tony Brown? Will he be traveling with the team to Arizona?

NICK SABAN: Tony is suspended, and until we get any new information, he will continue to be suspended.

When you look at Deshaun, what kind of challenges does he present to your defense?

NICK SABAN: Well, you know, first of all, the guy is an outstanding player and does a great job of executing their offense, tremendous dual threat in terms of being a very good passer and rushing for over 1,000 yards this year, you know, really is a very good rhythm passer as well as a guy who can sustain plays and extend plays because of his athleticism and ability to scramble. Really is probably as fine a dual-threat quarterback as we've played against for a long, long time, and certainly does an outstanding job of executing their offense, and there's no question about the fact that he's an outstanding leader, as well, because you can see the way the players sort of rally around him.

I want to take you back to the end of your first season at Alabama, 2007. What did you maybe have to change or work on to go into the 2008 season that served as a springboard to the success that you've had that year?

NICK SABAN: Boy, I'll tell you what, you know, I think that when you start a program, and I think Dabo probably would agree with all this, because he's done an outstanding job of building a great program at Clemson, is you really have to establish fundamental sort of intangibles that are going to help you build the kind of character, competitive character in the people that you have in the organization to get them to be all that they can be, and that says a lot about the attitude that the players have, and that's certainly a challenge. To get players to respect and trust in the principles and values, to get players to respect and trust each other, become a family and a team that believes in these things will help us be successful, and having people have sort of a positive attitude and energy about doing those things and being responsible and accountable for their own self-determination in following those things and having the kind of work ethic that it takes to be able to do those things, I think those are the fundamental things that you try to establish. They don't happen overnight. Players have to buy in, and we're very fortunate here in the way the players bought in and the improvements that we were able to make early on.

And when it comes to Jarran Reed, when did you first start to notice that he was kind of changing his role and turning more to that vocal leader, not just on the sideline but in games? Seems like he's been one of those fiery guys for you this season.

NICK SABAN: I think Jarran this year being a senior, being a guy that I think has the personality to impact other people. I think as a junior being the first year here, probably didn't assert himself or feel like he was in a position to do that, but certainly has done an outstanding job of that for us this year, all year long.

Dabo, I know you've got a lot of ties to Alabama, including your relationship you had with Victor Ellis, right up through speaking at his funeral. I've talked to you before about Victor, but I was curious if you had the picture of him up in your office and what do the reminders of him mean to you when you have such a successful season like this?

DABO SWINNEY: Well, yeah, I do have – I've got two pictures in my office of Victor. You know, when you deal with certain things like that, it brings the perspective, I think, helps keep things in perspective, and then also it's a reminder to me of the opportunity that we have as coaches every day to impact young guys' lives. That's just the bottom line.

You know, I'm so thankful that I had the opportunity to recruit Victor at Alabama, the relationship that I developed with him, even though I didn't coach him, he was a linebacker, and then years later we continued that relationship. It was just really one of the saddest things that I've ever had to deal with.

You know, I flew to Chattanooga to meet with him to try to help him kind of come to grips with what he was dealing with because he really was kind of in denial with some things, so I flew over – he was staying with the Millers and I flew over and met with him, and I knew that that would be the last time I would see him. He died about two or three weeks later, and just a really sad situation.

But I know that he died with peace, and I know that he was right with the Lord. Again, that's one of the reasons I keep those pictures in my office, because it just helps me keep the right perspective, and again, a reminder of every day we have the opportunity to make a difference in these guys' lives. It's so much more than just football, and I'm thankful for what the University of Alabama did for Victor Ellis because I know where he came from and I know how he left there, the man that he developed into, the education that he got. He actually came back to Alabama and was working for the University of Alabama when he got sick.

You know, just, again, I've got kids that are his age now when I recruited Victor. But a special person, and I think about him all the time.

And obviously he had that aggressive form of cancer. He wasn't supposed to live but four or five months. He lived much longer than that. How much of a fighting mentality do you kind of keep from him given that you're viewed as an underdog almost every time you've played late this season?

DABO SWINNEY: Well, I mean, I don't really think much about it in that regard, but I just remember his fight and how hard he fought. In fact, he was sick, and he came over to our bowl game in Atlanta in that December and then died not long after that. But he fought all the way to the end. He really did, and did everything that he could do. You know, again, that's – I think that's what life is all about is just trying to maximize the time that we have here on this side of heaven and being the best that we can be. He certainly did that.

His life was too short, but I know that he was impactful in I think 27 – I think it was 27 years that he had on this earth. That's about it.

You mentioned Austin Bryant a little earlier. Curious on the other side of the ball with Mitch Hyatt and his impact and your impression of him when he got on campus and the impact he's made for your offensive line?

DABO SWINNEY: He's been tremendous. He really has. He's a guy we don't really notice a whole lot to be honest with you, and typically with a true freshman you're holding your breath all the time. But he's really done a heck of a job for us. I haven't been around another true freshman left tackle that has started every game, but that's a very difficult position to play, regardless of your experience, and for a true freshman to do it has been remarkable, especially on a 14-0 team, and really, really proud of him. He's still a young player. He's not even close to what he's going to be, but he's got the commitment and the drive and the work ethic. The guy cares, and that's what makes it so fun to coach him. He's a very smart player, and he's going to give you everything he's got each and every practice, each and every game, and that's all you can ask for, and what the talent that he has, he's just going to continue to blossom.

Nick, sort of the same question for freshmen on the defensive side of the ball, Da'Ron Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, freshman players that have stepped up; your impressions of them when they got on campus and how they've progressed as the year has gone on?

NICK SABAN: I think all three of those young men have shown a lot of maturity as freshmen to be able to sustain the season and stay focused on the things they need to do to play winning football for us, and we've been very pleased with the way those guys have played for us all year long. Certainly have contributed to the success that we have.

I've been very, very pleased with those guys. I think a lot of times freshmen are really, really excited about getting the opportunity to play, but I think the ones that can focus on developing and stay focused on the things they need to do to be the kind of players they need to be to contribute to the team is really the most important factor, and all three of those guys have done that extremely well.


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