Swinney thankful for the patience of Terry Don Phillips
|Saturday, May 15, 2021, 8:00 AM- -|
The current landscape around college football doesn’t allow coaches the time to build up a program, as a win-now mentality creates turnover in the college coaching ranks. Dabo Swinney doesn’t know if he would have survived in the SEC, or if he would survived any other athletic director than Terry Don Phillips.
At 140-33, Swinney (.809) enters the 2020 season as the winningest active coach by percentage in the FBS among coaches with at least five seasons of head coaching experience. With the addition of the 2020 ACC Championship, all 12 of Swinney’s recruiting classes have won at least one ACC title in their careers, and every recruiting class since 2012 has earned at least one College Football Playoff berth.
Clemson’s success on the gridiron has been matched by its prowess in the classroom, as Clemson is one of only three programs to earn Top 10 percent APR recognition from the NCAA in at least nine of the last 10 years, joining Duke and Northwestern. Clemson was in the top 10 of APR scores and the final top 25 of the AP and USA Today polls from 2011-15, the only FBS program that could make that claim. In 2017, Clemson became the first school to reach the College Football Playoff and finish in the top five of APR scores in the same year.
During an interview on Colin Cowherd’s podcast this past week, Cowherd asked Swinney if he would have survived those tumultuous early seasons if he had been an SEC coach.
“That's a good question, and I don't know, probably not,” Swinney said. “Fortunately for me, we won the league my third year, but even though we won the league, we got destroyed in the bowl game and then we lost to our rival, and so the first year we won the division, won nine, the second year we won six games, and that was not good. But then the next year we come back and won 10 games, won the league for the first time in 20 years. So, that was big because we if would've had back-to-back six games, I'm not sure I would of got a fourth year with Clemson to be honest with you, but that second year with the six wins, we lost five games by six points or less, two of them in overtime, one of those to Auburn and Cam Newton.”
Swinney said he will forever be thankful to his former athletic director.
“And I'm thankful that I had an AD that believed in me in Terry Don Phillips. True story, the second year we won six games and we lost to South Carolina and it was a bad day,” Swinney said. “And I remember coming up, did the little press conference, and I came out and I was heading back to my office and my wife met me outside and she just had this horrible look on her face, and she said, ‘Babe, I'm so sorry.’ And she said, ‘Mr. Phillips is in your office.’ And I just looked at her and I said, ‘Well, hey, we did the best we could.’ I mean, I really thought I was about to be fired. I mean, this is my second season, it's not like I was some sexy hire.
“We had just won six games, we just lost to South Carolina, it's not good, and so I'm thinking I'm about to be fired, and I knew he was under a lot of pressure and I walk in my office, I came around the corner and I look into the door's kind of cracked. And Terry Don's sitting in there on the couch, and I walk in there and it's dark, he didn't have the light on, and I walk in and he just says, ‘Hey, come over here and sit down.’ and I'm fully prepared to tell him ‘Thank you for the opportunity’ and ‘Hey, sorry I let you down.’ And it was just a very bad moment. I sit down and he looked at me and he said, and this was a turning point for me too, emotionally, and just you name it.
“And he said, ‘Dabo listen to me. I know this was a tough game. Look, there's going to be a lot of criticism for me and for you. But here's what I want you to know,’ and he looked at me dead in the eye and he said, ‘I believe in you more right now than when I did when I hired you. You're going to be a great head football coach,’ and he said, he goes, ‘I just want you to know that I got your back.’ He said, ‘And if it don't work, you can help me pack and I'll come help you pack. But I just want you to know, I think you are a great coach and you're going to do a great job.’ And he got up and left.”
Clemson has seen nothing but success under Swinney since those early days.
“And from that point on, like I said, the next year we've had 10, 10-plus win seasons in a row, only us and Alabama, but literally, from that meeting forward, just to know that this guy was truly all in and believed in me with all of his heart. And so I'm thankful because not everybody has a Terry Don Phillips as an AD, and I'm thankful that I had a guy like him, that believed in me and saw something in me. He gave me a chance to be the interim, and then a chance to be the head coach.”
Swinney said a huge part of his success is that the Clemson program starts over every season.
“We start over every year as if we all just landed from a planet and we don't even know each other, and reinstall the program, reinstall everything we do, why we do it that way,” Swinney said. “I do the same thing with the team, because I just think that if you don't, your complacency sets in. We have a saying around here that greatness is always under construction. Like our interstate out here, it's I-85, I don't know how it is wherever you are, but I've been here 18 years and it's never not been under construction. That's a mentality that you have to have.”