Emily Price, Upstate Business Journal (http://upstatebusinessjournal.com/news/clemsons-dabo-swinney-just-slogan-leadership-philosophy/)
“Take what you’ve got and do the best you can” – and other leadership lessons from Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney
It was 4 p.m. Following a stunning conversation with (then) athletic director Terry Don Phillips – who informed Swinney he was, effective immediately, the interim head coach upon Tommy Bowden’s mid-season exit – Swinney entered the locker room and asked all who weren’t players to leave.
Dabo, then just 38 – a wide receivers coach lacking even a coordinator line item on his resume – had just become the second-youngest head coach in Clemson football history behind legendary Danny Ford. He recalls his team address vividly.
“Listen, guys, here is the deal,” he said. “For the next six weeks we’re going to do things differently. I know I don’t have much of a chance to get this job, but I have a chance. For the next six weeks, I’m all in – everything I’ve got.”
Since that fateful day, Swinney has evolved from a fresh-faced and distinctly charismatic position coach to head coach for six full seasons. He’s posted a 60-26 overall record. He has led the Tigers to two ACC championship appearances, won an ACC title, won or shared three division titles and been the first Tiger head coach since Ford to be named a national coach of the year. He’s also continued to produce nationally lauded recruiting classes, often cited as a top recruiter in the country.
Swinney sat down one-on-one with UBJ to discuss management and leadership – his own ability and style; how he develops the will to lead and accountability in hundreds of young men; the impact of a strong organizational culture, and more.
“All In” – it’s not just a slogan. It’s a way of life here, and it’s about being committed to just doing the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s what it’s about. It’s about doing your very best on and off the field – and the same thing with the coaches, man. Just take what you’ve got and do the best you can. Just be fully committed to the task at hand – and it’s been fun to be a part of it.
What’s your leadership strategy?
For me it all goes back to, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s about having a genuine appreciation for each other – for everybody, and for each person’s role. I want to be kind of a “servant leader.” Leadership is ultimately about serving others, and I think if you have that mentality and that perspective, then you have a chance to be a good leader. It’s not about others serving you. I just try to lead by relationships. Obviously you’ve got to make decisions, set the charge, have the vision, and the strategy and the philosophies and all those other things – and you’ve got to implement that – but at the end of the day, none of that stuff’s going to matter if you don’t create the right culture from a leadership standpoint.
For me it’s just trying to lead in a way that hopefully impacts other people’s lives – people’s lives that I come into contact with every single day – and just leading by example. Be the things that you’re trying to incorporate into your players as far as caring about others, sacrificing for others, giving to others, and not expecting more from other people than you’re willing to give. So those are things that I try to demonstrate and exemplify to my team.
But there are a lot of things that are part of our culture here – and part of our program – that are very important.
Ultimately I think just whoever you are, that’s what you have to be on a consistent basis, day in and day out.
First of all is, you never know who’s paying attention. You never know who is watching you, so whatever it is you’re doing, just bloom where you’re planted. Just do a great job with whatever you’ve been charged to do. If you’re cleaning the building – whatever it is, just take pride in your work, treat people the right way, and that was something that was reinforced to me that day.
The second thing is you have to be prepared for your opportunities. You never know when they are going to come. I knew I was ready, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to get an opportunity, and you can never be fully prepared to be a head coach until you’ve done it. But I was ready to have that opportunity, and I had prepared for a long time for whenever that day came.
I knew immediately if I was going to have a chance, I was going to have to change the culture quickly, and I was going to have to create some positive energy and some enthusiasm and get these guys to think differently – because we just hoped to win. We didn’t really expect to win.
And I knew I had a six-week opportunity, so the way I saw it, I didn’t have a great chance to get the job. But I was like, “You know what? I’m getting a head start here,” and it was all about the players.
I tried to remove all the negativity that had kind of been a part of what we were doing. We made a lot of changes – tried to instill some pride in some things. Little things – down to how we show up on game day, dressed in a coat and tie. Just tried to take a little more pride in how we called things offensively, to how we practiced to how we met – everything.
[I also] went to work in trying to establish the relationships within the team, especially the leadership of the team … and I am forever grateful to that group because they made a decision: “We’re going to buy in.” And they did … and we had a heck of a run.
That time kind of set us on track as far as putting the foundation in place. The core things we did in that six-week span we still do right now. I’m very proud of those guys — Tyler Grisham and Mike Hamlin were two of my seniors that year, and now they’re back here on my staff. We’ve actually talked about that, because our first win was up in Boston. And six years later — we were just up there — we got another win, and I talked to the team about that.
I said, “You guys need to understand that six years ago, a group of guys made a decision. And because of that — that will to win, that fight, that love for one another, that passion — we’re all here today, six years later. So let’s go out and let’s play in a way that honors that group, because none of us would be there if it wasn’t for them.”
So I always appreciated that first team, because that was a tough time for them, and I was really happy that we were able to finish their career in a positive way.
Such as, they care about their teammates; they serve others; they’re “all in” as far as the way we do things in this program. They don’t expect more from their teammates than they’re willing to give. They lead by example. Tajh Boyd was a great leader for us. … They chose to stay positive no matter what the circumstances.
How do you create or foster great leaders? How do you bring this out of these young men and develop it for use both on and off the field?
Relationships. Everything goes back to relationships – a lot of one-on-one time; meetings; lot of accountability built into our program . I’ll give you a couple of specifics, but we have a huge support staff and we have a lot of people who mentor these guys.
Jeff Davis is director of player relations for us, and he meets with these guys all the time. We have a career development program we put these guys through, trying to teach them and grow them in a lot of areas.
We have what we call the Swinney Huddle — Coach McCorvey meets with the Swinney Huddle — and that’s everybody who touches our players that’s not a coach. It’s the academic people; it’s the trainers; it’s the equipment people; it’s all of our support staff; it’s the nutritionist — it’s everybody like that, and he meets with them every week.
Then one of the best things we’ve done the last several years is, every January, when we begin a new year, the upcoming seniors all go out to Coach Batson’s house, our strength coach, and have a big dinner, and they draft their team. Each senior has to draft his team. It’s called the Accountability Draft. You’re not getting drafted based on your talent; you’re getting drafted based on your accountability. Because once the teams are made, there’s going to be nine, 10, 11 guys on a team that is a team within the team.
So that’s how we coach and teach accountability and develop leadership, because all 10-11 guys are held accountable for everything for that team. So if this guy down here is missing class, then they’re all accountable for that guy, and that’s the way the game of football works. If we’ve got 11 guys out there — we’ve got nine that are doing their job and two that aren’t — then we all suffer, and then we carry that all year, and everything counts.
From “you didn’t dress right, to your workouts, to you were late for treatment; you missed a class, you missed a tutor” — whatever. And that has really helped us in developing the accountability and leadership as well. That part of it — the communication — all of those things, developing the trust and respect within our program.
We talk about all the time, we want get everybody “All in,” so that’s kind of the goal. Well, how do we do that? For us, we want to have a family atmosphere. We want to have trust and respect. There has to be a common purpose that everybody has bought into. There has to be communication. We have a lot of that. And then there has to be a genuine appreciation for each other. So that’s kind of the foundation to get everybody “All in,” and we work very hard in all of those areas. And the leadership part of it is developed throughout all of that.
And that’s something we talk to our guys about all the time. There’s no entitlement. None of us are entitled to anything. You get what you earn. It’s all about team. This program, this university, is bigger than any of us. When I leave Clemson or they run me out of Clemson – guess what, this place is going to keep on going. It’s the same for any player — Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller, Vic Beasley — it doesn’t matter. When they leave Clemson, Clemson is going keep on going.
So everyone needs to understand/appreciate the opportunity we have to be a part of a special place, and from a coach’s standpoint: A high level of discipline and accountability throughout the program. And when guys don’t do what’s right, then there’s consequences, and we move on.