Coaching Resource: Q&A with Dabo Swinney

Matt Fortuna, (

Swinney sat down with The All-American to talk about the potential pitfalls of success, the promise of this year’s team, what it’s like to be one of just four active title-winning coaches and much more.

Last year I remember reading Jay Wright, after Villanova won the NCAA tournament, reached out to championship coaches and other people just on how to guard for your life changing, guard for the expectations, not having a letdown. Have you had to do any of that? Who’ve been your resources now as a national champion coach, as it pertains to not sustaining this thing but helping this grow with a different kind of target on your back?

Swinney: Well for me it’s just the mentality that we’ve had. We talk about having a windshield mentality every day, that’s what we talk about. And we have for eight years. It’s always about what’s next — what’s the next play? — and it’s a new journey. We start over every year.

Again, like I said, we’ve won 70 games in six years, so the reason we’ve been so consistent is the culture, how we run our program. Just because we won one more game, that didn’t change anything. And it’s interesting to me, sometimes there’s a rhetoric of: “OK, wow, you won a national championship, you won this game, so now there’s gonna be complacency and this and that.”

And golly, man, when you do something like that, it’s not like you check the box and you say: “OK, I saw the Grand Canyon. Done that. Great.” You know what I’m saying? Like Wally World, you pull up, you’re Clark Griswold and you go: “OK, there’s the Grand Canyon, y’all ready to go? Check!” This isn’t just a check-the-box thing. This is one of those experiences, when you do it, you’re so motivated to go do it again.

That’s what I don’t get. Like, man, I’ve never been more motivated to win an ACC championship, because you wanna do it again. That’s why everything we’ve done once, we’ve done again. We had a 10-win season for the first time in 20 years in 2011, guess what? We’re going for Year 7 now. We won the ACC in ’11, first time in 20 years, now we’ve played for it four times, won it three times and fighting to go do it again.

When you experience that you want to do it again. And so it’s not a de-motivating thing. And that’s why Tom Brady keeps playing. He wants to do it again. And you can’t describe that until you experience it. So it’s not a check-the-box deal.

This is man, something that is highly motivating — and again, that’s why we’ve built our program to have a consistent program, not to have a great team. We’ve been as good a program as there is in the country — I think only Alabama’s won more in the last six years than Clemson. OK, so we’re not a one-trick pony. We’ve been incredibly consistent, and it’s because of the culture. It’s how we run it. It’s how we start over. It’s the philosophy. It’s the core values. It’s how we practice. It’s the offseason. It’s everything.

All that last win did was motivate us even more. It didn’t de-motivate us at all. That don’t mean we’re gonna win it again, but I see a very driven, motivated team go compete and be the best they can be, and that’s all I can ask for. I can live with any result we get as long as I continue to see that.

The fraternity now of active coaches to win a title added you and then lost Bob Stoops this summer. Only four now. Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher. Obviously you beat all three last year, but what do you learn from those guys? What’s your relationship like with those three guys? Do you pick their brains for things? Do they come to you for things?

Swinney: Absolutely. I talk to all those guys. I obviously spend time with Jimbo at our (ACC) meetings and stuff. I spend time with Coach Meyer every year, we spend a week together on the Nike trip. And we had a good time this year. Actually played a little basketball with each other and talked some shop.

Who’s better?

Swinney: Well our team won. It was me and (Rich) Rodriguez vs. him and David Shaw. So we won the game, but everybody was all pretty good. Coaches can play. It was a fun time.

But I pick everybody’s brain. Everybody wants to measure you and define you by championships, and that’s great. But to me, I’m not any different a coach now than I was before we won the national championship. I’m really not. That trophy doesn’t define me or make me any better. It really doesn’t. For me it’s just about keeping the main thing the main thing. Starting over every year. Don’t get complacent as far as: “Ah, well, we know that, no need to go over that, that’s a little thing.” No, the little things are huge things. And so just continuing to be passionate and just drive that in our program every single day.

I learn from Coach Saban, I talk to him, and I think with all those guys, the consistency, that’s what I’ve always been after. Because at the end of the day, if you can be one of those teams that’s got a chance year in and year out — and in my opinion there’s really somewhere between maybe 10 and maybe 15 — 10 to 12 teams that really have a chance to win it all. If we can be one of those teams year in and year out, man, that’s where I wanna be. Because we’ll have those years.

National championships are really, really hard. And if you’re only defining your success based on that, then there’s a lot of failures in the world. And I don’t subscribe to that.

But what I like about all those guys is the consistency that they’ve had in their programs. The drive to be great. Coach Saban’s 60-something years old, and he’s as driven now as he was when he was my age. I don’t have any doubt about that. He’s still about the same things. I promise you, he’s coaching that corner’s inside technique and footwork as hard today after winning five national championships as he was before. Because he knows it’s those little things that lead to big things. He’s out there recruiting because he knows he needs great players. He’s holding his staff accountable.

And I guarantee it’s the same thing at Ohio State, it’s the same thing at Florida State, it’s the same thing at Clemson. Now we may all do it different ways, but those core values and principles are the same. So that’s the biggest thing I see. Again, I’ve got to be me in how I do it, but I see those things in all of those programs and all of those guys, and that’s why they’ve been so consistent.

Did you use Mack Brown’s (2005-06) title speech as a resource — “don’t let this be the best moment of your life”? The theme sounded familiar.

Swinney: No, but I certainly remember that vaguely. But no, it was something that was important in that moment to just remind those guys that I’ve been there. I was in a locker room that won a national championship as a player. And I had teammates that probably to this day, that’s still their best moment.

And man, listen, we’ve got a lot more to do. You guys gotta go take this right here, bottle it up and go out and dominate life with it. Don’t let this be all you’re known for.

And that was really the message that I wanted conveyed to them in that moment. And it was awesome. The best part of that moment was we just kind of got quiet, and we just kind of all looked around, and you could just kind of see the look in everybody’s eye. It was pretty cool before we said a word. I loved that.

For these quarterbacks, how important is it to let them know they’re not replacing Deshaun Watson, to let them be themselves?

Swinney: I think it’s very important. It’s very important.

Listen, I didn’t recruit them to come be Deshaun Watson. I recruited them to be Kelly Bryant. I recruited them to be Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson, Chase Brice, so on. I mean, we recruited them because they fit what we do and we felt like they could be a championship-performing quarterback for us. We don’t go out and sign guys to come be somebody else. I just need them to be the best version of them. When we signed Mike Williams — “Hey, I don’t need you to be Nuk Hopkins. I need you to be the best version of Mike Williams.”

And so I think it’s very important that they work really hard to be the best that they can be, and also: They ain’t gotta be Superman. They’ve got a lot of help around them. We’re gonna have a strong defense, we’re gonna be a very, very good offensive line. Let’s just be the best version of you week-in and week-out. That’s what we recruited you for. We didn’t recruit Deshaun to be Tajh (Boyd). We recruited him to be Deshaun. And it’s no different now.

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