Rob Oller: Dabo Swinney's contagious personality has pros and cons

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney rubs some people the wrong way, but he has many supporters.

Dabo Swinney is Danny Ocean with a deep Southern dialect, a smooth operator whose “aw shucks” delivery masks his agenda — to walk away the winner, whatever it takes.

Does that make the Clemson coach a con man? Depends on who you ask. Swinney’s supporters blame the media for manipulating his words. Detractors denounce Dabo as a hypocritical fraud who thumps the Bible even as he thumps anyone or anything that stands between the Tigers and a national championship.

Critical Ohio State fans recall how in 2017 Swinney told the nation’s top offensive tackle recruit that Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was on the back end of his career.

“It wasn’t a major factor, but it was an underlying one (in choosing Clemson over Ohio State),” Jackson Carman told Ari Wasserman of The Athletic. 

Clemson fans maintain that Swinney simply spoke the truth, pointing out that Meyer left Ohio State a year later. True, but when presenting a squeaky-clean image it is best to avoid slinging mud.

The latest act of attrition against Ohio State had Swinney ranking the Buckeyes 11th on his final coaches poll ballot, five spots lower than any other coach did, basing his decision on fairness. He refused to put OSU, or any other team that played fewer than 10 games, in the top 10.

Interesting. In September, Swinney expressed no concern that the College Football Playoff committee might select a Big Ten team that played fewer games than other contenders. Would he have voted a 6-0 Clemson No. 11?

Also interesting, Swinney said on Monday that Ohio State is good enough to win the national championship, but it wasn’t his job to pick the four best teams. What then is the point of him voting in the coaches poll? To use it as a soapbox. 

Rob Oller

But that’s Dabo, equally comfortable doubling back as he is doubling down. Does that make him a hypocrite? Of course. It also makes him human, which is why Clemson is neck and neck with Alabama as the No. 1 and 1a of college football. Much of Swinney’s popularity, especially among his Southern recruiting base, is tied to him speaking his mind on matters of football and faith. Dabo has the audacity to share his Christian beliefs and espouse conservative values without apology.  

The guy also can coach. His .814 winning percentage over 13 seasons ranks first among active FBS coaches and 12th all-time. He is 3-0 against Ohio State, including 2-0 against Meyer. 

By my count, that makes Swinney more legitimate than the flim-flam Music Man some want to make him out to be. Dabo is no Harold Hill faking his way to success. That said, he does display what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get tendencies, based on his actions not always lining up with his words. And those words carry more clout than ever, given that Clemson has made five consecutive playoff appearances, winning national titles in 2016 and 2018.

With success comes power, which Swinney is not afraid to use when he thinks his Tigers are getting the raw end of the deal.

When Florida State cited COVID-19 concerns for canceling its Nov. 21 game against Clemson at the last minute, Swinney said, “This game was not canceled because of COVID. COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game.” The inference being the Seminoles did not want to lose to the Tigers.

Swinney’s frustration was understandable, but something more contemptible brewed beneath the surface. When FSU coach Mike Norvell responded to Swinney’s comments with “Football coaches are not doctors. Some of us might think that we are,” Dabo fired back with, “I’m not really worried about what they say down there in Tallahassee. … I’ve been in this league 18 years, been a head coach (for) 12. They’ve had three head coaches in four years.” 

Swinney’s defenders, and they are legion, push back against accusations that the former Alabama walk-on wide receiver spews insincerity.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who has worked with Swinney since 2012, praises his boss for possessing all kinds of admirable attributes.

“He’s going to speak from his heart. And he’s going to stand on his beliefs,” Venables said, addressing Swinney’s decision to rank Ohio State 11th. “And he’s certainly not going to be politically correct.”

Venables also shot down the notion that Swinney has become more vocal through the years. It only seems like he has found a stronger voice because more people are paying attention. And because a microphone is always in his face. 

“I think he’s always been comfortable in his skin since I've known him,” Venables said. “He’s the same exact guy I thought he was when I saw him from afar. He’s just very genuine, real, authentic, raw, emotional, speaks from the heart, true to himself, true to his values.”

Venables added, “There is nobody on this earth that I have more respect for. … That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything. He doesn’t expect that.”

Or maybe he does? It is hard to know what is cooking behind that Gomer Pyle smile.     

roller@dispatch.com

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