Opinion: What happened to Dabo Swinney? Even as Clemson wins, he loses with out-of-touch stances

Dan Wolken

The night of Dec. 31, 2015 was probably the first time most people with a casual interest in college football had seen much of Dabo Swinney, and for the most part, America loved what it saw. 

His program, the Clemson Tigers, was the new kid on the block and would soon play Alabama in a classic national championship game that foreshadowed a decade-defining rivalry. Swinney himself was a welcome fresh face for the sport. In a coaching profession that had become buttoned-up and corporate, Swinney was engaging, folksy and laid-back. Unlike many of his colleagues who treat media obligations like an imposition on their ability to watch the same game film for the 2,000th time that week, Swinney could turn any question into a soliloquy and a story. 

The more Clemson won, the bigger Swinney got. And the bigger he got, the more we heard him talk. And talk. And talk. And talk, to the point where we have learned more about his worldview in the last five years than perhaps all of his Division I coaching colleagues combined. 

Clemson  coach Dabo Swinney

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But the more Swinney has talked, the less he has projected the image of the fun-loving, new-age program builder that defined his rise from coaching nothingness, and the more he has come across as stubborn, ill-informed and out-of-touch. 

As Clemson prepares for its sixth consecutive appearance in the Playoff in Friday’s Sugar Bowl semifinal against Ohio State, aiming to win its third national title of this era, Swinney will end 2020 as arguably the sport’s most polarizing figure. On every topic that defined this year in college football from the pandemic to racial inequality to something as picayune as how he voted in the Amway Coaches Poll, Swinney has leaned into controversy and doubled down. And it doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. 

“He is going to stand on his beliefs, and he’s certainly not going to be politically correct,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. 

Give Swinney this: No matter what he says in a given moment, you know it’s coming from an authentic place. That’s just as true now that he has two championships and a $9 million a year contract as it was a decade ago when it looked as if he might be a short-timer as a college head coach. 

The difference now is Swinney is arguably the face of the sport right next to Nick Saban, so more people are paying attention more often. But unlike Saban, who has turned avoiding controversy into an art form, Swinney does not filter anything, even on sensitive topics where he knows it will make him the target of criticism and mockery.  

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback Trevor Lawrence are going after their second national title together.

And frankly, in 2020, he’s deserved it. Just look at some of his greatest hits from the year:

-- When the pandemic first hit and everything in college sports was canceled for the foreseeable future, Swinney in April had “zero doubt that we’re going to be playing and the stands are going to be packed” and that “we’re going to rise up and kick this thing in the teeth and get back to our lives.” Why was he so sure? Because we’re America, goshdarnit, and “We’ve stormed the beaches of Normandy. We’ve sent a rover out on Mars and walked on the moon.”

-- In June, when college athletes across the country were protesting racial injustice and discussing bias in policing after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Swinney came up woefully short when he got a chance to give his own response. “What I know as I approach everything from a perspective of faith is that where there are people, there’s going to be hate, there’s going to be racism and greed and jealousy and crime and so on because we live in a sinful fallen world,” he said in a tone-deaf diversion that registered as a gut-punch to some of his former players. 

-- Swinney’s inadequate response prompted the revelation from a former player that assistant coach Danny Pearman had used a racial slur during a 2017 practice. Though the slur was not directed at the player, it was clear the incident had not been addressed at the time by Swinney to the satisfaction of several players who witnessed it. Ultimately, Pearman apologized. 

-- A few days later, a photograph surfaced on Twitter of Swinney at a pool wearing a “Football Matters” t-shirt, a slogan that was part of a National Football Foundation campaign. Given the context of racial justice protests happening all over the country, it didn’t go over well on social media. Swinney said “any insinuation that I was trying to mock the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is just an attack against my character,” which is certainly believable. But for such a well-known person, not understanding how out of place “Football Matters” would be perceived at that time made him look aloof. Later, Swinney joined players in a social justice march and admitted to reporters, "I'm embarrassed to say that there’s things on this campus I didn’t really understand. I knew the basics but not the details. But I’ve learned and I’ve listened."

-- On the morning of Nov. 21, with Clemson already in Tallahassee getting ready to play Florida State, the Seminoles canceled the game because a Tigers’ player who traveled with the team tested positive for COVID-19. It turned into a four-day back-and-forth between the schools, with Swinney ultimately accusing the Seminoles of ducking the game. “This game was not canceled because of COVID,” he said. "COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game.” In the middle of a pandemic season where everyone is having to roll with the punches, it was petty and unnecessary to pick that fight. But Dabo did it anyway because, ultimately, he couldn’t help himself. 

In a world where coaches and programs need to be constantly packaged and sold to recruits, who are becoming more socially aware and potentially more empowered to become their own money-making brands in the coming world of name, image and likeness, Swinney is an anomaly. 

He has consistently decried the professionalization of college athletics while shrugging his shoulders about making $9 million and saying he’s not the one who sets the market. A few years ago, he ripped Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem and suggested that because America elected a Black president twice, the racism problem in this country may not be that bad. And this year, his comments on COVID-19 have been bizarre, lacking perspective and just flat-out wrong.  

Even if other coaches believed those things, most wouldn’t dare say them out loud. Swinney does, which makes him a hero to a fairly large segment of society and completely insufferable to everyone else. All the while, he’s raking in recruits and wins. Whatever controversy Dabo’s mouth generates has thus far had no impact on his program whatsoever. 

"We all knew what type of man Dabo was,” defensive end Myles Murphy said. “What outsiders said about our coach, it really didn't affect us.”

Five years ago, it did not seem likely Dabo Swinney would become the biggest lightning rod in college sports. It was all backslaps and hosannas in those days; a program on the rise and a coach who made it look like a lot of fun.

But it’s different when you get to the top of the sport, and if Swinney wins his third title in the next couple weeks, he’ll be bigger than ever. In a year where he’s been embarrassingly wrong off the field, he just might cap his greatest achievement on it.