Clemson football’s Dabo Swinney talks transfer portal, NIL, coaching salaries and winning his way

CLEMSON, S.C. — Like him or loathe him, Dabo Swinney doesn’t mind speaking his mind, nor does he ever spend much time trying to be somebody he’s not.

Entering his 14th season as Clemson’s head coach and 20th season overall, Swinney has steered the Tigers to the top of the college football world — and he’s done it his way.

Clemson (gasp) failed to make the College Football Playoff last year for the first time after six straight appearances. Swinney joked that he’s on the hot seat heading into the 2022 season. The Tigers hold their annual spring game on Saturday, and Swinney sat down with ESPN this week to discuss everything from lofty expectations, to nasty letters he received when he got the job, to his new-look staff, to name image and likeness, to the transfer portal, to former quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Steve Spurrier joked recently that you won 10 games last year and it was a “bad” year, so there’s no question the program has moved into rare air.

Swinney: When I got the job here, we hadn’t won 10 games in 20 years, and now we’ve had 11 10-win seasons in a row, and if we have another one, they might fire me. Nah, it’s all good. I’m glad that we’ve got a passionate fan base and have high expectations, and to be honest with you, we didn’t have any business winning 10 games last year with what that team had to deal with and overcome. That team was amazing. That will be one of my favorite teams ever. You’re sitting there 4-3 and you finish 10-3, and now we’ve got the longest winning streak in the country. It’s hard to win. Ain’t but three schools in the history of football that have had 11 straight 10-plus win seasons and we’re one of them — us, Alabama and Bobby Bowden’s Florida State teams. Every year is a different challenge, and the consistency of our place, on and off the field, I think is what makes us unique and makes us special. If last year was a down year, I’ll take it.

You’re going into your 20th season at Clemson and 14th as head coach. Is that hard for even you to believe?

There are a lot of people that can’t believe it. It literally seems like February ’03, when I got here, was yesterday. When you love what you do and where you do it, it doesn’t feel like work.

It created quite a stir when Clemson promoted you from receivers coach to full-time head coach in 2009. Did you ever have anybody approach you personally and question the hire?

Heck no. Now I had a lot of people who hide behind those [computer] screens saying that and some who would write me.

Did you keep any of those letters?

Oh yeah, I keep all the bad ones. They’re in a file somewhere.

You still read them?

Oh, never. Now that first year, I read them and put them in a file. Maybe they will be in a book one day. There’s a bunch of them, too. But I get it. I was D-plus hire by ESPN, and I’m thankful for the plus. I’ve still got that graphic. I think I’m the only coach that got hired that year that’s still left. So, yeah, I was least likely to succeed, but it’s been fun, man, and we’ve done it our way, to prove that we can win by doing it right and not compromising. We sort of beat to our own drum.

After the loss to Alabama in the 2015 national title game, you were confident that Clemson was a program built to last. Looking back, why was that?

We knew what we’d built and then you go to six playoffs in a row, and everybody’s mad we didn’t go to seven in a row. They’re hard to get to. We hadn’t won an ACC championship in 20 years prior to ’09 when we started. We’re not going to win it every year. We’re not going to get to the playoff every year. But if we can be a consistent program, we’ll have those special years. I guess that was sort of the transformative teens. We transformed Clemson, and now we’re in the roaring ’20s. And, man, it’s fixin’ to be a ball. Our best is still in front of us, for sure.

What about this team gives you the most optimism that the Tigers will be back in the playoff chase in 2022?

If we’re just healthier, we’re going to be better. That’s the No. 1 thing. Even with all those injuries, we’re a pick-six away from a 3-3 game against Georgia heading into overtime, a double-overtime loss on the road to NC State, who made a couple of unbelievable plays, and then had a couple of opportunities at Pitt to take control of that game and we didn’t do it. Those are good teams. Pitt won the league. Georgia won the national championship. NC State had a heck of a year. We’re not entitled to win. The biggest thing is we’ve got to get healthy. We won a bowl game with 30 scholarship players out. I’ve never been a part of anything like that. We played three or four games without seven scholarship receivers. Most people barely have seven scholarship receivers. You’re starting a bunch of freshmen. Those aren’t excuses. It’s just reality, and you have to give credit to those other teams.

How much better will D.J. Uiagalelei be at quarterback next season and how much better does he need be?

We’ve got to be better around D.J. All young quarterbacks make mistakes, but we weren’t very good around him and that magnified his mistakes. We’ve got to be better around him. He’s got to be better and is better. He’s reshaped his body [down from 260 pounds to 240] and focused on getting better every day. One of the best things for him and the whole team is bringing in [freshman quarterback] Cade Klubnik. Nothing makes you better than real competition, and that’s what we’ve got this spring.

Even with Bryan Bresee and Tre Williams out this spring with injuries, what have you seen from a defensive line that should be as strong as anybody in college football?

On paper, this has a chance to be a pretty special group. We’ve got seven guys that can be drafted this time next year, good kids and leaders, very committed and good depth. It’s all going to start right there for us next season.

Did you ever think twice when you promoted from within on your staff this offseason after losing long-term coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott?

That’s what it’s all about. It’s a relationship business, and loyalty is a two-way street. I’m not sitting there if it wasn’t for Gene Stallings hiring me and promoting me from within at Alabama. I’ve always believed that part of my job is not just to develop the team, but to develop the staff. That’s a huge part, to me it is, evaluating and hiring the right people. I’m only as good as the people around me. I can’t do everything. It’s not always feasible to promote from within. It’s just not. When I hired Chad Morris in 2011, I didn’t have anybody that was feasible to promote at the time. But when Chad left, Tony was ready. When Tony left, Brandon Streeter [offensive coordinator] was way ready. He’s been unbelievably patient. Kyle Richardson [tight ends coach/pass game coordinator] was ready to move on the field and assume his role. Wes Goodwin [defensive coordinator] is past ready. When you have someone who is prepared, deserves it and has earned it, and you pass them by, that’s a breakdown in your culture.

Has your stance on using the transfer portal changed any?

My transfer portal is right there in that locker room, because if I’m constantly going out every year and adding guys from the transfer portal, I’m telling all those guys in that locker room that I don’t believe in them, that I don’t think they can play. We’re also not doing our job as coaches and recruiters if we’re bringing in a bunch of transfers. We’re not going to build our roster on transfers.

In what scenario would you use the transfer portal?

Again, if we’re having to use it to help build our roster, that means we’ve missed on kids and we’re no longer signing the best of the best out there. I don’t see that coming. We’ll have to use it, but only to fill a gap. There’s nobody on the planet that won’t have to use it. Just like this year, we’re down one in the offensive line and we need to find a guy, so we’re actively looking for an offensive lineman between now and May to get him in here for summer school. But we’re not just going to take a guy to take a guy because we think he’s a good player.

How much has NIL changed college football, and did you ever think it would not be used as a recruiting tool, especially now that we’re seeing high school players reportedly signing contracts with collectives that could potentially pay them as much as $8 million?

There’s no rules, no guidance, no nothing. It’s out of control. It’s not sustainable. It’s an absolute mess and a train wreck, and the kids are going to be the ones who suffer in the end. There are going to be a lot of kids that end up with no degrees and make decisions based on the wrong things. There are going to be a lot of decisions based on short-term stuff, and they’re going to sacrifice the long-term value of education, relationships and connectivity. It will settle out eventually. But, no, it’s not what it was supposed to be. The intention is very good. I love the fact that these guys can go make some money on their name, image and likeness if that’s what they want to do. But the way it’s set up right now is definitely not how it was intended. Just like most things, there are always unintended consequences, and unfortunately, the kids will be the ones to pay the price because you’ve got a lot of really young people that are having to grow up really, really fast.

How aggressive will Clemson be in the NIL world?

Everybody’s going to have a good NIL program, and our kids are going to have those opportunities once they get here. But we’re still going to get the same players without manipulating them coming out of high school. We’re still going to get Trevor Lawrence, Bryan Bresee, Trenton Simpson, Travis Etienne Jr. We’re still going to get those players. We have everything here in place at Clemson to get them.

What is your definition of the professionalization of college athletics?

Getting away from scholarships and getting away from academics. Ninety-eight percent of these kids are not playing in the NFL. That’s one of the reasons I do like the NIL because 98% of them aren’t going to make the NFL, so it’s good while they have a nice platform that they can take advantage of these opportunities. Clemson has a million Twitter followers, one of three football programs out there with a million. So it’s good they have an opportunity to make some money while they’re going through their journey right here. But we also know that 98% are not playing in the NFL, so we better be getting that degree. As adults, we should do everything we can to incentivize education — period, the end — and that ain’t ever going to change for me because I know ultimately that’s what creates generational change in young people’s lives. There’s nothing worse than seeing a 27-year-old, 28-year-old or 30-year-old who the band played for and the fans cheered for and they never got that degree and they’re struggling. So, for me, I’ve always been about education and the collegiate model and the collegiate experience, and I don’t think what’s been created now is healthy for the game, and in the long run, I don’t think it’s healthy for the young people.

How many of the players you recruit genuinely think they’re going to play in the NFL?

They all do, and I’m glad they do. I don’t really want them if they don’t think they can. I thought I was going to play in the pros. I’m still mad I didn’t, but that’s the reason I was successful. I thought I could. What we try to do at Clemson is free them up to go play football and teach them and equip them as men and let them know they are going to be great in life. When they really, truly learn that they are going to be great without football, man it really frees them up to just go play.

You’ve been outspoken that you’re adamantly against pay-for-play in college sports. Is that the direction big-time college sports is headed with NIL?

I am against anything that devalues education. That’s what I’m against. I am for anything that incentivizes education. People will come after me because I’ve always said that I’m against the professionalism of college athletics, and I am. Kids don’t know what they don’t know. That’s a slippery slope if you professionalize college athletics, and now you’ve got salaries and taxes and you can fire kids on the spot and they’ve got to pay for their tuition and they pay for their housing and everything else. Athletic directors would sign up for that in a heartbeat. They’d save that money.

What is your response when critics say you’re out of touch with the new-age world of NIL?

It doesn’t matter what I say. I’m going to get criticized. I’m way past that. I’ve been doing this a long time. The thing that changes young people’s lives is equipping themselves with tools for life, getting their education, networking, relationships, all those things. If they can make some short-term money along the way, great. But if that becomes the focus, there are going to be a lot of bad decisions by young people. There’s a reason car insurance is cheaper for a 25-year-old than an 18-year-old. It’s called judgment. There’s a lot that can be better and eventually I think it will get there.

Where is ‘there?’

I think there’s going to be a complete blowup and restructuring of all of college athletics, especially football, and there needs to be. I think eventually there will be some type of break and another division. Right now, you got everybody in one group, and it’s not feasible. Alabama has different problems than Middle Tennessee, but we’re trying to make them all be the same and it’s just not. I think you’ll have 40 or 50 teams and a commissioner and here are the rules. A commissioner would help because there’s no uniformity. It’s just a mess. You can’t get anything done. There’s so much bureaucracy and you can’t get anything done in a real-time manner. It’s frustrating. The communication is not good and the rules are outdated. Again, there have been a lot of positives when it comes to the scholarships. But you’ve got all these people voting on things, and it’s just not apples to apples.

Do you understand when people say, ‘Well, coaches like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are making in the $10 million range, why shouldn’t the athletes be able to profit even before they get on campus?’

Well, Nick Saban is 70 years old. I’m 52 years old. None of us set markets on what we do. We live in a capitalist society. The head of Delta probably makes a lot more than the people who are checking your baggage in, but those people are as vital as anybody. None of us set markets on what we do. It’s a free market we live in, in anything. It’s just that our jobs are so visible and so public. I can tell you this: None of us got into coaching to make money, but I don’t apologize for being successful.

How much money did you make when you first got into coaching?

I made $38,000 when coach [Gene] Stallings gave me a chance. The most I made at Alabama was $80,000, and I coached eight years there. I made a decision to get into coaching because that’s what my passion was. That’s a message for everyone. You chase what you’re passionate about doing and go to work loving what you’re doing, and everything else takes care of itself.

Do college football coaches make too much money?

That’s always going to be a question that’s out there because we have such a visible job, but I’d say Nick Saban has had a pretty big impact on the University of Alabama, not just the football program. I’d say he’s had a pretty big impact on Tuscaloosa. He’s probably underpaid, to be honest with you. There will always be that conversation 50 years from now. I don’t care what you do or how you structure it. But that’s fair. Everybody can have their opinion. I respect their opinion, just like the people who disagree with me on professionalizing college athletics.

What have your emotions been like watching the Deshaun Watson situation play out?

I’m thankful that he’s gotten through the criminal process. He’s got a chance to get back to work and get back to doing what he loves to do. I love Deshaun, and nothing is going to change that. He’s been through a lot and I’ve tried to be a friend and counsel him as well and be a good mentor to him over this past year. I’m excited about his future. He’s going to do great.

How much have you talked to him?

We’ve tried to stay in touch, especially these last few weeks when he finished up the legal stuff and was trying to decide what he was going to do. It’s good to see the confidence the Browns have in him. It’s amazing how they stepped up to get him. I’m happy for him. They’ve got a lot of good pieces in place, and he’s going to be a good fit for them and hungry to get back out there and get to work.

When you taste success the way Clemson has on your watch, does feeding that monster ever become overwhelming?

I think we’ve lost one home game since 2014. I hope we never lose a home game. I might have to exit the field pretty quick. I take it year by year, day by day and focus on the right things. I love the expectations. I’m glad we’ve built a program that people expect to be really good. We’ve had 10 top-15 finishes in a row. We’ve got a good football team coming back and going to have one for years to come.