Tangents. Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney loves tangents.
Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was talking about that Wednesday with amusement. He was saying you have so many things to cover in a team meeting, and so little time to check all the boxes. And then Swinney spends the first 10 minutes going off-topic, focusing on something that has nothing to do with football.
Scott has learned to love that about Swinney. He’s quirky. He’s chatty. And most importantly, he’s original.
"He’s as genuine as anyone you’ll meet," said Scott, who first got to know Swinney as a high school coach, attending clinics Swinney taught in the summer as Clemson’s wide receivers coach.
"He truly has an appreciation for his players and his coaches, for the managers and the trainers. He knows everybody and their families. It sounds like a cliché, but he cares more about our players as young men than he does as football players."
That sounds like a sales pitch, and to an extent it is, but it’s also accurate. There are numerous ways to be a successful college football coach. You can be single-minded intense the way Alabama’s Nick Saban is. You can be talk-show host charismatic, the way Pete Carroll was at Southern Cal.
Or you can keep being the small-town guy from Alabama, who probably had no business playing for the Crimson Tide, but ended up Academic All-SEC. The guy who was named interim head coach at Clemson in 2008 after Tommy Bowden resigned. The guy who went 4-2 to get that "interim" tag off his job title. The guy who has coached the 12-1 Tigers to a second consecutive appearance in the college-football playoffs.
The other offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, played wide receiver for Swinney when Swinney was a Clemson position coach. Elliott is a serious guy with a background in engineering before switching to coaching.
Elliott says the beauty of Swinney is he knows when to be serious and he knows when to break out in a goofy dance, to the delight of his players.
"He never takes himself too seriously," Elliott says. "And he lets you do your job."
Clemson plays Ohio State Saturday in a game for the right to play for the national championship versus the winner of Alabama-Washington. That invokes the kind of stakes that could create a lot of pressure.
Except not so much.
"He’s chill," star wide receiver Mike Williams said of the tone Swinney sets.
And why not? The Tigers are loaded with talent, particularly among offensive skill-position players. They have won 26 of their last 28 games, and gave Alabama a scare in the 45-40 loss in last year’s title game. They are back in the Phoenix area (University of Phoenix Stadium hosted last season’s title game), looking to complete the journey this time around.
Scott said Swinney sets several goals each season, but it’s never "win the title" at the end of that list. It’s win the opener, win the division, win the state (arch-rival South Carolina), win the ACC and win the last game: Whatever that last game is.
Scott says when you accomplish what Swinney has (he’s 130-54 in 8 ½ seasons at Clemson), it’s easy to take on pretense. That’s never happened, and perhaps that’s the trick to successfully recruiting the likes of Williams, quarterback Deshaun Watson and freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.
"Sometimes with the higher-level coaches, there’s a little bit of a glass shield that’s up just naturally," Scott said. "Coach Swinney doesn’t have that at all. He’ll just sit on the couch (with a recruit), talking to that kid like he’s their high-school coach.
"He makes those families very comfortable with how real he is as a person."
To have that at the top of your program, an assistant coach can live with a lot of 10-minute tangents at the start of team meetings.