Clemson Football: Why Dabo Swinney should never leave, not even for Alabama

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers leaves the field after the victory over the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers leaves the field after the victory over the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

If Dabo Swinney ever hopes to see his name compared to Alabama greats like Nick Saban and Bear Bryant, he’ll remain with Clemson football.

"“My deal is to be great where I’m at. I had opportunities to leave Alabama. I had opportunities to leave Clemson. But I’ve just never been that guy about the next job. I’m about the job I’ve got.”"

That was Dabo Swinney’s response in 2015 to a question that has only become more common in the years since: Once Nick Saban moves on from Alabama, will Swinney become his replacement?

Swinney’s response fits the context of the 2015 college football universe. Though he had gradually improved the Clemson program into a yearly contender, Swinney still dealt with pesky questions about “Clemsoning” – the idea that the Tigers would always find a way to lose a game they should easily win (also a term Swinney detests). The pre-2016 years painted the picture of a Clemson destined to forever get bounced from the club that only admits college football’s elite.

Which makes the beginning of his statement all the more interesting:

"“You don’t ever say never. You don’t ever know what the circumstances would be at any given time. First of all, Alabama may never, ever call me and I would never have a problem with that. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do.”"

The circumstances in 2015 were clear. Alabama was far-and-away better than Clemson, just as Saban was better than Swinney. Alabama had won five national championships since Clemson had won their only championship in 1981. In this context, the Alabama job would clearly have been a step up for the still up-and-coming Swinney, so why would he shut the door?

But then the narrative began to change.

Clemson beat Alabama. The first victory could be explained away, though: In Cam Newton-esque fashion, a generational quarterback single-handedly leading the Tigers to a last-second victory (on a totally legal play). Clemson had finally put to rest the “Clemsoning” stigma and had satisfied its fanbase and its critics for decades to come. It’s only a blip, said Alabama fans.

And then something ridiculous happened.

Clemson beat Alabama again. This time with new players and much better results. In fact, Clemson positively destroyed perhaps the best Alabama team Nick Saban has ever assembled – most certainly, a team led by the best quarterback in the Saban-era.

In three short years, Clemson became a hand-crafted wrecking ball wielded by Swinney that thoroughly and irrevocably shattered the shield Nick Saban used to fend off the rest of the college football world. And so, both Clemson and Swinney announced themselves as the king of college football; or at the very least, co-kings.

Just as the results have ramped up, so, too, has the speculation of his future jump to Alabama. Surprising, however, has been the consistency of Swinney’s denials – rather, and more accurately, his semi-denials. One would have imagined that as his credentials matured into realistically deserving the opportunity to replace Saban at the historic University of Alabama, Swinney’s rejections would become more adamant if he planned to stay at Clemson.

Swinney recently had the prime chance to pour cold water on the blaze when Clemson gifted him a jaw-dropping 10-year, $93 million contract extension. An extension that, by the way, included a unique buyout clause that would require Swinney to pay an additional 50 percent of the clause if he jumped to the Crimson Tide. Obviously, the Clemson decision-makers understand the threat Alabama poses.

Swinney’s response?

"“Who knows what’s going to happen down the road? I have no idea. I just try to be great where my feet are. That’s my focus every day. Who knows?”"

By now it’s hard to have missed Swinney’s connection to Alabama. Not only did he begin his coaching career at Alabama, Swinney also played wide receiver as a walk-on and won a national championship in 1992. Only after serving on Alabama’s offensive coaching staff for six years did he join the Clemson program. Swinney has also never shied away from expressing love for his alma mater.

“I was at Alabama 13 years. I love Alabama and always will. That won’t change,” said Swinney when discussing his new contract. “But I’m going on my 17th year at Clemson, my 11th as head coach. I love where I am, love what I do.”

Talk is cheap, but Swinney doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to say something (or not say something, in this case) without it carrying significance. Nonetheless, decoding these messages will never lead to knowing if Swinney will leave, but perhaps a better discussion is whether Swinney should leave Clemson for Alabama when Nick Saban moves on.

The most obvious deterrent should be the reality of following perhaps the greatest coach in all of college football history. Let’s not get swept away with recency bias: Historically, Nick Saban is a better, more successful coach than Dabo Swinney. Swinney has two titles, but Saban will have the most ever if he wins just one more at Alabama.

For years and decades following his departure, Saban’s legendary shadow will loom impossibly large over the Alabama program, and expectations will surely be unreachably high for his replacement. Even for a guy as positive, optimistic and care-free as Swinney, the pressure would be suffocating.

Many solid coaches failed to produce after taking over for legendary forerunners. Ron Zook was run out of Gainesville before Steve Spurrier could fully clean out his office. Rich Rodriguez lost control at Michigan quickly. Charlie Strong survived only three years after replacing Mack Brown at Texas. Even the coaches who initially succeeded like Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Lane Kiffin at USC couldn’t maintain long-term success like their legendary predecessors.

At Clemson, though, Swinney is already the best coach in program history. He’ll never live in another coach’s shadow; in fact, he’ll be the coach other coaches will hesitate to replace.

Another recent change complicating Crimson Tide fans’ ideal coaching transition is the fact that Clemson is now as much a destination job as Alabama. Each program is flush with cash, own topnotch facilities and boast loyal fanbases. In this strange new world, Dabo Swinney’s position at Clemson is every bit as prestigious as Nick Saban’s.

Additionally, if Swinney has any incitation toward prestige and legend, playing in the weaker ACC will afford him a better opportunity to bring home more championships.

Of course, none of this matters until Saban decides to hang up his whistle, which seems to be years away at best:

"“I would not want to do it if I did not feel like I was able to do a good job. If my health got bad or I felt like I was not able to keep up the pace. I don’t want to ride the program down. We’ve worked hard to make Alabama something special and as long as I’m capable of contributing to keep it that way, I’m happy doing this.”"

With all logic begging him to stay in South Carolina’s Upstate, only one aspect should have the pull to get Swinney to Alabama: nostalgia. If Swinney has always dreamed of leading his alma mater on game day, nothing Clemson can throw at him – money, comfort, continuity – will keep him on campus. Perhaps he wants the challenge of dawning the crimson and white and continuing the tradition Bear Bryant established and Nick Saban advanced. Don’t underestimate a childhood love for a team.

Despite the strong pull he undoubted feels for Tuscaloosa, though, Swinney has a real opportunity to follow the greatest coaches that dot college football history. Those coaches didn’t just build a program, but instead became the program. They’re the coaches who earn and reward the emotional bond forged with their respective fanbases, and who in turn, are forever eulogized with statues and buildings boasting their names.

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If Swinney ever hopes to see his name compared to Alabama greats like Nick Saban and Bear Bryant, he’ll remain at Clemson where the culture he’s implemented will be remembered for first breaking Saban’s dynasty and maybe eventually surpassing it.