During his decade as Clemson’s athletic director, Terry Don Phillips liked to pop into football practice a couple times per week if he could. After a while, Phillips, a former defensive lineman, found himself surprisingly drawn to the Tigers’ wide receivers and their fiery young coach.
“I would come out to practice just to watch Dabo,” Phillips recalled.
Dabo Swinney always seemed to be hollering, harping on about some detail until the players got it right. Phillips also began to notice that players, and not just receivers, were consistently hanging out in Swinney’s office in down time.
In 2008, as Phillips was in the unenviable position of having to replace Tommy Bowden with an interim head coach halfway through the season, further research informed Phillips that Swinney had been the lead recruiter for 38 of the Tigers’ 85 scholarship players.
“He’s the one these guys are gonna play for,” Phillips decided.
Clemson’s fans, of course, didn’t get to see any of that. What they saw in Swinney was a guy with a funny name who had never been a head coach or a coordinator at any level. So while Swinney led the Tigers to a 4-2 record to end the regular season, capped by a win over rival South Carolina, the fan base was more concerned with the five or six sitting coordinators or head coaches that Phillips had interviewed as part of his national search.
Phillips was nearing the end of his career as an athletic director — he would retire in 2012 — so he was less likely to be swayed by the prevailing mood. Two days after the win over the Gamecocks, he announced Swinney as the program’s permanent head coach.
Saturday, Swinney’s Tigers will play in their fifth straight College Football Playoff, taking on Ohio State as the winners of 28 in a row and two of the last three national championships.
Phillips, who still calls Clemson, S.C., his home, would come to be a trendsetter. He valued continuity and a coach who knows the culture of a place more than public relations.
The three schools that join Clemson in Saturday’s playoff field showed the same perspective. The recency bias may be strong, and the sample is probably not statistically significant, but in an era in which millions are forked over annually in contract buyouts, it sure seems like there’s power in promoting the guy you know.
In 2016, Louisiana State’s then-athletic director Joe Alleva made the unpopular choice to retain interim coach Ed Orgeron after he finished the season 6-2. Orgeron, the Larose, La., native, now has a mantle full of national coach-of-the-year honors for 2019.
“It was tremendous pressure from people to hire Tom Herman or Jimbo Fisher, one of those guys,” Alleva said. “And I tell you what, if i was a younger man, if i was in my 40s, I probably would have succumbed to that pressure, because that’s the easy way out. That’s what most ADs do.”
In 2017, just months before the start of the season, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops announced a surprise retirement. Athletic director Joe Castiglione, with Stoops’ backing, promoted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, then 33, to head coach.
“Those are just things in life you don’t really ever believe until they actually happen,” said Riley, who will coach in his third straight CFP, against Orgeron’s Tigers on Saturday in the Peach Bowl.
In 2018, when Urban Meyer announced his retirement in the aftermath of the Zach Smith domestic assault scandal, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith looked directly to offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who went 3-0 as the interim coach during Meyer’s suspension.
“In the most recent case, it was the stability of Gene Smith and his foresight to promote from within,” Day said. “He never flinched in this thing, and I’m forever in debt to he and Sheila [Smith] for what they’ve done for us. That was a huge decision that was made.”
Promoting from within used to be standard procedure among the sport’s top programs. Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer and Michigan’s Lloyd Carr were hired internally and led those programs to a national championship. During USC’s glory run in the 1970s, John McKay and John Robinson were both Trojans assistants.
In the 2000s, as the money to be made in coaching increased, it started to seem like you weren’t doing it right as an athletic director if your fans weren’t glued to flight-tracking websites for weeks in the hopes of a program savior landing in their midst on a private jet.
The decisions to promote promising offensive minds in Riley and Day were not nearly as controversial as the calls on Swinney and Orgeron because Oklahoma and Ohio State were already humming along just fine. At Clemson and LSU, the programs had gotten stale late in the Bowden and Les Miles tenures, respectively. Hitting full reset appeared to make the most sense.
But Phillips and Alleva saw something in their choices that said they could build a better culture.
Looking back, Phillips remembered that he did not ask Bowden to retire with the Tigers at 3-3. He told Bowden that he would be let go if he did not win the division, and later Bowden decided that the right thing to do was to step down midseason.
Here’s a scary thought for Clemson fans:
If Bowden had finished the season, Phillips would not have gotten to see what Swinney could do as a head coach, and it would have been nearly impossible to hire him without that experience.
“Sometimes in life,” Phillips said, “you gotta be lucky.”