College football coaches typically aren’t the sentimental type. Ask most about accomplishments or outcomes from years past and you’re likely to hear, “we’re just focused on (insert upcoming opponent here).”
But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has told reporters this week that, around this time every year, he reflects on the day Tommy Bowden was fired as the Tigers’ head coach and he was asked to lead the team for the rest of the season.
It just so happens that this season, on the nine-year anniversary of that date, the Tigers will take the field to play Syracuse.
In 2008, Clemson entered the season ranked No. 9 but went 3-3 in its first six games. After back-to-back losses to Maryland and Wake Forest, Bowden was fired. Swinney lost his first game as head coach, but eventually led the team to four wins in its last five regular season games, resulting in a berth to the Gator Bowl.
In his weekly teleconference Wednesday, Swinney laid out the challenges that accompany being an interim head coach.
“First of all, those players didn’t come there for you to be the head coach for them, so that’s a big change right there,” Swinney said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of uncertainty. And then you have a staff. … They didn’t come there to work for you. You go from one of them to the leader of them.
“So there’s a lot of just challenges right out of the gate. And then you have — usually, when you are in an interim situation, there’s some type of division within the fan base because things aren’t good.”
So how did Swinney get his players, staff and fans to buy in? He said he put aside his own concern about securing the job full-time and made the season about the seniors on the team.
“I’ve got a group of seniors that — and we were a highly ranked team coming into the season — the train has come off the tracks here. Their coach is gone, and there’s six games left. I had to make it all about them and just say, hey, we’ve got a choice to make here. And that decision is something that you’re going to carry with you the rest of your lives.
“It’s not about me. Hey, I’m going to be fine. I’ve already made my decision in life and my choice on what my future’s going to look like and my vision for it. This is an opportunity for you guys to leave here on a positive note.”
Swinney said that he takes time to reflect on that season every year, and that he’s still grateful that the players that season received his message and gave him a chance to earn the job full-time.
“I’ll always be appreciative of that group because if not for the decision that those players made, I’m not here today.”
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