Making an interim coach full-time invites trouble. A coaching search ought to encompass the largest possible universe of candidates, not just the person who was most capable of minding the store when the old coach got cashiered, and basing an interim coach’s future on short-term performance limits a team’s options. That’s especially true in a sport like college football, where a school’s prestige can drop off precipitously with just a couple of losing seasons, and bad recruiting classes can sink a roster for years to come. Any school that’s willing to just yank the “interim” tag off a coach had better know what it’s doing.
When Dabo Swinney dropped into his first head-coaching gig, he was a 38-year-old receivers coach with a solid reputation as a recruiter but no experience even at the coordinator level. The 2008 Clemson Tigers started the season ranked ninth in the country, and a 3-3 start was enough to get head coach Tommy Bowden fired. As the interim coach, Swinney led the Tigers to a 4-2 finish—good enough to win the full-time job.
That’s the kind of program Clemson was a decade ago. Clemson hadn’t won 10 games since 1990, hadn’t won a conference title since 1991, and was satisfied with an interim coach who won his in-state rivalry game and put up a respectable loss against Florida State. But over the next 10 years, Clemson became one of the best programs in the country, and Swinney grew into the perfect enemy for Nick Saban.
After a close-fought playoff trilogy from 2016 to 2018, Swinney’s Tigers handed Saban’s Crimson Tide a beatdown unprecedented in CFP history Monday night. Clemson scored the last 30 points in a 44-16 trouncing—a rout not just in the sports sense of a lopsided victory, but in the military sense of a defeated side being driven off the field in disarray and hunted down on the retreat. Heading into the game, Clemson was merely Alabama’s most credible and dangerous challenger. Leaving it, the Tigers are at the very least the coequal best program in college football.
It didn’t happen overnight. Clemson didn’t break 10 wins under Swinney until 2011, his third full season in charge. Swinney won his first ACC title the same year, but suffered a brutal 70-33 loss in the Orange Bowl to West Virginia. It wasn’t until 2013 that Swinney secured his first top-10 finish; not until 2014 that Deshaun Watson made his collegiate debut; and not until 2015 that Clemson brought in the no. 4 recruiting class in the nation and made the national championship game for the first time.
Ever since then, the rivalry between Swinney’s Tigers and Saban’s Crimson Tide has defined college football. The two teams have split the past four national titles; since 2015, no team other than Clemson has defeated Alabama in a playoff game, and no team other than Alabama has defeated Clemson in a playoff game. Swinney is one of four active coaches (along with North Carolina’s Mack Brown, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz) to have ever beaten Saban in a bowl game, and the only one to do so in the past decade. He’s one of two coaches ever to have beaten Saban in a conference or national championship game. (Urban Meyer is the other.) Clemson has become the Red Sox to Alabama’s Yankees, the brash, fun-by-comparison challenger to the stodgy old-money champion.
Saban is a buttoned-down pragmatist who finds reasons to nitpick his team even when it’s up four touchdowns on an inferior opponent. The funniest thing he’s ever done is a bank commercial in which he persuades a college student to make responsible financial decisions. The 67-year-old former Bill Belichick assistant has encountered numerous challengers to his Alabama team, and the ones who have frustrated him most have presented contrasts to his own style: innovative offensive minds like Meyer and Gus Malzahn or agents of chaos like Les Miles. But eventually Saban evolved enough to beat them all back.
Swinney is both offensive-minded and chaotic, and contagiously joyful where Saban is severe. A decade ago, he was a neophyte who looked like the kind of guy who tucked his khakis into his socks, leading a program that was at best dormant, at worst irrelevant on the national scale. Since then, Swinney has turned his goofiness into a brand, dancing in the locker room after wins and breaking out a Steve Spurrier impression that’s not very good, but makes you feel like you’re in on the joke.
Swinney is 18 years Saban’s junior and, like another famous tiger with a weird name, bounces around like he’s made of springs and rubber. Despite being very much of Alabama—Swinney was born and raised in the state, won a national title as a walk-on wide receiver with the Crimson Tide, and started his coaching career there—he now stands in contrast with the austere, old-money program he came from.
Swinney’s Clemson is hardly Jimmy Johnson’s Miami—the most controversial thing Swinney’s done at Clemson is hold so many team Bible studies that it raised red flags with religious freedom watchdog groups. But Clemson is rowdy in a way that Alabama can’t be—consider Broyles Award–winning defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who needs his own dedicated get-back guy on the sideline. Imagine Saban employing a 48-year-old man who’s so unable to govern himself he needs to be kept on a leash. That’s too much chaos, even for a man who once put Lane Kiffin on his staff.
The downside of being a titanic, multigenerational behemoth like Alabama is that any institution that builds so much has a lot to lose. Swinney has managed to match Saban as a recruiter and tactician, but in a program that’s still very much on the rise. And it is, crucially, a program that’s evolved to the point that it can beat Alabama, not just a team that caught lightning in a bottle. For instance, Auburn went 14-0 in 2010 with Cam Newton under center, but went 8-5 the year before he arrived and returned to 8-5 the year after he went to the NFL. Clemson, on the other hand, has turned over nearly its entire roster over the course of its four straight playoff appearances, demonstrating depth to match Alabama’s.
On Monday, the Tigers pushed Bama down the Slip ’N Slide without starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who was suspended for the postseason for a PED violation, and behind a true freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who didn’t open the season as the starter. Lawrence is the third different quarterback to take Clemson to the playoff in the past three years. And another top-10 recruiting class is on the way.
Clemson is built to last, in other words. Over the past half decade, nobody’s been able to tweak Saban’s nose quite like Swinney; on Monday night, he just about pulled it clean off. And there’s no end in sight.