“Take what you’ve got and do the best you can” – and other leadership lessons from Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney
Dabo Swinney will never forget the details of Oct. 13, 2008, a day when, by “unintended consequence,” a new organizational mantra was born in Tigertown: “All In.”
It was 4 p.m. Following a stunning conversation with (then) athletic director Terry Don Phillips – who informed Swinney he was, effective immediately, the interim head coach upon Tommy Bowden’s mid-season exit – Swinney entered the locker room and asked all who weren’t players to leave.
Dabo, then just 38 – a wide receivers coach lacking even a coordinator line item on his resume – had just become the second-youngest head coach in Clemson football history behind legendary Danny Ford. He recalls his team address vividly.
“Listen, guys, here is the deal,” he said. “For the next six weeks we’re going to do things differently. I know I don’t have much of a chance to get this job, but I have a chance. For the next six weeks, I’m all in – everything I’ve got.”
He told them they had practice in two hours. He told them they didn’t owe him or Clemson anything. If they didn’t want to be under his leadership and part of his program, no problem – they should do whatever they wanted to do. But for the next six weeks, certain things were going to change – and then Swinney articulated his plan.
Afterward he told them, “I’m all in. And if you’re going to be all in with me, because that’s what it’s going to take for this to work – for us to turn this season around –then show up to practice at 6:00 tonight. Otherwise, no hard feelings.”
The day turned into what Swinney describes as an “emotional night.” Practice had perfect attendance.
Since that fateful day, Swinney has evolved from a fresh-faced and distinctly charismatic position coach to head coach for six full seasons. He’s posted a 60-26 overall record. He has led the Tigers to two ACC championship appearances, won an ACC title, won or shared three division titles and been the first Tiger head coach since Ford to be named a national coach of the year. He’s also continued to produce nationally lauded recruiting classes, often cited as a top recruiter in the country.
Swinney sat down one-on-one with UBJ to discuss management and leadership – his own ability and style; how he develops the will to lead and accountability in hundreds of young men; the impact of a strong organizational culture, and more.
Tell us about “All In” as your organizational mantra.
“All In” – it’s not just a slogan. It’s a way of life here, and it’s about being committed to just doing the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s what it’s about. It’s about doing your very best on and off the field – and the same thing with the coaches, man. Just take what you’ve got and do the best you can. Just be fully committed to the task at hand – and it’s been fun to be a part of it.
What’s your leadership strategy?
For me it all goes back to, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s about having a genuine appreciation for each other – for everybody, and for each person’s role. I want to be kind of a “servant leader.” Leadership is ultimately about serving others, and I think if you have that mentality and that perspective, then you have a chance to be a good leader. It’s not about others serving you. I just try to lead by relationships. Obviously you’ve got to make decisions, set the charge, have the vision, and the strategy and the philosophies and all those other things – and you’ve got to implement that – but at the end of the day, none of that stuff’s going to matter if you don’t create the right culture from a leadership standpoint.
You’ve come under fire before for incorporating religion into your organizational culture. How does spirituality relate to effective leadership methods, and do you think it’s particularly important or effective in college football, or other sectors too?
I don’t really think it’s about one thing. Obviously I am a Christian, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a good leader or make something work for football. I think the biggest thing is people have to be who they are. I think from a leadership standpoint, you have to be authentic. You have to be genuine. Just be who you are, and I think people respect that.
For me it’s just trying to lead in a way that hopefully impacts other people’s lives – people’s lives that I come into contact with every single day – and just leading by example. Be the things that you’re trying to incorporate into your players as far as caring about others, sacrificing for others, giving to others, and not expecting more from other people than you’re willing to give. So those are things that I try to demonstrate and exemplify to my team.
But there are a lot of things that are part of our culture here – and part of our program – that are very important.
Ultimately I think just whoever you are, that’s what you have to be on a consistent basis, day in and day out.
[ Photos by Paul Mehaffey for TOWN ]
You didn’t necessarily have the paper resume when you got the head-coaching job at Clemson, but people had great intuition about your abilities and saw you as a natural leader. Can you discuss that certain time in history? It seemed to entail a unique set of challenges you had to address with no experience as a head coach.
Well, I was only 38, so it’s not like I had been doing it a long time; but I had good success as a leader, really, my whole life, and had a lot of success in coaching.
The biggest thing from that whole time was the lessons I learned through that process. I come to work Oct. 13, 2008, and by 11 o’clock I am the interim head coach.
It was a Monday. It was crazy. The AD walks in the staff meeting and says, “Hey, we’re making a change here, and you’re now the head coach, and you call all the shots, and you need to meet me in my office in five minutes.”
So I go down to his office — Terry Don Philips — and I really think that he’s going to tell me, “Hey look, do the best you can — maybe try to get the next guy; I’ll see if he’ll keep you or something.” That’s really what I was expecting.
I go in his office, and I sit down — and it’s not even close to what I expected.
His comments to me were, “You know, this is a great opportunity for you. I’ve watched you for five-and-a-half years.” And he said, “Dabo, you’re ready to be a head coach. I really believe you can do this job.”
He said, “I want you to know that regardless what happens in this next six ball games, you’re going to get an interview for this job,” and I’m just sitting there kind of taken aback by this whole conversation. But it was an inspiring moment for me, and I took so many things out of that.
First of all is, you never know who’s paying attention. You never know who is watching you, so whatever it is you’re doing, just bloom where you’re planted. Just do a great job with whatever you’ve been charged to do. If you’re cleaning the building – whatever it is, just take pride in your work, treat people the right way, and that was something that was reinforced to me that day.
The second thing is you have to be prepared for your opportunities. You never know when they are going to come. I knew I was ready, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to get an opportunity, and you can never be fully prepared to be a head coach until you’ve done it. But I was ready to have that opportunity, and I had prepared for a long time for whenever that day came.
I knew immediately if I was going to have a chance, I was going to have to change the culture quickly, and I was going to have to create some positive energy and some enthusiasm and get these guys to think differently – because we just hoped to win. We didn’t really expect to win.
And I knew I had a six-week opportunity, so the way I saw it, I didn’t have a great chance to get the job. But I was like, “You know what? I’m getting a head start here,” and it was all about the players.
I tried to remove all the negativity that had kind of been a part of what we were doing. We made a lot of changes – tried to instill some pride in some things. Little things – down to how we show up on game day, dressed in a coat and tie. Just tried to take a little more pride in how we called things offensively, to how we practiced to how we met – everything.
[I also] went to work in trying to establish the relationships within the team, especially the leadership of the team … and I am forever grateful to that group because they made a decision: “We’re going to buy in.” And they did … and we had a heck of a run.
[ Photo by Zachary Hanby | Clemson University ]
That time kind of set us on track as far as putting the foundation in place. The core things we did in that six-week span we still do right now. I’m very proud of those guys — Tyler Grisham and Mike Hamlin were two of my seniors that year, and now they’re back here on my staff. We’ve actually talked about that, because our first win was up in Boston. And six years later — we were just up there — we got another win, and I talked to the team about that.
I said, “You guys need to understand that six years ago, a group of guys made a decision. And because of that — that will to win, that fight, that love for one another, that passion — we’re all here today, six years later. So let’s go out and let’s play in a way that honors that group, because none of us would be there if it wasn’t for them.”
So I always appreciated that first team, because that was a tough time for them, and I was really happy that we were able to finish their career in a positive way.
[ Photo by Dawson Powers | Clemson University ]
Who are some of the best leaders who have played for you at Clemson and why?
I’ve had some great leaders.
Two of them right there — Mike Hamlin and Tyler Grisham. Thomas Austin; Dalton Freeman; Grady Jarrett’s a guy that’s a great leader. Dwayne Allen was a great leader for us. Robert Smith … Stephan Anthony is a great leader for us right now; Spencer Shuey. You could just go on and on. But they all have the same things in common.
Such as, they care about their teammates; they serve others; they’re “all in” as far as the way we do things in this program. They don’t expect more from their teammates than they’re willing to give. They lead by example. Tajh Boyd was a great leader for us. … They chose to stay positive no matter what the circumstances.
You know, my 2010 team was one of the best teams I’ve had. We didn’t have the best record, but that group: They never quit and they never became negative. We weren’t very good on offense, but were really good on defense … but they handled the adversity, and that was the season where I said, “You know what? We’ve got something special going on here,” because I saw how the guys continued to stay together through an adversity-filled season.
Every game was like three points. Catanzaro’s freshman year we couldn’t make a kick — there were all kind of things that year. But the team stayed closest, so I knew that the core components of our program were working. The leadership we were developing was holding everything together. So I’m really proud of that.
C.J. Spiller was a good leader for us — guys that, they practice; they’re your best workers in the off-season; they practice hard; they’ve played hurt. Whatever it was … they do what they needed to do academically.
We’ve been top 10 in the country four years in a row in graduating our players, and those are all signs of our culture, which is based in leadership. We go the extra mile in trying to develop leadership on this team. Not just our seniors — we work hard with that group and feel like they should be the best and they should set the example for the team — but we really start early in trying to mentor and develop leadership from the freshmen and sophomores and juniors and so forth.
[ The Clemson Football “Pillars of the Program” are constant organizational reminders displayed along a wall in the West End Zone. Photo by Emily Price ]
How do you create or foster great leaders? How do you bring this out of these young men and develop it for use both on and off the field?
Relationships. Everything goes back to relationships – a lot of one-on-one time; meetings; lot of accountability built into our program . I’ll give you a couple of specifics, but we have a huge support staff and we have a lot of people who mentor these guys.
Jeff Davis is director of player relations for us, and he meets with these guys all the time. We have a career development program we put these guys through, trying to teach them and grow them in a lot of areas.
We have what we call the Swinney Huddle — Coach McCorvey meets with the Swinney Huddle — and that’s everybody who touches our players that’s not a coach. It’s the academic people; it’s the trainers; it’s the equipment people; it’s all of our support staff; it’s the nutritionist — it’s everybody like that, and he meets with them every week.
So we’re very proactive with our team in finding out if a kid is struggling with something — usually it’s going to pop up. We find out these things. We have a lot of hands on these guys, a lot of ears and eyes.
But that group will select what we call The Council, and that’s usually about 12 players that they pick. It could be a walk-on, a freshman, a senior, whatever — but it’s guys they see as leaders. Then that group, once a week, has the opportunity to come in and meet with Woody McCorvey and communicate and address issues, make comments, whatever it is.
And then I meet with the senior leadership group twice a week — all seniors — and then they select a few juniors and sophomores to be part of that group as well.
So we have a lot of communication and engagement with our players that goes on.
Then one of the best things we’ve done the last several years is, every January, when we begin a new year, the upcoming seniors all go out to Coach Batson’s house, our strength coach, and have a big dinner, and they draft their team. Each senior has to draft his team. It’s called the Accountability Draft. You’re not getting drafted based on your talent; you’re getting drafted based on your accountability. Because once the teams are made, there’s going to be nine, 10, 11 guys on a team that is a team within the team.
So that’s how we coach and teach accountability and develop leadership, because all 10-11 guys are held accountable for everything for that team. So if this guy down here is missing class, then they’re all accountable for that guy, and that’s the way the game of football works. If we’ve got 11 guys out there — we’ve got nine that are doing their job and two that aren’t — then we all suffer, and then we carry that all year, and everything counts.
From “you didn’t dress right, to your workouts, to you were late for treatment; you missed a class, you missed a tutor” — whatever. And that has really helped us in developing the accountability and leadership as well. That part of it — the communication — all of those things, developing the trust and respect within our program.
We talk about all the time, we want get everybody “All in,” so that’s kind of the goal. Well, how do we do that? For us, we want to have a family atmosphere. We want to have trust and respect. There has to be a common purpose that everybody has bought into. There has to be communication. We have a lot of that. And then there has to be a genuine appreciation for each other. So that’s kind of the foundation to get everybody “All in,” and we work very hard in all of those areas. And the leadership part of it is developed throughout all of that.
In building a team, how do you strike a balance of skill/talent and all the other intangibles, such as commitment and discipline? For example, it seems a Jameis Winston-type situation wouldn’t occur at Clemson.
I just think that our philosophy here, and kind of the charge that we have with our staff is, we’re going to do it right, and I would rather lose trying to do it right than to win knowing we didn’t.
That’s just the philosophy that we have in place, and I think that, again, when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-, 23-year-olds, and 100 and something of them at a time, you’re always going to have things that you just have to deal with; young people are always going to make a mistakes. They’re always going to disappoint you. My own three boys will do that, but I think at the end of the day, you have to always teach, you have to always educate. You have to have checks and balances within your program and core values that you believe in.
The last thing that you want to do is kick people off the team and things like that. But from time to time that’s just what you have to do. You have to be consistent with your discipline.
I don’t think that you can treat everybody the same, but you have to treat everybody fair. And what’s fair for one isn’t necessarily fair for the other: You have to look at the individual and their track record, and decision-making and all those types of things…
But I never want to put winning ahead of doing what’s right, and that’s just the way it is for me. I’d just go do something else before I would start using young people to — when you know they’re not doing the right things…
You’re always coaching, you’re always teaching, you’re always correcting behavior, sometimes you have to sit guys down and get their attention and things like that – but at some point, if you get a guy who just refuses to buy in, as a coach you have to handle that situation. Because if you don’t, then it’s going to spread throughout your team and become a much bigger issue, and you don’t ever want anybody to ever think that they’re bigger than the team.
And that’s something we talk to our guys about all the time. There’s no entitlement. None of us are entitled to anything. You get what you earn. It’s all about team. This program, this university, is bigger than any of us. When I leave Clemson or they run me out of Clemson – guess what, this place is going to keep on going. It’s the same for any player — Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller, Vic Beasley — it doesn’t matter. When they leave Clemson, Clemson is going keep on going.
So everyone needs to understand/appreciate the opportunity we have to be a part of a special place, and from a coach’s standpoint: A high level of discipline and accountability throughout the program. And when guys don’t do what’s right, then there’s consequences, and we move on.
How has your leadership ability grown and evolved in your time at Clemson?
Immensely! Oh my goodness, immensely. You just get better. It’s just the same thing in anything that you do. You can prepare, prepare, prepare, but until you go and do it – there’s just nothing like just trying it on and kind of figuring it out.
I’ve really learned how to manage my time. I didn’t really know that in the beginning — and plus I have now the pieces in place. When I first got the job, I was wearing a lot of hats and I was doing a lot of things. And I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if I had stayed in that mode. [Laughs.]
Surrounding yourself with the right people is so huge, and having everybody doing the right things is very critical. The ability to delegate – I probably wasn’t very good at that when I first got the job.
I’ve always been so independent, and I always kind of did everything on my own. Even when I was an assistant, I really didn’t ask the secretaries to do a whole lot. Just very independent in that way, and then all of a sudden you get — you just can’t do it. It’s just impossible. So learning to delegate, learning when to say yes, learning when to say no.
Just overall structure – you know, now I’ve got all the philosophies in place, and we are a well-oiled machine as far as how we operate on a daily basis – very organized and detailed in what we do, but never satisfied. Always trying to get better. You know, I just understand that, man, there’s room for growth every day, every year, and that’s what we try to do as a program.
[ At top: featured article image by Zachary Hanby | Clemson University ]
THE SECOND HALF //
Read Part II of our exclusive Q&A, with more video & photos.