CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney began Georgia Tech week in 2008 as receivers coach and left charged with trying to triage a bleeding program. Two years later with the Yellow Jackets in town, Swinney's proud of the steps he's taken so far and is ready for even more progress.
Clemson (3-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) faces Georgia Tech (5-2, 3-1) at Death Valley Saturday, site of Swinney's head-coaching debut two seasons back that followed one of the most dramatic weeks in Tigers history.
Swinney had never been a head coach or coordinator anywhwere before, yet got the call to take over when longtime coach Tommy Bowden walked away — Bowden has since said he didn't leave on his own — with Clemson floundering at 3-3. Swinney had less than a week to coach the Tigers past the shock and implement offensive changes he thought necessary to Clemson's success like firing coordinator Rob Spence.
Swinney also appealed to fans to hang with the club through the tough times ahead.
"That was a manage the crisis-type situation," Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. "Ton of emotion, a whirlwind of things going through your mind."
A full house turned out at Death Valley to watch Clemson's new direction. The Tigers held a 17-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter before Georgia Tech and its first-year coach, Paul Johnson, rallied to the 21-17 win. For Swinney, it began a climb toward the top that's showed some successes, most notably winning the ACC's Atlantic Division for the first time in 2009.
"I don't think there's any question we've made progress here in this team for the long haul," said Swinney, 16-11 since taking over. "We've never won the Atlantic Division and we did last year. We took over a team in the middle of a chaotic season (2008) and we played better."
Johnson says good coaches can be found at any level of the game and don't necessarily have to have deep resumes. "It's like anything else. If you are coaching better players, you are a better coach," Johnson said. "If you are teaching smarter students, they are going to do better than those who aren't."
Swinney, 40, says he's heard from critics bothered by his youth, his lack of experience and Clemson's consecutive 2-3 starts. He says it takes time to change a culture and bring the program to a level where it can succeed against the best in college football.
"I knew we had a pretty good distance to make up in the progress we needed to make here," Swinney said. "It's not just the scoreboard. It's how you talk with your players. How you meet with them. Your support staff. You can't get the cart before the horse."
Defeating Georgia Tech would be a solid measuring stick of Swinney's progress at Clemson. The Yellow Jackets have won four straight in the series, including a 39-34 victory in the ACC championship game last December.
If Swinney needed a template of quick success, he could look to the job Johnson's done at Georgia Tech. In three seasons, the Yellow Jackets own a league title and have gone 25-9, including 15-5 in the ACC. And Johnson's done it with a triple-option attack he used in successful runs at Georgia Southern and Navy.
The Yellow Jackets fell to Kansas and North Carolina State in September to drop from the Top 25. However, they've won three straight games and look a lot like the club that powered through the ACC last fall.
"The positive thing is we've played ourself a little past halfway through the season and we're still in position to control our own destiny," Johnson said. "Now, are we good enough to do that? We'll find out."
Clemson's players and staff are glad their footing is much more solid than it was for Swinney's first game. Tigers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers recalls the confusion inside the locker room and the wonder about what path the new coach would take. "It was a very emotional week for everyone on the Clemson football team," he said. "We've just got to build off of that."
Swinney's counting on that, too. He gave a quick thought back to the change on Oct. 13, the anniversary of when he got the job and reflected on how far he thought the Tigers had come.
"I hope Clemson will hang in there with me. Because we are going to get it done," Swinney said.