In his 10 years as head coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney has taken the Tigers from college football punchline to powerhouse, winning two of the past three College Football Playoff National Championships, including the latest edition at Levi’s Stadium in January.
At the heart of Clemson’s rise to prominence is the culture Swinney set out to build when he had the interim coach label lifted off at the conclusion of the 2008 season. That culture, which puts a focus on getting an education, toughness and commitment, has seen transcendent talents like Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Grady Jarrett, Clelin Ferrell and others buy into Swinney’s vision and thrive in Death Valley.
As Clemson continues to be the model program in college football, NFL teams have taken note, not just of the talent coming out of Clemson, but also of the culture those players come from and how that winning attitude can help their franchises grow and succeed.
The Raiders were the latest NFL team to raid Swinney’s cupboard, as head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock drafted three Tigers in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Silver and Black hope the additions of Ferrell, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow can be the building blocks for a new era of Raiders football.
With the Raiders opening training camp this past week, NBC Sports California’s Josh Schrock spoke with Swinney about the culture he’s built, his vision and the three players the Raiders selected and what he knows they will bring to Oakland.
NBC Sports California: When you had the interim label lifted at the end of the 2008 season, what was your initial vision for what you wanted the culture at Clemson to become?
Dabo Swinney: Well, I wanted to build a culture of toughness, of commitment, but more importantly I wanted to build a culture that serves our players hearts and not their talents. A culture that truly used the game of football to build men and to impact our players' lives and to equip them with the tools that they need -- not just on the field, but off the field as well. That’s what we set out to do. You build a culture and you change a culture, in my world, through graduation and through recruiting. We worked hard at the evaluation process and doing things the way we believed in them and not compromising.
At the NFL level, it’s the same thing. Obviously, you don’t have graduation, but to build a culture and to change it, it still comes back to the people, so in that world it’s who you draft, it’s who you sign In the free-agent market, it’s who you hire as your staff, and then it’s how you develop the people part. You get the people part right, you got a much better chance to get the culture that you desire.
When you’re recruiting, what’s the process you go through to determine whether or not a recruit is someone who will thrive in the culture you’ve created?
That’s a huge process and it takes a lot of time. We probably have the fewest offers of any Power 5 school in the country. We’re very thorough and there is a process.
First of all, we’ve got to get them on campus. We’re going to go, we’re going to get in their schools. I always say fit first, ability second. It’s easy to see if a guy can play or not, it’s a lot tougher to see if he’s the right fit. Because not everybody is a good fit for our culture and who we are, and the way we do things. Because this place is tough man, this is no nonsense. Not everybody values education the way we do. Not everybody values discipline and accountability the way we do.
So we work really hard to evaluate the fit. We get on campus, we try to talk to as many people — I would think there’s a similar process for the NFL people, at least it should be. We try to evaluate who the person is. Yes, they've got to be a good enough player, but let’s put fit over ability. Once we’ve identified, ‘Hey, this guy is really talented’ then we work really to identify and evaluate who the person is.
And these are young people, there’s no perfect people, that’s not what we are talking about. But what’s their characteristics. There’s certain characteristics that we’re looking for: Do they love the game? Do they love the weight room? Are they coachable? What’s their social media presence? How do they represent themselves on social media? What do other people who know them say about them?
It’s a very thorough process that we go through to try and evaluate the fit. Because we want to be right. For us, it’s until graduation do we part. We don’t sign junior college guys, we haven’t signed grad transfers and all that so we got to be right. Because we just take high school grads in our signing process. Getting on campus, talking to as many people as we can and then getting them on our campus so that we can spend time with them, get to know them, we work really hard at building a relationship.
There’s recruiting in college -- it’s a lot different than the NFL, so we have a lot of opportunity to get them on the phone, to text with them, get to know their families and figure out what makes this young person tick. It’s a long process. And we don’t offer freshmen and sophomores, that’s another thing that makes us unique. If a freshman or sophomore gets an offer from Clemson it came specifically and directly from me. Like I offered Deshaun Watson as a sophomore but I knew him. He had been on our campus, he’d been in our camp, I’d spent time with him, I knew a lot about him, I knew his background.
So we offer juniors and seniors, so we have a little more of an academic profile. It’s not just getting into school -- it’s can they stay in school. There’s a high emphasis on academics, but we’ve been top 10 academically in the country eight out of the last nine years and only Duke and Northwestern can say that. Duke, Clemson and Northwestern have been top 10 academically eight of the last nine years and we’re the second-winningest program on the field in that same time frame.
So what we’ve been able to do on and off the field, and the consistency that we’ve done it, goes back to the evaluation process and the culture that we have here at Clemson. So we work really hard to nurture that, project that and live out the vision for the program.
What did you see from Clelin, Hunter and Trayvon when you were recruiting them that showed you they would fit in what you were building at Clemson?
You know, Hunter was a preferred walk-on and we put just as much emphasis on that. We’ve had a lot of preferred walk-ons that have come in here and been great players. He was a guy that was undersized, but we knew everything about him. Knew his dad was a coach and the kid was a great Clemson fit and we gave him an opportunity to come in here and earn it. And he did, certainly.
As far as Cle and Trayvon, same thing. Great kids. Going down and meeting (Trayvon's) family, and understanding him, getting to know him. Talking with him, texting with him. In the recruiting process, Trayvon used to FaceTime me like every day. I just was always so impressed with how engaged he was, how focused he was on what he wanted to do as a player but also in life. Again, a very young person. Our job is to meet them where they are, it’s not their job to meet us. Our job as teachers and coaches is to meet them where they are, and man, Trayvon was a young man that had so much potential, but just very focused on what he wanted to do. And It just resonated when you talked to him, when other people talked about him, certainly the way he played the game. He was driven.
Same thing with Cle man, you spend time with Cle, his mom is military, his dad was military, you go up to Benedictine that little military school up in Richmond and he’s in a uniform. He had structure, he had discipline, he understood accountability, and these are all things that are here at Clemson. And we work really hard as a place and it’s not a shock to me that ... he tore his ACL and how he responded to that and how he responded to missing his senior year of football. Sometimes you deal with these guys, they’ll tell you anything, but Clelin is a man of his word. The recruiting process was very easy, he said, ‘I’m coming to Clemson' and it was over.
He comes in here it’s not a surprise he left here as one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had come through. He came in, he got in line, he went to work, he bought in to the right things — really truly bought in — and ultimately, when he left here he was one of the main guys doing the teaching and holding the young people to the standard that’s been set. He took a lot of pride in that. In the little things, in how we do things. Those are the type of people that we look for. We look for people that fit the culture but also are going to help protect it, enhance it and grow it.
When I spoke with Clelin he mentioned focusing not on being like the great programs but in wanting every program to emulate what you do? How did that thought come about?
I’ve always had a clear vision. I think to be good at anything, you've got to have a vision for it. I’ve always had a vision if one day I got to be a head coach, how I would want to do it. And the type of program that I would want to run. From Day 1, that was my message to my first team. ‘Listen, we don’t want to be like someone else. Let’s build the model program.'
That’s the most gratifying thing to me is we’ve become — we have eight 10-plus win seasons in a row, only us and Alabama, eight out of my 10 years we’ve been top 10 academically — we’ve become incredibly consistent along the way but that was something that we sought out to do, we wanted to become the model program and we wanted to do it the Clemson way. And that’s hard, but we’ve had that consistency and we’ve done it the Clemson way.
It’s not for everybody, this is not an easy place. We’re going to graduate our players, and everything here is set up to value education, and to squeeze these guys and to teach these guys the value of education. We’re going to challenge our guys to develop the tools they need off the field not just on the field — the life skills the career development, the professional and personal growth, community service. I want them to have some fun, have a great experience and I want them to win a championship but it’s in that order. If you get the rest of that right the winning will take care of itself. That’s the way it’s been for us since ’09.
It’s a process of getting the right people, because when you take over a job you’ve got who’s there. And getting that first group to buy into what we wanted to do and kind of try to start setting a foundation, and as we’ve been able to recruit and graduate and develop players it’s gotten easier and easier because we’ve been able to live it and articulate not just why we do It that way — and we’re very transparent —because I want guys to come here and know exactly what they are getting into as opposed to them getting here and going, ‘Well crap I didn’t know it was going to be like this.'
I want them to know exactly what they are getting into because this is not going to be an easy place for you. There’s a lot of structure, a lot of discipline and a lot of accountability. We’re no different than anybody, we’re certainly not perfect, we have problems from time-to-time, but it’s how you respond to those problems. That’s what separate programs, that’s what separates people. We’re very blessed because we had a bunch of great young men like Cle, like Trayvon, like Hunter that have bought in, led the way and been difference-makers for us as leaders.
Was it easy to get Clelin, Trayvon and Hunter to buy in initially?
No, but the point is that you want your culture to be such that when you get the right people in, they get squeezed up, not pulled down. That’s the key, is having an environment and a culture that they might come in and not quite be where you want them but daily and yearly, they are going to get squeezed by the culture toward the top and to become the best version of themselves. We got young people, they have a lot to learn but the culture is what drives that. They certainly came in here from Day 1 and were very compliant, but like anybody, they had a lot to learn.
But, because of how they were wired they were willing to put the work in, to buy in, and because they had good leaders who taught them and then they passed that down. We have turnover every year in this program. We don’t get to keep guys until they are 42 years old. We got turnover every year, so just these seniors and juniors, it’s their responsibility to pass the torch and our team has taken great pride in that.
Year in and year our these veteran guys have taken great pride — knowing that their time is coming up — making sure they are modeling and teaching those that are going to come behind them and that was done for Cle and Cle did that for the guys that are coming behind him. And then our job is to continue to bring good soul in, if you will. Because we’ve got good seeds but you need good soul. So it all works together.
A lot has been talked about Hunter Renfrow and how he doesn't look like what a normal slot receiver looks like? What were your first impressions of him?
Yeah, he doesn’t look like what a football player would look like much less a slot receiver. You never ever — you’d lose that battle 100 times out of 100 — you’re never going to pick Hunter Renfrow as a college football player much less an NFL player. But I always say man, football players come in all shapes and sizes, that’s why so many people make so many mistakes.
You know, Grady Jarrett was a fifth-round draft pick, you know? I beat my head on the table trying to scream for Grady Jarrett. But at the end of the day, now he’s making $17 million a year for the Falcons, and if you could go back and do that draft again, why would so many people miss? Because he’s the exact same guy now that he was all through college. Most of the time guys don’t change their stripes. Yeah he’s not quite as tall, but people so much emphasis on these measurable, especially at the pro level they miss and it’s the same thing at our level. There’s no doubt about it.
And the thing with Hunter is, you know, he was 150 pounds. He was athletic but he was weak. He literally, literally benched 125 pounds when he came to Clemson. He was a three-sport athlete, he was never in the weight room, you know he was always twitchy and fast but never in a million years would you think he’s a football player if you just walked up. Sometimes we get blinded by how people look, we judge that book by its cover but the game of football, if it was just about size and strength and running fast, we’d just go over to the track and sign everybody.
The game of football, you still have to be a football player. That’s one of the key things in our evaluation is: Is he a football player? You can’t just look the part, you’ve got to be able to play the part. Hunter is one of those guys, we didn’t offer him a scholarship but we certainly recruited him as a preferred walk-on because we saw some potential.
I told him when he came in here, 'We’re going to redshirt you, put you in the weight room. You got a chance if you’re willing to put the work in.’ His redshirt freshman year he ended up becoming a starter for us as a preferred walk-on. He just got better and better and better and better. He’s what’s fun about this game. Football players come in all shapes and sizes — they really do — at the end of the day you got to be able to play between the lines and he is the epitome of that for sure.
When he puts that helmet on I don’t know what happens, he becomes Superman. It’s like Clark Kent taking his glasses off or something. He just has a gift to be able to play the game and he’s still not anywhere close to a finished product but five years at Clemson, he left here and I think he did seven reps of 225. He couldn’t bench 125 when he got here. Then he left here, seven reps of 225, he’s 182 pounds, 30 some pounds or whatever, as he’s gotten stronger, now all the strengths that he’s always had are just more accentuated.
So he’s a neat guy to track for sure. Just one of the most unassuming guys you’ll ever be around. There’s really nothing special about him when you look at him — he just kind of looks like a dad — and he’s 22-23 years old, but when he puts that helmet on, man magic happens. He’s always been that way and it’s been fun to watch I can’t wait to see him play at the next level. He’s going to tear it up.
When you are watching the draft and a number of your players are achieving their dreams, what goes through your mind when a franchise like the Raiders selects three players from your program because of the culture you have built?
Confirmation. Confirmation. I tell you, it helps me to keep the faith that it still matters because I see so many teams make so many mistakes and it just blows my mind on some of the decisions that are made. It really did my heart good. Actually, I was at the draft and I walked the red carpet and this Plinko or Blinko, I don’t know what it’s called and I had to drop a chip and went all the way down and dadgum if it didn’t hit the Raiders.
So I said, 'Welp I guess someone is going to the Raiders.’ And it was just kind of pretty cool for me, the confirmation that there are still some people out there who are looking for more than just a football player and they understand you win with people first. You have to have the character and the intangibles to go with the talent if you are going to build something special. So it was awesome.
I’ve met Jon Gruden a couple times and I know Mayock, and I just think it was great because I’m not sure a lot of people thought that Clelin would go fourth but let me tell you — they got it right. That guy right there he ain’t going to change his stripes. That's who you build a program with.
Same thing with Trayvon, same thing with Hunter and it’s just awesome. It’s a compliment to our program and their comments after the draft were good to hear. And I tell our players that’s what I tell them — we’re not trying to keep all this here. You take it with you. Take it with into your careers, your marriages, your churches, your communities and if you get a chance to go to the NFL take it to your next locker room.
You know what it looks like. Take it with you. And I know that those guys will do just that. And they’ll buy into the way they want to do things there and they’ll do it with great commitment and accountability and you know, keep those core values that have made them successful.
With the Raiders drafting Hunter, Clelin and Trayvon to help turn their culture around, what makes them special and unique players and people that gives you confidence they can help the Raiders do that?
Yeah, well their ability on the field, you just can’t deny it. Just turn the tape on. Those guys are special as football players. But they knew what they were looking for because they’ve got a big turnaround to make there and they are trying to build it the right way and the thing about Cle, Trayvon and Hunter, they are great relationship people.
Those guys have the ability, they were great leaders here and they recognized that. They were leaders. You know they do it differently. You know, Trayvon is a great leader. His style is different than Cle’s and Hunter is different from both of them. But the one thing they all have in common is they are lead-by-example guys. They are above and beyond guys. They are not going to be talking about it they are going to be leading by doing it.
But yet, they are not afraid to challenge a teammate and they are all three relationship people. They value relationships and they respect the chain of command. That’s some of the stuff that they recognized in all three of them. Hunter is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and just an inspiring guy by how he practices and how he performs. You just can’t help but like the guy.
And Cle and Trayvon, Oh my goodness! Those guys are relentless in their pursuit of greatness and they are not afraid to reach down and grab people to make them come with them. That’s what I think the Raiders recognized in those guys and it was a big reason why — yes, they are very good players, but there’s a lot of good players.
But good players who are great people, who are committed to excellence in everything that they do, not just some of the things that they do, then that pool gets a little smaller. That's why they took those three guys.