The secret sauce in Clemson’s success? Coaching continuity

Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers celebrates his team’s 29-23 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff Semifinal on Dec. 28, 2019 in Glendale, Ariz.
Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers celebrates his team’s 29-23 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff Semifinal on Dec. 28, 2019 in Glendale, Ariz.

Credit: Norm Hall

Credit: Norm Hall

This makes four championship games in five years for li’l ol’ Clemson, to borrow Dabo Swinney’s tongue-in-cheek description of the nation’s best program, and five playoff trips in succession. And, given the quality of their top-ranked recruiting class, there’s a real chance they’ll be in Miami for another of these 12 months hence.

Not everything in college football comes down to Clemson vs. Alabama – this title game won’t – but the contrasts are striking. Bama has had six different offensive coordinators over the past nine years; it has had four defensive coordinators over the past five. Clemson is on the same co-OCs and DC as when this run commenced.

Technically, the Tigers are about to lose of those co-OCs: Jeff Scott is headed for South Florida as head coach after he works Monday’s game. But Tony Elliott, the other co-OC, has been the play-caller since 2015. He’s going nowhere. Neither is Brent Venables, the estimable DC who – counting his tenure at Oklahoma – is about to work his eighth national championship game.

Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman came and went. Christian Wilkins and Hunter Renfrow are in the NFL. But the three men seated atop podiums, side by side by side, at Clemson’s media-day session Saturday remain. From left to right: Elliott, Swinney, Venables.

Said Venables: “There’s a cohesion. It’s tough to replicate that.

Said Elliott: “It’s huge, hearing the same voice every year. (Quarterbacks coach Brandon) Streeter and I, we can almost finish each other’s sentences.”

Venables: “It’s hard if you don’t have continuity.”

It’s hard to believe that, in an era of rampant coaching movement, the school in Pickens County, S.C., has managed to keep its staff intact. Before Scott, the last key Tigers assistant to exit was OC Chad Morris, who became head coach at SMU in December 2014. (Morris just got canned after two years at Arkansas; Clemson commenced playing for national titles immediately after he left. Cause and effect?) According to athletic director Dan Radakovich, this isn’t by accident.

Said D-Rad, who was Georgia Tech’s AD before heading northeast up I-85: “I’m from Pittsburgh, so the idea of continuity in coaching staffs for a long time – I lived it (with the Steelers); I saw it growing up. Dabo embodies it. He creates a great culture. We do compensate our coaches very well. As we look at how we allocate our resources, that’s very, very high on our list. He does a great job of pulling those resources together and giving those to the folks. But he knows that this business is really about culture, and sometimes you can’t overpay for culture.”

Venables: “We have an understanding of who we are and what we’re looking for. It starts with that guy (pointing to Swinney) right there. He shows up every day with a plan of execution, accountability and discipline. That’s something he cultivates.”

No championship staff stays together forever. That’s the nature of sports. Georgia, which almost won the national title two years ago, is another case study. Last winter it lost OC Jim Chaney and DC Mel Tucker. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman left to succeed Morris at Arkansas, and special-teams coordinator Scott Fountain is tagging along. How is it that Elliott and Venables, who presumably could have their pick of head-coaching jobs, are content at Clemson?

Part of it, as Radakovich noted, is money: Elliott is making $1 million per season; Venables pulls down twice that. But that’s not all of it: Venables has two sons on the team; Elliott is an alum, class of 2002.

Asked if he gets antsy about still being an assistant, Elliott said: “Not at all. I’m at my alma mater with a program that’s one of the best in the country. Coach Swinney is always saying, ‘Bloom where you’re planted.’ There will come a time when I’m uprooted.”

Clemson insiders say Elliott never got a call from Georgia Tech when AD Todd Stansbury was looking to replace Paul Johnson. (Stansbury hired Geoff Collins, who went 3-9 in Year 1.) If true, that makes no sense. Elliott is a key reason Clemson, which like Tech plays in the ACC, keeps playing for championships, and he took his degree in industrial engineering. Then again, he mightn’t be as effusive about Waffle House selfies.

Elliott: “Every situation is different. Every AD is looking for a certain thing.”

He smiled. “We’re living history, and I’m enjoying it.”

How long can this golden era last? Well, quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a sophomore, as is receiver Justyn Ross, who caught six passes for 153 yards against Alabama in last year’s title tilt. Ross is from Phenix City, Ala., and he told reporters his decision to spurn the Crimson Tide was because of “the stability that Clemson has. They don’t really have coaches leaving in and out like that and (you’re) learning different stuff every year.”

Said Venables: “When you have coaches you know and you have chemistry, that’s a big deal.”

Then: “Coach Swinney is always looking forward. You see dynasties – businesses or organizations – lose (momentum), and usually the deterioration or decline that destroys them comes from the inside out. You’ve got to be forward-looking.”

Alabama, which faced Clemson in the College Football Playoff final in January 2016, January 2017 and January 2019, isn’t here this time. LSU is, and LSU is very good. Said Swinney on the other Tigers: “They’re special. They look like our guys.”

And that’s the point: Li’l ol’ Clemson is in truth a colossus. Here’s its record since Elliott began calling plays – 70-4. Here’s its record since Venables took over the defense – 101-11. These coaches have been here before, which is a large reason Clemson keeps coming back.

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