Swinney proves it possible to chase championships and have fun

Just a couple of weeks after Clemson’s second consecutive appearance in the national championship game, Dabo World should open.

It is more formally called the Football Operations Building, a 140,000-square-foot, $55 million part training facility/part man-cave-on-steroids dedicated to knocking the eyeballs clean out of a recruit’s sockets.

Within are offices, meeting rooms, a cavernous weight room and a dining facility — all of the usual boring stuff that every wealthy program needs to conquer the college football world.

But then there are the bells: A two-story slide; arcade; two bowling lanes; a nap room that includes eight bunk beds and three massage chairs.

And the whistles: A 24-seat HD theater; barber shop (players must pay for a cut, per NCAA rules); laser tag; an outdoor pavilion with a sand-volleyball area and fire pit.

Which of all the accessories does sophomore tackle Mitch Hyatt figure will be his favorite? “Probably the bowling alley. Or the nap room,” he said.

Sleep deprivation must be a chronic concern around this campus. “Oh, it’s probably the nap room, to be honest,” junior cornerback Ryan Carter said when asked what he’s most eager to experience. “I’m looking forward to sleeping in there.”

Thus, it might be a powerful motivator for Monday night: Beat Alabama, boys, or we’re going to take away the bunk beds. You’ll have to sleep on the bare floor.

But nothing about the new fun house — symbolic of an attitude that sets Clemson apart from more buttoned-down programs (like Alabama) — is contingent upon the outcome of one game.

Granted, the concept of fun in football is open to all kinds of interpretation. Like Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said, “If we were 1-13 or whatever, it would not be a fun season. The fun is in the winning. The fun is in the locker room celebrating with your teammates after beating Ohio State 31-0.”

Alabama wins. A lot. It claims 16 national championships. Four of those have come in the past seven seasons, with another on the line Monday. Almost certainly, Alabama has some fun.

But Alabama doesn’t have a big indoor slide.

Behind the stern face of Nick Saban, Alabama has made itself a model for how to do a 21st century dynasty. His way has become a template for others to follow. Some do that more strictly than others (say in Athens, for example).

But there is no one route to get to the championship game — even if in this case I-75 south is the recommended way to Tampa.

Saban has never said, “Shoot, I have fun. I think it’s important that you have fun along the way. There’s a lot of coaches in this business that just look miserable to me, even when they win. Even when they win, they just look curmudgeonly, and that’s a shame. If it ever gets to where I’m not even having fun when I win, I’m doing something else.”

But Dabo Swinney did, last year to Sports Illustrated.

When trying to encapsulate the reason for his singular success, one coach in this national championship rematch forever invokes the phrase, “The Process.” It is shorthand for all aspects of Alabama’s one-voice, one-message program, a philosophy that emphasizes the narrowly focused preparation for the next task over all else. Everything outside “The Process” is a potential distraction, and is to be quashed.

And, certainly, Clemson football relies upon a serious focus. Any winning program must. There is a balance to strike between somber-minded pursuit of a goal and realizing in the end that a football game is an outlet for enjoyment not a Darwinian battle for survival.

“That falls on me,” Swinney said. “It’s how you lead the group, how you lead the meetings, how you talk to them, how you respond to certain things, the leadership that you develop on your team.”

Added the coach, “We try to make sure we find some opportunities to have some fun. I think it’s important. I never want guys to dread coming over here. I want guys who look forward to coming to practice, who look forward to preparing.

“We make sure we celebrate all wins, not just the big ones. Even the wins where you might not have played as well as you would have liked but you found a way to win. There are a lot of ways we get around to (striking that) balance.”

Swinney’s task at Clemson was a heavy one. A little-known assistant thrust into an interim head coaching position midway through the 2008 season, Swinney earned the full title at season’s end. Back then, the same team that is going to a second consecutive title game and has double-digit wins in the past six seasons hadn’t enjoyed a 10-win season in nearly two decades. And hadn’t won an ACC title since 1991.

At the beginning, Swinney reportedly likened his position to a poker player going all-in with a pair of 10s.

“A pair of 5s, more like it,” Swinney said last week.

And what kind of hand is he holding now, someone asked? Swinney smiled and said, “We got a really good hand. We got as good a hand as anybody out there. Got at least a king-high flush and you hope they don’t have the ace, that’s all that’s going to beat you.”

There is just something different in tone between Monday’s contestants, a contrast in light. And that emanates from the top. Whether it’s a little looser grip on access to his team and his coaches (Swinney was the same coach who early in his tenure invited the student body to practice, and nearly 1,000 showed). Or the willingness to use Texas Hold ’em as a metaphor for football.

In the players’ meeting room at Clemson, there is a list of 16 commandments — apparently the Old Testament missed a few. And there it is, officially a part of the Tigers ethos:

No. 16. Have Fun.

“(The coaches) know how to have fun, they don’t make it bigger than what it is,” Clemson receiver Artavis Scott said. “Why make this game bigger than it is? We’re here to have fun also getting our job done.

“You look back and say dang, I didn’t have any fun my whole time in college. What was the point of college then?”

There are programs whose approach is more life or death, someone mentioned to him.

“Well, glad I didn’t go there,” Scott laughed.

His coach has been known to do a goofy dance in the locker room after victories. Or coin absurdist acronyms like BYOG (bring your own guts). And, yes, approve of playground equipment in the football-operations building.

No, there is no one track to a championship. And Saban is nothing if not adaptable (hasn’t the same coach who once decried the quick-tempo offense now adopted portions of it).

So, if Clemson wins Monday, mightn’t there be a slide coming to the Crimson Tide facility? Only it would have to be three stories high.