CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Dabo Swinney likes to keep the mood around Clemson’s football program light, with lots of revelry.
It’s the Dabo Way. And it seems to be working. Top recruits keep arriving each year, assistants don’t want to leave and the Tigers keep winning.
Swinney, in his 10th year at Clemson, like most coaches is a stickler for hard work. But he also is keen on celebrating success. There are memorable locker room dance parties after victories. There was a stadium pizza party for fans following Clemson’s first trip to the College Football Playoff in 2015, and even a trip to an area amusement park this week amid preparations for its latest playoff run, which starts for the second ranked Tigers (13-0, CFP No. 2) against No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0, CFP No. 3).
“Coach Swinney calls it joy,” receiver Amari Rodgers said.
There’s been plenty of joy for the Tigers in the decade since Swinney, a little known receivers coach , earned the fulltime job after the 2008 season without any experience as coach or coordinator.
Clemson has won five Atlantic Coast Conference titles (the last four in a row) under Swinney and the 2016 national championship.
And Swinney is ardent defender of his team’s right to happiness.
Last month, he angrily chided fans critical of a closer-than-expected 56-35 win over rival South Carolina.
“We’ve got people complaining,” Swinney said. “Give me a break. If 12-0 ain’t good enough, then it’s time to seek other places.”
It’s an atmosphere in which players and assistants feel welcome, and seek to stay.
Three Clemson All-Americans, defensive end Clelin Ferrell, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and left tackle Mitch Hyatt — all considered high-round NFL prospects a year ago — returned last January for another season in college.
Highly regarded head coaching candidates in defensive coordinator Brent Venables and co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have, so far, resisted queries from other programs.
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who led the Tigers to that national title two years ago, said Swinney’s style creates loyalty, appreciation and respect.
“He let us be us,” Watson said. “He didn’t try to control us in any way. He had a great culture there that everyone bought into. We (were) all on the same page and everyone loved it. That was the reason why we were winning and very successful.”
And things don’t look like they’re changing anytime soon.
Clemson’s current quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is a freshman who’s already popped up on several early Heisman Trophy lists for 2019. The Tigers signed 27 players last Wednesday, including 13 considered four- or five-star players per 247sports.com.
Wilkins is a player that seems born for Swinney’s system; he’s hard-working and fun-loving. He’s a Power Rangers fanatic who has had linemates dress up as the fictional superheroes and visit coaches’ houses on Halloween. His athletic pirouette, leg extension and split on the confetti-filled field was the highlight of the Tigers’ national title celebration two years ago. He took criticism during that playoff run, too, for grabbing Ohio State runner Curtis Samuel near his private parts after one play.
The defensive lineman embraced Swinney’s approach and made it his mission to step things up.
“I almost try to take it to new levels, new heights,” Wilkins said. “I try to have as much fun as anybody when I’m playing the game, doing my job. But I also try and work harder than anybody.”
It’s a blend that’s kept Clemson’s staff stable, too. Nine of Swinney’s 10 assistants have been with the program four years or more, including Venables, the highly regarded defensive leader whose name regularly surfaces in coaching searches. There were two openings this past month that seemed tailor-made for him: At Texas Tech where Venables’ former teammate and friend Kirby Hocutt is the athletic director and Kansas State, Venables’ alma mater.
But Venables, who acknowledged speaking to Hocutt, remains at Clemson. Now, he is well compensated with a salary package of $2.2 million this year, but credits Swinney’s style as a big reason for staying put.
“He’s relentless about demanding that we enjoy it and our players enjoy it and have a great experience,” Venables said. “So I love that.”
Swinney’s keeping fun in mind this bowl season, as well. The team followed a community service outing Monday with a trip to Frankie’s Fun Park. Swinney said they’ll have an enjoyable gathering to celebrate Christmas in Dallas because they can’t be home.
The coach fully understands big-time college football can be a head-down, grinding experience with long hours and stressful moments. Keeping perspective is essential, he said.
Swinney regularly hears “Thank Yous” from former players for how he does things after learning of other programs from pro teammates where winning was more of a chore. That’ll never be for Swinney’s Tigers.
“If we lose,” Swinney quips, “no one lost a leg.”
So count on more dance-offs and fun times at Clemson.
“I don’t want them to be miserable if we win,” Swinney said. “At the end of the day, man, we celebrate the journey.”
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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