Five Things We Can Learn from Dabo Swinney.


This blog was on my mind several weeks prior to Clemson’s win over Ohio State in the CFP semi-final. It’s great the Tigers are advancing the the Championship game, but even a loss to the Buckeyes wouldn’t have derailed my intentions.

So here’s the thing: How did all this happen? How did a medium-sized university with a 58% winning percentage from 1994–2008, arrive at the National Championship game in consecutive seasons? How did Clemson get from “good to great?”


And more to the point, what can we take away from all this to enable us to elevate our own small and mid-sized businesses?

There are probably dozens of factors. But the one I want to look at is the Tigers’ Head Coach, Dabo Swinney. Dabo was named interim coach during the 2008 season, and was officially handed the program in the fall of 2009. In my mind, there are five critical things Coach Swinney does that have a huge bearing on Clemson’s success.


1. An overarching mission that’s bigger than winning football games.

Read what Dabo had to say in the press conference following the South Carolina game on November 26:

“The game of football gave me clarity for my life, and it gave me an opportunity to use the game that I love for a bigger purpose. And that’s to shape young men – to equip them – and that’s what we do here. That’s our mission here at Clemson. We want to win some games, but we want to build men through that process.”

This is more than a recruiting ploy. It stems from Dabo’s personal circumstances growing up in a broken home. He loves his players and even as teams change each year, he creates a culture of respect and caring: “Everybody in our program understands the vision and the philosophies we have in place and it’s a very consistent message. At the end of the day, you either care about them or you don’t. And you can’t fabricate that.

More than anything else, this sense of mission is missing from a lot of businesses. We fall into the same cycles month after month, and forget there is (or should be) a bigger purpose that brings us all together. Something more than sales, growth and profit.

2. Goal-setting.

Win the opening game. Win the division. Win the state championship. Win the ACC. Win the bowl game. Win the “closer.” (Source)

Goal-setting seems so obvious for a winning sports program. Generally speaking, the same is true for businesses. Most businesses that establish goals and integrate them throughout their organizations have a more compelling feeling of accountability and accomplishment.

3. An attention to detail.

As Dabo says, “to play well, you have to prepare well. We believe in how we get ready each week.” (Source)

He goes on to say: “You have to prepare for every opponent and respect every opponent, but you have to have a formula of preparation and a formula of excellence. For us, it’s preparing with purpose every day. … It’s not just great effort, it’s great effort with an emphasis on technique. You can run around and give great effort, but if your technique stinks, you’re not going to have good execution.”

Coach Swinney’s practices are never random. For each session with his players, there is a purpose … specific points of emphasis. As business managers, could we prosper by looking at a work-day or a work-week the same way?


4. A spirit of love and inclusion.

Read what Dabo said recently in a interview: “The key to coaching is love. It’s not knowledge, it’s not discipline. If you love ’em, you can discipline them. If you love ’em, you can yell at them, and laugh about it later. I love my guys. You can’t fabricate that. It either is or it isn’t.” (Source)

As business managers, we should ask ourselves how do we relate to the people we’ve hired to build an enduring and respected organization. Do we build walls or do we create bonds that positively impact the lives of those around us?

5. Enjoy and celebrate.

Every coach is different. What works for one may not work for another. Here’s what former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said a year ago as the Crimson Tide prepared for the national championship game with Clemson: “I don’t think anybody would say fun is a term that is really used around our program very much. You’re not here to have fun. You’re here to win. Coach [Saban] said it before: you win the trophy, you hold it up, you take a picture, you hand it back and you go try to win the next one.” (Source)

Contrast that with something Coach Swinney said during preparations for the same game: “There’s no rule that says you can’t have fun. I think that when you’re passionate about what you do, that means you love it, and when you put your heart into something, you go above and beyond to be great at it. Maybe there are a lot of people out there doing things they’re not passionate about or maybe their heart is not in it, so they’re not having fun, but that’s not the case here.” (Source)

Sometimes as managers, we keep the emotional toll of wins and losses deep inside our souls. We keep our stress locked inside to the point that even great wins become just part of a day’s work. Coach Swinney sets high expectations for his coaching staff and players; the pressure to win has to be intense. But when the wins come, regardless of how dominant or unimpressive the Tigers were, there is reason to celebrate.

Dabo Swinney hasn’t achieved success because of his tactical acumen; he’s hired great young coordinators to develop and implement gameplans. The Clemson football program is where it is because Coach Swinney creates the vision for the Tigers and keeps his players focused, challenged, motivated and caring for their brothers. Whether you bleed orange, garnet or any other color, there’s a lot we can learn from the transformation at Clemson.