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Appreciating Dabo Swinney, the coach who'll make you believe you can beat Alabama

The Clemson head coach's goofy smile, constant celebration and relentless sincerity hide a brilliant leader.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Dabo Swinney's moment, above all other Dabo Swinney moments, is the postgame speech. Preferably this postgame speech will be in Clemson, on the field after a game, when the students have charged over the fences and swarmed at midfield. He will be in the center of it, and he will be primed to deliver some of the best motivational gibberish you have ever heard.

Motivational gibberish is not a bad thing, mind you. Another way to say this: Swinney has mic skills. He can cut a promo in two minutes that sells pay-per-views, angers opposing wrestlers, and gets the kids bouncing off the living room ceiling. The speech after the 2015 Notre Dame game -- the "Bring Your Own Guts" speech -- became a T-shirt, a mantra, a portable series of words Clemson has carried to the National Championship. This was not an exception to the rule.

Swinney, at any time, feels capable of launching into a motivational speech. Jesus and/or God will be thanked. After, there will be dancing.

After hearing all that, it would be really tempting to call Dabo college football's John Cena.

He visits sick kids. He has a proper WWE-style entrance.

He is, more so than even other college football coaches, achingly sincere at all times. Swinney is, like Cena, a better actor and improviser than people give him credit for. Against master antagonist Steve Spurrier, Swinney more than held his own.

If you don't like Dabo, it might be for all the same reasons people dislike Cena. Swinney will remind his players of the importance of heart and guts. He will not flinch or waver once. He is a wrestler playing a face character, with a capital F. If that is not your thing, then Dabo Swinney is definitely not your thing, especially if you are not into personalities that are effortlessly meme-able.

There is another Cena thing here: Dabo wins. That includes two conference titles, four straight bowl wins, and a top-10 finish in the AP Poll in 2013. Clemson under Swinney is consistently excellent for the first time since the Danny Ford era in the '80s.

Unlike Ford, Dabo is downright cuddly with administrators at Clemson and does all kinds of extracurriculars to keep things that way. Look, here's Dabo doing the women's clinic to benefit breast cancer research; and oh, over here Dabo's running around with kids in the morning during football season before donating money to the Clemson Life Program. Here's Dabo realizing there is a stuffed tiger behind him during an interview (that's not a charitable event, but it is a form of giving to the Internet at large).

It's a lot of striving and success that might be obnoxiously do-gooder if not for the periodic moments of total failure. The Cena comparison goes further when you consider how Dabo, the master promo-cutter himself, got his faltering start. Swinney half-fell and half-campaigned for the job after Tommy Bowden's firing in 2008. His trademark in his first seasons at Clemson was Clemson's old trademark under Bowden: promise undermined by losses that seemed almost scripted.

In his first full year as head coach, it came in twin losses to Georgia Tech in the regular season and ACC Championship. The second season bottomed out at 6-7, and featured losses to rivals Florida State, North Carolina, and, worst of all, 29-7 to South Carolina. Swinney left the locker room after that game and found athletic director Terry Don Phillips waiting in his office with only one light on in the room. Swinney thought he was fired. (Phillips gave him a vote of confidence and left the room.)

Even winning the ACC in 2011 came with its own retribution: an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia so lopsided, Mountaineers fans made a billboard about it. 2012 featured another loss to Florida State and, yes, a continuation of the losing streak to South Carolina.

And yet there's more. The 2013 team was Swinney's best until this year, and even it featured a headlong dive into the buzzsaw of the Seminoles at the height of Jameis Winston's powers. What would be an 11-win team lost 51-14 on its own field to a conference rival, trailing 27-7 at the half.

It's not that Dabo had his failures. It was that his teams failed predictably (in the case of the South Carolina rivalry) and spectacularly (see: Florida State, West Virginia, or the 45-21 debacle to open the season against Georgia in 2014). Even after winning 10 games four years in a row, Swinney could still explode when asked about the term "Clemsoning" and not sound totally convincing to the audience. If you thought he protested too much, well, there was the Florida State game, looming. If you thought he was the stereotypical, overly emotional college coach playing well above his head, you had a sound bite to prove it. If you believed he was "John Cena, The College Coach," then Dabo was happy to fall right into another promo for you.

This is all a way of saying Swinney's record is one of a wrestling face on the make. He would beat opponents until he got to the untouchable mainstays. Those games would be losses, and often bad ones. From time to time, he might even surrender a shocking loss, just to keep the fans on their toes. Through all this, the face's job is simple: stay positive, remind everyone to eat their vegetables and say their prayers, and wait for the one match that can get him over for good.


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That all undersells Swinney at Clemson. He's fine with that, by the way.

It's part of the Dabo brand to underplay your own strengths and remind people of humble beginnings, family turmoil, and all the folksy-and-yet-true bits of the official storyline.

Swinney won't talk about how he's turned his limitations into strengths. Never having worked as a coordinator, he delegates heavily to talented assistants. Sometimes those are name-brand hires like former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables. But there are also people like Chad Morris, the current head coach at SMU, whom Swinney pulled into the staff after one year at Tulsa.

He can recruit players and staffers and do a lot to keep them comfortable during their stays. In Morris' case, that involved becoming one of the first million dollar coordinators in college football. Venables is also paid well, but receives an additional benefit: a member of the strength and conditioning staff devoted to bodily pulling him back onto the sideline when he ventures too far into the field.

Swinney's even been a driving force behind a quiet but persistent drive to modernize Clemson football at what more-monied programs would consider a breakneck pace. For better or worse, Clemson will get its $55 million football megaplex in 2017. It will have, among other things "a barber shop, arcade, bowling alley, laser tag, billiards, ping pong and basketball."

The Tigers scout talent well and recruit ruthlessly against every other major power in the country. They quietly run the best social media operation in college football, even coordinating each week's content around musical themes. Younger staffers suggest the theme artists; for the 2015 win against Florida State, Kendrick Lamar got the nod because the game was going to require a degree of "gritty realism."

This is all to say that in getting here, Clemson has been a lot smarter than you might assume.

That includes Swinney, whose basic strengths as a try-hard coach and motivator conceal a lot of that intelligence.

Here's one model for a successful college coach. This person is talented. This person is gifted. This person can see things, analyze them and create systematic solutions. Give him a mountain, and in return, receive detailed schematics about cargo load, construction timelines, and phases of operation. He'll wear a suit and enjoy the bureaucracy of it all. This person is Nick Saban, the largely charmless Triple H of coaches.

The Swinney part -- the most opaque, fuzzy part of all of this equation -- is the belief, and the ability to make that belief a contagion. Yes, Swinney's been smarter than people might have thought. That still doesn't cover how anyone thought Swinney was the answer to anyone's problems to begin with, much less Clemson's.

To explain that part, we need a hypothetical unbaptized dolphin.

Here's the thing. I believe Dabo Swinney could baptize that dolphin. I believe he could make the dolphin understand the need for salvation. That is a joke, but it is not.

There are people who can lean on the process. There are also people who can maintain a supernatural level of optimism at all times. This is a skill, and don't act like it's not, especially at places like Clemson, a school with a small population base and a host of geographically approximate rivals all fighting for the same recruits.

If you're analytically inclined when talking about football, this is heresy. Actually, if you're analytically inclined at all, it's a general kind of heresy. It's the kind of lame team-building you laugh off in corporate settings, when it's time to put on a themed motivational T-shirt, or the motivational gambit you howl at when another team does it. It's a quality that's three steps from burying a football on the practice field and the punchline to a thousand jokes about dim coaches using hackneyed motivational techniques.

A'Shawn Robinson can't be blocked by optimism. Optimism is notoriously bad at getting open against cover 2 press for Deshaun Watson. It won't clear run lanes for Wayne Gallman, and it won't slow down Derrick Henry.

But if Clemson somehow pulls this off and beats drearily inevitable Alabama, who would argue that along the way it didn't matter? Optimism and attitude are the ghosts in the machine of football. Who would argue that they aren't real, if Swinney ends up holding a national title trophy in the desert?