ARLINGTON, Texas — At Alabama, coordinator changes are about as frequent as oil changes. At Oklahoma, the defensive coordinator was fired in early October. At Notre Dame, the offensive coordinator is in his second season and defensive coordinator in his first.
And then there is the fourth team in the College Football Playoff: Clemson, king of coordinator continuity.
Tony Elliott is in his fourth year as the co-offensive coordinator of the Tigers and eighth season on Dabo Swinney’s staff. Fellow co-coordinator Jeff Scott is in his 11th season on the staff. Together they are orchestrating what could very well be the best offense in school history, on pace to set records for points per game (45.4), yards per game (529.9) and yards per play (7.37).
And they’re both still at Clemson.
Brent Venables is in his seventh season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, and he’s probably the best in the business in college football. His unit leads the nation in yards allowed per play (4.08), yards allowed per rush (2.4) and fumbles forced (29). Clemson is second nationally in sacks (46) and tackles for loss (121).
And Venables, too, is still at Clemson.
At a time when the sport’s pool of prospective head coaches is regarded as shallow, it’s remarkable that nobody has plucked Elliott, Scott or Venables from Swinney’s staff. Their track records jump off the page — big winners, good recruiters, strategically proven, and they’ve done it year after year after year. Venables won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country in 2016, and Elliott won it in ’17.
So why are they all still there instead of leading their own programs?
“The best advice I’ve been given is, ‘Don’t mess with happy,’ ” Scott said. “That’s the best word to describe what we’ve got going on at Clemson. Everybody’s happy.”
Happy and successful and well compensated, too. Venables’ total package makes him the richest assistant coach in the sport after signing a five-year deal worth $11.6 million during the summer. Elliott and Scott, both Clemson alums, are pulling in $850,000 a year. All total, the program’s assistant coach salary pool for 2018 is about $6.3 million, believed to be second only to LSU’s $6.6 million.
Those deals dramatically decrease the likelihood of any lateral moves to coordinator jobs elsewhere. And they allow Swinney’s assistants to be super selective about head-coaching positions as well. They want to be head coaches, but they aren’t going to lunge at bad — or even middling — jobs.
The 48-year-old Venables, who previously did great work at Oklahoma, was approached by Big 12 schools Texas Tech and Kansas State within the last month about their head-coaching vacancies. He also was approached by Arkansas last year. He chose to stay at Clemson. Elliott was on Central Florida’s radar after Scott Frost left, but also declined to leave.
Venables’ oldest son, Jake, is a freshman linebacker for the Tigers. His other son, Tyler, a high school junior, has a Clemson scholarship offer on the table. So if you want two more reasons why their dad is happy to stay put for now, there they are.
“I’m a simple guy and I’m in a great place,” Venables said. “I’m not naïve. I’ve seen guys move up that ladder and it can be a difficult road. I love a challenge, but I have everything I need, want and desire at Clemson. It’s going to take a great situation to leave.
“I value culture, success, where I live, who I work with and who I work for.”
Who they work for is a significant part of the Clemson equation. Swinney not only is a winner, he’s universally acclaimed as a great boss.
His relationship with Elliott is especially deep, starting when Elliott played for assistant coach Swinney. He was a walk-on receiver coached by a guy who had been a walk-on receiver himself, at Alabama.
At age 9, Elliott lost his mother to a fatal car accident. His father was incarcerated. Clemson football provided a supporting family and Swinney became a mentor. He could relate to some of what Elliott had experienced; Dabo’s own father was an alcoholic who was largely absent from his life.
Elliott flourished at Clemson, earning a degree in industrial engineering and working for Michelin before turning to coaching.
“I knew at some point I was going to hire him,” Swinney said.
That point came in 2011, and he promoted Elliott to coordinator when Chad Morris left in 2015 to be the head coach at SMU. There was plenty of speculation that the Clemson offense might sputter without Morris, at the time considered one of the leading practitioners of no-huddle spread offense.
Here’s what the Tigers have done with the 39-year-old Elliott as its OC: they’ve gone 53-4, with four playoff appearances. The offense worked when Deshaun Watson was the QB, when Kelly Bryant was the QB and now with freshman Trevor Lawrence as the QB.
“I have an unbelievable relationship with coach Swinney,” Elliott said. “He always says, ‘Bloom where you’re planted.’ I’m trying to enjoy the moment. Clemson is a hidden gem, and everyone has an appreciation for being there. I think it’s a testament to what coach Swinney has built.
“When the Lord opens the right door, I’ll walk through it and seize the opportunity.”
Scott probably is the farthest away of the three from a head-coaching job, but he will be an increasingly attractive commodity. If Elliott leaves, Swinney’s promote-from-within tendency would almost certainly hand play-calling duties to Scott.
Another Clemson alum, Scott also has deep ties to the school. And he has his father Brad’s coaching experience as a cautionary tale.
Brad Scott was part of an ironclad Bobby Bowden staff at Florida State, working 11 seasons in Tallahassee. He left in 1994 to be head coach at South Carolina, when the Gamecocks were still trying to get their footing as a recent addition to the Southeastern Conference. He was 22-22-1 through four seasons, then was fired after going 1-10 in year five.
Brad Scott messed with happy. Jeff Scott, now 37, was paying attention.
“Being a head coach is something I definitely have aspirations to do,” Jeff Scott said. “But I’m not in a hurry to do. What we have here as a staff probably won’t last forever. If we continue to have success here at Clemson, some of us will move on. But we’re going to soak it up while we’re here.”
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