NEW ORLEANS — Dabo Swinney arrived here at Louis Armstrong Airport on Wednesday and said all the right things as the face of the Clemson football program.
He mentioned his boss, athletic director Dan Radakovich. He mentioned his boss’ boss, school president James Clements. He gave a salute to the Clemson fans.
And then he was asked about his Alabama past, and how it intersects with this city, and for a moment Swinney retroactively wrapped himself in houndstooth. He reminisced about attending the 1980 Sugar Bowl at age 10, when Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide defeated Arkansas — his mother gave him a photograph just recently from that trip, of young Dabo in the street with a New Orleans tap dancer. He also recalled coming to two Sugar Bowls as an Alabama player, winning the national title in the second one 25 years ago.
Swinney’s moment of reverie has nothing to do with Clemson-Alabama III, which will take place Monday night. But it serves as a reminder that the best coach in Clemson history is also the most logical successor to Nick Saban whenever the king of college football decides to walk away.
As a Pelham, Alabama, product who owns two degrees from the University of Alabama, Swinney has the ties to, knowledge of and affinity for the program. And with a 101-29 career record, Swinney has the résumé for the job, too.
He isn’t just the logical choice. He’s darned near the only choice.
At least as it stands now. Things can change, and the Alabama job may not be open for a while.
Saban agreed to a new contract extension last May that runs through the 2024 season. While he could opt out before that, sliding into an analyst’s chair at ESPN or into the pilot’s chair of a boat, nobody around the Alabama program seems to have any suspicion that the 66-year-old is ready to retire from coaching.
“Our actions we’ve taken as a university, with the new contract this year, make it clear that our intent is to keep him at Alabama as long as possible and have him finish his career here,” Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne said on Thursday. “His energy level in coaching, recruiting and leading his program is as strong as anyone’s in the country.”
So it seems entirely possible that we will see a septuagenarian Saban scowling as he stalks the sidelines in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Nobody knows for sure what the coaching landscape will look like if he finishes out his deal and goes seven more seasons in Tuscaloosa, but if you were placing bets on which current coach will still be thriving in 2024, Swinney would be the favorite.
He’s 48 now, and in the midst of what could end up being the best three-year run by any coach not named Saban in quite some time.
Swinney is 40-3 from 2015 to present day. In FBS history, only Saban has won 40 games in a three-season span (he went 40-4 from 2014-16). And if top-seeded Clemson wins this College Football Playoff and Swinney boosts that record to 42-3, it would be an unprecedented run in FBS annals.
Yes, there is one more game now for teams that reach the playoff championship. But that also means there is an additional opportunity to lose.
Both Swinney and Saban currently are trying to complete three straight seasons with one or fewer losses. Urban Meyer, for all his accomplishments, has never done that. Bob Stoops never did it at Oklahoma. Jimbo Fisher didn’t do it at Florida State. Gary Patterson hasn’t done it at TCU.
The only active FBS coach to have pulled off that feat is Chris Petersen, who strung together four straight seasons with one or fewer losses. Petersen went 50-3 from 2008-11 — but that was at Boise State, which is a different animal than Clemson or Alabama.
Last guy to do it at the Power Five level was Pete Carroll at USC, who went 37-2 from 2003-05. Of course, many of those victories subsequently were vacated by NCAA sanctions.
If William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney finishes this three-year run at 42-3 and wins consecutive national titles, he will have beaten Saban twice, Meyer once and Stoops once in the playoff process. The latter two he will have beaten like rented mules, with a 31-point shutout of Ohio State last year and a 21-point victory over Oklahoma in 2015. (That’s in addition to a three-game winning streak over Fisher, who fled Swinney and the ACC’s Atlantic Division last month for Texas A&M and the SEC West, Saban’s backyard.)
If Swinney wins here Monday and then takes the title Jan. 8 in Atlanta, that might be enough to spur some members of the famously demanding Crimson Tide fan base to decide they don’t want to wait for Saban to retire; they want Dabo now. But here’s the thing: Maybe they shouldn’t be so sure he would take Alabama if Alabama were offered.
Loyalty to the alma mater and the home state would come with some daunting side effects. Most notably, following Saban’s footsteps and being measured against the accomplishments of a guy who is on the short list of the greatest coaches in college football history. Ask Ray Perkins what it was like being the man who followed The Man, Bear Bryant.
At Clemson, Swinney’s place within the university is secure and enduring. There may still be fond nostalgia about program patriarch Frank Howard, but in real terms Dabo already is the greatest coach in Clemson history. He doesn’t have to go to work every day trying to measure up to prior legends.
And clearly, the school has made the commitment to be competitive with the Alabamas of the world for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to envision Alabama offering anything — facilities, salary, support staff, whatever — that Clemson wouldn’t match or exceed in order to keep Swinney in orange.
In theory, the only thing Alabama can offer that Clemson could not is home and personal history with the program. But even there, the Tigers present a decent counterpoint. Swinney and his family have lived in Clemson since 2003 — his kids have grown up there. And this was the school that took a chance on a wide receivers coach who hadn’t even been a coordinator, making him the head coach in 2008.
The conference is more navigable as well. Even with the SEC currently operating below its glory-days level of 2006-12, the SEC West figures to be a tougher division than the ACC Atlantic in perpetuity. The path to the playoff is as available at Clemson as it is at Alabama, and simultaneously smoother.
So Dabo Swinney ultimately becoming Alabama’s coach may not be the no-brainer it would appear to some. But one thing seems likely: He’ll get the chance to make that decision whenever Nick Saban retires.
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