Dabo Swinney joins Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski as unknown hires who rose to the top

‘We’re a long way from a dynasty’ Dabo Swinney on Clemson’s championship run

Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Clemson Tigers cornerback Trayvon Mullen spoke to the media the day after beating Alabama to win the College Football Playoff National Championship.
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Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Clemson Tigers cornerback Trayvon Mullen spoke to the media the day after beating Alabama to win the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has joined Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski as the greatest unknown coaching hires in the history of college athletics.

There is no way to quantify such a bold statement. Yet it is difficult to believe there are three lesser-name hires who eventually climbed to the top of their respective professions, at least not among the major sports.

Smith had not one day of basketball head-coaching experience when then UNC Chancellor William Aycock made a bold move in 1961 to give Smith the reins of a men’s basketball program facing NCAA probation. Smith was 30 years old.

UNC Coach Dean Smith, left, shakes hands with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils in the first game in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center on January 18, 1986. Robert Willett

Smith actually had some head-coaching experience, if you count baseball and golf at the Air Force Academy for three years. He also was an Air Force assistant basketball coach during that period, which followed two seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Kansas.

There were three more seasons as an assistant at UNC under coach Frank McGuire. Then, when McGuire resigned in the summer of ’61, many in the UNC community were stunned that Aycock would commit to a little-known assistant. Aycock did so immediately upon receiving McGuire’s resignation and without interviewing a single candidate, including Smith.

According to his autobiography, “Dean Smith: A Coach’s Life,” Aycock went against the wishes of the UNC Board of Trustees who wanted a national search to replace McGuire. The Board wanted UNC to follow the lead of area schools, all of which had big-name coaches: Everett Case at N.C. State, Vic Bubas at Duke and Bones McKinney at Wake Forest.

Smith retired following the 1996-97 season as the all-time leader in wins with 879. He has since been passed by Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight. Smith’s UNC teams won two national championships and appeared in 11 Final Fours.

Krzyzewski emerges

Krzyzewski carried head-coaching experience on his resume when Duke began searching for a coach following the 1979-80 season. He first was an assistant at Indiana under Knight, who was Krzyzewski’s college head coach at Army during his playing days. Then Krzyzewski returned to his alma mater to lead that program.

In five seasons, Krzyzewski retained Army’s status as a respectable mid-major program by compiling a 73-59 record and appearing in one National Invitation Tournament. Yet few outside the northeast had heard of Krzyzewski, and even fewer knew how to pronounce his name.

After Tre Jones had six steals as the Duke Blue Devils beat the Texas Tech Red Raiders, 69-58, on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he considers Jones already among the best perimeter defenders the Blue Devils have had.

Tom Butters, Duke’s athletic director at the time, had compiled a list of possible candidates, nearly all of whom were nationally established coaches. The list included Tom Davis at Boston College, Jack Hartman at Kansas State, Paul Webb at Old Dominion and Bob Weltlich at Mississippi. Foster’s top assistant at Duke, Bob Wenzel also was considered a candidate.

Despite the impressive collection of talented candidates, Butters was most enamored with Krzyzewski and hired the 33-year-old. ACC basketball fans universally asked “Who?” upon Krzyzewski’s hire.

Krzyzewski now is the all-time men’s basketball leader in wins with more than 1,100 in 40 seasons at Duke. His teams have won five national championships and appeared in 12 Final Fours.

Swinney’s return

Swinney is an even more remarkable story because he dropped out of the coaching profession for two years while he pursued a different occupation. While out of football, he worked for a commercial project development company in his home state of Alabama.

Clemson won the college football national championship against Alabama in a blowout 44-16 victory at Santa Clara January 7, 2019.

Prior to that, Swinney was a graduate assistant and full-time assistant coach for eight seasons at Alabama. After the two-year hiatus, he returned to coaching when Clemson coach Tommy Bowden coaxed Swinney into leading the wide receivers for the 2003 season.

When Bowden was let go midway through the 2008 season, he recommended to then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips that Swinney be his replacement. Phillips named Swinney, who was 38, the interim head coach.

Few followers of Clemson football believed Swinney would coach beyond the six remaining games of the ’08 regular season. When the Tigers went 4-2 the rest of the way, Phillips named Swinney the permanent head coach prior to Clemson’s loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.

In 11 seasons, including 2008, Swinney has compiled a 115-30 record that includes two national championships and four consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoffs.

Swinney, Krzyzewski and Smith were unknowns when they were hired. All three then proceeded to make their names synonymous with greatness in college athletics.

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