Column: After a decade of success, Dabo Swinney is suddenly under fire at Clemson

Dabo Swinney is a bit testy these days, which is certainly understandable.

He was once the hottest college football coach in all the land, the guy who seemed poised to supplant Nick Saban as the G.O.A.T. of the sideline.

Now, after struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing times, ol' Dabo is suddenly leading a Clemson program that looks downright ordinary.

So, when a bold fan called in to challenge the deteriorating state of the Tigers on Swinney's radio show this week, the coach showed just how thin his skin has become.

Let the fireworks begin!

“Listen, man, you can have your opinion all you want, and you can apply for the job. And good luck to you,” Swinney angrily lectured a caller identified only as “Tyler from Spartanburg.”

While it's true that a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset is the bane of college athletics, there is no denying that Tyler from Spartanburg was on to something with his critical assessment of Swinney's once-powerhouse program.

Since receiving their sixth straight invitation to the College Football Playoff after winning the 2020 Atlantic Coast Conference title, the Tigers have posted a 25-11 record — but just a 5-5 mark against ranked opponents.

More troubling is Clemson's body of work over the last year.

After eight straight wins to start the 2022 campaign, the Tigers are a .500 team — seven wins, seven losses — and certainly not what the orange-clad faithful expect from one of the game's highest-paid coaches.

With Swinney in the second-year of a $115 million, 10-year contract that ties him to Clemson through the 2031 season, Tyler from Spartanburg was in no mood for the coach's explanations of what's gone wrong.

He even delivered the ultimate dig, comparing Swinney's take to his much-maligned predecessor.

“It sounded a whole lot like Tommy Bowden,” Tyler from Spartanburg said. “And I'll tell you one thing: Tommy Bowden didn't make the same amount of money as you do.”

Granted, that's a low blow considering Swinney's overall body of work, which includes a pair of national championships, two other appearances in the final game, eight ACC titles and a dozen 10-win seasons in a row.

But the level of expectation grows in tandem with the number of zeroes on the paycheck, an axiom that seemed lost on Swinney as he unleashed what he would later call “an Old Testament response” to ”some idiot" who tried to "go Old Testament on me."

“Am I perfect? Nope. Far from it,” Swinney ranted. “I have been a part of failure many times. But there ain't one thing in my life that I've failed at, Tyler. Never, ever.”

Swinney told Tyler from Spartanburg that fans like him are “part of the problem.”

“The expectation is greater than the appreciation,” the coach said. “That’s the problem.”

Swinney needs to do some serious self-evaluation on what ails the Tigers, starting with his reluctance to take advantage of the transfer portal — an absolute must in today's recruiting world.

Swinney has always preferred to develop players that he plucks from the high school ranks, but the Tigers will keep falling farther and farther behind if they don't, at the very least, tweak that philosophy a bit.

In the portal era, Swinney has landed only two players, both of them nothing more than scout-team quarterbacks who bolstered depth during the week but aren't a factor on Saturdays.

Then there's Swinney's well-known opposition to paying players, which has surely come back to bite him on the recruiting trail in a world where athletes can now make millions of bucks through name, image and likeness deals.

Swinney has threatened to quit coaching if college athletics starts to look too much like the pros, which of course it already does except for that pesky part about doling out actual salaries to those who do the heavy lifting on the field.

His stance makes him look totally out of touch and downright arrogant considering what's going into his bank account.

Finally, there's his coaching staff. Swinney has always been far too loyal to former players and assistants he already has, promoting them to positions they're not ready for instead of looking outside the program for more qualified applicants.

Most notably, after longtime offensive coordinator Tony Elliott left to become the head coach at Virginia, Swinney replaced him internally with Brandon Streeter. The former Clemson quarterback lasted one year in his new job, taking the fall after the Tigers lost three of their final six games during the 2022 season, including a stunning home setback to rival South Carolina.

While Streeter certainly seemed overmatched, Clemson's biggest issue has been the lack of star power at quarterback.

During three seasons with Deshaun Watson taking the snaps and three more with Trevor Lawrence lining up behind center, the Tigers went 77-8, stocked the trophy case with all sorts of hardware and certainly became a bit spoiled.

Since then, DJ Uiagalelei struggled through almost two years as the starter before he was replaced by Cade Klubnik. With Klubnik at the controls and Garrett Riley brought in as the new coordinator, the Tigers have been held to 20 points or less in four of eight games this season.

In the major offensive categories, Clemson ranks 63rd in scoring, 66th in rushing yards, 49th in total yards and 45th in passing yards.

“Is this a bad year? Yeah, and it’s my responsibility. Take 100% responsibility for it,” Swinney conceded to Tyler from Spartanburg. But, coach went on to say, "I don't give a crap a how much money I'm making. You're not gonna talk to me like I'm 12 years old."

Heading into a home game Saturday against No. 12 Notre Dame (7-2), the Tigers and their 53-year-old leader must at least split their final four contests just to become bowl eligible.

That sounds so strange at a place like Clemson.

No wonder the coach is so testy.


Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at


Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here


AP college football: and