As part of the Nestea Bold Campaign, we were asked to assess the risks of hiring or firing Coaches or personnel in and around the program.
Head Coach Risk
Hiring and firing is a common yet touchy subject within the Clemson community and the risk behind such decisions sets the course for the program's success for years to come. Clemson has been to these crossroads several times over the past decade or two, and we would like to look at the risk and circumstances around each such move.
We'll start with the Granddaddy of them all...forcing Coach Ford into a corner is one thing. Paying the best coach in the history of the school to leave is another. Clemson hasn't been the same since January 1990. That is the risk that a school assumes when it lets its President, BOT and the administration put a stranglehold on the University. They are libel to do something ridiculous and inexcusable like try to kill your football program. They basically did just that.
With Coach Ford removed, the administration had the opportunity to replace him with another member of his staff and keep together (somewhat) an outstanding football staff. Max Lennon and crew would have none of that, choosing to bring in good ‘Ole Kenny Hatfield. When you get run out of your Alma Mater, you know something is wrong and making this hire wasn't a risk that should be taken. Four seasons later, and Clemson is again looking for a coach.
Tommy West was probably a better "fit" for the job than Hatfield. West was a risk, having no major college head football coaching experience. We played defense and ran the iso, which is fun to watch but just didn't get it done with a guy like Ensminger running the show. West was well liked by the fans, and we still do like him, but could not produce wins. Risk was assumed by the admin to try to appease the fanbase with a more hard-nosed coach, but the desired results were never attained.
Tom Bowden was the hot name back in the late ‘90's and was immediately high on a lot of people's coaching wish list after an excellent undefeated season at Tulane and a family pedigree of big time college football coaches. Clemson, following the news that Tommy West would not return for the '99 season, was one of the schools that had high interest in Bowden and eventually signed him on as their head football coach. The risk here was relatively minimal (other than the fact that Coach Ford, a national champion head football coach, offered to come back and coach for free-which was risk-free). West wasn't knocking anyone's socks off, particularly with a 3-8 record in his last season, and Bowden looked to be the guy to come in and shake things up, particularly with the Bowden/Rodriguez spread single wing offense that was putting up tons of points down in New Orleans.
Three seasons of pure mediocrity (the one good one being 2000) passed with Georgia on the schedule to open the '03 season in Death Valley. We all know the story, Clemson got rolled and yours truly got royally pissed. I wanted Bowden fired before he left the stadium that day and I never forgot how unprepared we looked that day. Clemson stuck with Bowden, even after an unacceptable loss to Wake Forest. We all heard the rumors...Bowden was gone and there was nothing he could do to save his job. Then the unthinkable happened: Clemson whipped a top-5 FSU team in Death Valley then ended the season by destroying South Carolina in Columbia and Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. In spite of these triumphs, a lot of folks wanted Bowden gone or, at minimum, freeze pay raises and contract extension(s). Bowden got the extension and continued the Clemson mediocrity for another 3-4 years.
In 2008, the shoe appeared to be on the other foot. Clemson was returning what most thought would be a competitive team and was ranked extremely high in the preseason. Bowden leveraged chaos in Arkansas against Terry Don and the Clemson brass, pressing them into a contract extension to "stabilize recruiting." The result of the risk of keeping a coach around too long bit the university right in the ass, as Tom didn't even finish the 2008 season AND Clemson owed him millions for the poor contract decision made keeping him.
Following the Bama (then Wake Forest) debacle, Clemson was in need of a new coach. Terry Don named a young, inexperienced coach who excelled on the recruiting trail as the interim head coach. Risk was small for TDP at this point. Clemson's fan base was less than thrilled about pissing away a boatload of money on the last coach. If Swinney failed, they would conduct an exhaustive search for a new coach and if Dabo had any success, CU would permanently move him to the top spot on the cheap and create a contractual situation that would be easy for the university to get out of if he failed miserably the following season. Clemson went on to its first ACCCG and Dabo got more job security.
Outside of the odd situation that arose in '08, risk with Dabo would have been an extreme wild card. Swinney wasn't a particularly strong position coach while under Bowden and he and his offensive staff were novices at, well, running an offense. The upside was his people skills. Dabo recruits with the best of them and is well liked around the region with his ability to relate to common folks. Clemson put faith in player recruiting and hedged against fan revolt with a coach who does a good job with crowds. The verdict is still out on Coach Swinney, but the on-field results to date have not been overly impressive.
Would Clemson have been better off going out and shucking out the cash for a guy like Gary Patterson? You can't argue the success of TCU over the past few years and Clemson couldn't afford to woo GP out of Texas these days (we can pay the salary demand, but he makes more than his advertised salary thanks to his oil investment "buddies"). The big question then revolved around his ability to replicate TCU's success through recruiting in the Southeast and playing in a tough conference and whether an investment of this size would pay off for the university. Clemson would be a better fundamental football squad and probably would have more victories. But the attempt was never seriously made or Patterson so we will never know. Troy Calhoun would've faced similar initial difficulties as well, but we are similarly impressed with his coaching acumen.
Hiring your buddies (or son or brother-in-law) sounds like a fun idea because you work with those close to you on a daily basis. This strategy often blurs the line between professional assessment and personal sentiment. Many coaches have family on their staff and many more have friends on the staff. It's all good when the results reflect the Stoops brothers' success or the success that Tommy had on Terry Bowden's staffs throughout the early ‘90's. Issues arise with Jeff Bowden-like results, taking a juggernaut FSU offense and running it in the ground. Mark Richt is another prime example, and if he is not careful, the delayed departure of friend Willie Martinez may spell his doom at UGa.
Clemson is not immune to such situations. We all remember the Jack Hines experience. Hines, Tom's bro-in-law, poisoned every position group he touched. This guy moved from position to position like a ping pong ball. While this did not cause Tom Bowden his job, poor play from his DB group, special teams group, etc...was directly attributed to coaching goofs and surely cost the Tigers points and probably a couple wins. Now Jack coaches HS football in South Georgia, and still sucks.
Clemson's commitment to Brad Scott is another sore spot. We have been through this here time and time again. I won't delve too far into this one other than to point out that Scott should have been removed from offensive line instruction and positioned in the state of Florida to demonstrate this recruiting prowess that all the message boards praise, but he wasn't, and didn't show that prowess more than a couple years. Not sure why Swinney/Bowden accepted this risk, but I think they would have been much better off with Scott recruiting than instructing.
Swinney came to another cross-road this past January. It was evident that the offense needed better direction and a more coherent philosophy. Co-staffer Billy Napier was elevated to the offensive coordinator position with no experience at this position. After two seasons of inconsistency, Dabo removed the inexperience and difference in philosophy yet is taking a risk on Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who has all of 1 year experience in college football.
Swinney, to his credit, was able to seize an excellent opportunity and picked up Robbie Caldwell and moved Brad Scott to an admin role. I think Brad was ready to get out of the full time coaching game and Caldwell, an excellent OL coach, was a great pickup for the Tigers. This move is quality risk mitigation.