When Clemson tapped interim head coach Dabo Swinney to take over its football program in 2009, the university found a competitive, perennial winner in a hire that was deemed less than attractive by many on the outside of the program.
The school also found Swinney was a devout Christian who focused on nourishing not only player talent and strength but also the faith and mental health of the young men on the team.
Swinney has led the Tigers to two national titles and a 131-30 overall record, including 6-3 in the College Football Playoff since 2015.
His teams have gone to the playoff for five straight seasons, and his players have eaten a lot of pizza, thanks to Swinney’s much-publicized CFP pizza parties.
The only thing about the coach that is more consistent than winning football games and ordering pizza in early December is his unwavering faith in Christ, and don’t expect the coach to apologize for that, or for feeding the faith of those hungry for the word of God.
Swinney recently spoke about that faith alongside his wife, Kathleen, when the two were guests on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes “HUDDLE UP!” video broadcast hosted by former NFL player Ben Watson and his wife, Kirsten.
The show was streamed on YouTube and also featured former NFL coach Tony Dungy, another devout Christian.
“I’ve come under fire many times from different organizations and things like that because of my faith,” Swinney said.
Swinney was targeted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in 2014 for encouraging students to pray and worship both on and off the field.
The FFRF attacked the coach for being open about his faith and claimed he created “a culture of religious coercion within the university’s football program.”
“Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program,” FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott complained in 2014.
“FFRF wants the school to direct Swinney and [team chaplain James Trapp] to immediately stop team prayers, sermons, bible studies and ‘church days’ for players and train staff about their First Amendment obligations and monitor compliance,” the group demanded.
But Swinney will not be pressured into practicing his faith behind closed doors.
“They want me to just shut that off and not be a Christian,” Swinney said on the broadcast of all of his critics. “But God says in Ecclesiastes 3:23, whatever you do, you do it with all your heart as if you’re working for the Lord.”
“If I get a young man that comes to Clemson and he’s strong in his faith, and he leaves Clemson and I didn’t help him grow stronger, shame on me,” the coach said. “If I get a young man that comes to Clemson, and he doesn’t know anything, or he’s searching, and I don’t cultivate that. … Shame on me.”
“There’s no one that comes to Clemson and gets here and goes, ‘Dadgum, I didn’t know that coach Swinney was a Christian!’” he joked. “Everybody knows.”
“I hope [people] see the light of Jesus through me as I do my job,” Swinney told Dungy and the Watsons.
“My job is not to save [players]. My job is to win football games,” he said.
“In December, 13 Clemson players told The Post and Courier that Swinney’s public displays of faith played a significant role in their college decision,” the newspaper reported.
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Swinney said on the FCA broadcast he doesn’t encourage his players to partake in anything they aren’t comfortable with, but said he does hold himself accountable for their “hearts and souls.”
“So many people today, they are afraid of criticism. They are afraid of not being politically correct, or whatever it may be. There’s a lot of hostility toward Christianity today,” he said.
“I always tell people, the hope of the world, it’s not in politics, it’s not in a new president, it’s not in a stimulus package. It’s not in anything.”
“The hope of the world is Jesus,” Swinney said.
Swinney also made it clear that for him, there is more than one kind of winning.
“I’m going on my 18th year at Clemson, my 12th as head coach, and the greatest accomplishment we have here is not any trophy. I tell coaches, you can win, win, win, but if you’re not serving the hearts and souls of players as you win, then you lose,” he said.
Swinney has taken Clemson on a trajectory that offers him and his players a way to win on and off the field.
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