OPINION: Stern: Dabo Swinney's saltiness indicative of flaws


Tyler from Spartanburg, South Carolina, took home a gold medal for best radio caller of the year on Monday, when he challenged Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney during his weekly "Tiger Calls" radio show. It wasn't a call of the year candidate based on the gutsy nature of the comments alone, or because the rant was fair and accurate. The radio gold came from Swinney's response, as the caller clearly struck a nerve, triggering some massive insecurities.

Beloved author George R. R. Martin once wrote, "A lion doesn't concern itself with the opinion of sheep." USC quarterback Caleb Williams repeated that line earlier this season, when he disregarded an on-field heckler after a brutal loss to Notre Dame. Maybe Swinney should've followed Williams' lead, if he wasn't so busy stressing over struggles from former top recruit Cade Klubnik and his own team.

Even if the South Carolina caller's comments toward Clemson seemed like an aggressive ambush, Swinney would've been better off providing coachspeak or a politically correct response. Instead he let frustrations boil over and went off the hinges while digging himself a deep hole. "You're part of the problem," Swinney angrily said on his show. "Listen, man, you can have your opinion all you want, and you can apply for the job -- and good luck to you."

Swinney has the hardware and resume to talk back -- he's led the Tigers to a pair of national championships, and six College Football Playoff appearances since 2016. He's also won eight ACC titles since joining the program in 2009. But in a business of "What have you done for me lately?" with Clemson at 4-4 overall this season, fans are allowed to question Swinney's methods. After all, he signed a huge 10-year, $115 million contract extension in September 2022.

It's reasonable to believe the mighty Tigers are simply having a down season. But recent back-to-back losses to Miami and NC State, coupled with flops to Duke and Florida State earlier this fall, have left a lot to be desired. This was a Clemson team that was ranked No. 9 in the nation to begin the season, and if not for blowout wins over Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic, they'd be facing much more heat from fans and boosters.

That caller from Spartanburg would be smart to take Swinney up on his offer of moving his resume to the top of the pile, should the Tigers look for a new leader. Filling out an application online won't do the trick. Clemson won't be parting ways with Swinney after this year, but just like Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban, who've become outdated in terms of their coaching styles, Swinney needs to look in the mirror for some soul-searching during the offseason.

The process of soul-searching starts with acknowledging that Name, Image, and Likeness regulations and the transfer portal dominate the sport. Internal development and high school recruiting remain important, but Swinney must have a more aggressive approach to acquiring talent by looking closer at the Junior College level and impact players who've moved on from their previous schools. Ignoring the changes and doing things his way may work when he's taking with the Spartanburg caller, but not when he's competing against Mike Norvell at Florida state, or Mario Cristobal at Miami.

Take Norvell's modern model for success as an example, as he added six new starters through the transfer portal, including standout receiver Keon Coleman and guard Casey Roddick, who played for one-win Colorado in 2022. Contrast that with Swinney, who has just three total grad-transfer starters, and it’s easy to see why one team is now ranked No. 4 in the nation. Hint: it isn't Clemson.

Perhaps Swinney's sustained dominance in the ACC gives him brownie points for now, but it's impossible to succeed by doing things the old way, in a sport built on evolution. He’s had to learn that lesson the hard way this season, with a disappointing season that's undoubtedly put him on alert moving forward.

Similar to a dictator's resistance to outsiders challenging authority, Swinney is now realizing it's harder to stay on the throne than he once thought. Just like any successful leader, owning mistakes and embracing change is paramount. To a large degree, Swinney knows wholesale changes are necessary to cloak his deficiencies. Only slaughtering the messenger with a plastic sword wasn't an effective way of projecting it.

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