When then-Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips named Dabo Swinney head coach coach on Dec. 1, 2008, some members of the university's board of trustees didn't know who Swinney was. Then those aloof trustees watched the young, first-time head coach for two seasons. And they wanted him gone.
Tenth-year Tigers' head coach Tommy Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season after a 3-3 start. While Bowden did win 62 percent of his games (72-45) and delivered nine straight bowl appearances, he never won an ACC championship or 10 games in a season. He was replaced by Swinney, a little-known (or unknown) 38-year-old receivers coach who had been on Bowden's staff since 2003.
Swinney went 4-3 over the season's final two months and his interim tag was removed, much to the chagrin of the higher-ups.
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"It's a good thing that I had a president [Jim Barker] who trusted me and had a wonderful relationship with our trustees," Phillips said in January. "I'm pretty sure there were reservations, because on paper, Dabo didn't have the credentials that a lot of these other folks we talked to did. But Jim accepted my recommendation, stood behind it with the trustees, and the rest is history."
Optimism generated from a nine-win 2009 season quickly disintegrated with a 6-7 mark in 2010, their first sub-.500 season since 1998, and Phillips was pressured to make a change. But he didn't cave, and, like he did two years earlier, had the support of Barker.
"I was lucky to have a great president," Phillips said. "He was under pressure — from the trustees all the way up — to fire Dabo in 2010. There would have been a lot of presidents to acquiesce to public sentiment."
That public sentiment reversed course when, in 2011, Swinney won the program's first conference title since 1991. Six years later, the Tigers were national champions and are now two wins away from back-to-back titles.
"…I just had a feeling that Dabo was exactly what we needed at Clemson, even though I knew a lot of others wouldn't share that feeling," Phillips said.