Dabo Swinney and Clemson football are tackling a pivotal moment in the trajectory of both coach and program in the closing weeks of 2021. With offensive coordinator Tony Elliott off to become the coach at Virginia and defensive coordinator Brent Venables leaving to take over at Oklahoma, Swinney has key staffing decisions to make during arguably the most urgent moment Clemson has faced in nearly a decade.
Clemson's 9-3 finish this year snapped a streak of six straight seasons that all ended with an ACC championship and a College Football Playoff appearance. The Tigers enter the postseason No. 19 in the final College Football Playoff Rankings and No. 22 in the AP Top 25, needing a bowl win to secure an 11th straight 10-win season and top-25 finish. When the season doesn't go how the team expected and not all goals were met, usually this is a period to pull everyone in close and refocus on the next season. Instead, Swinney's two most senior assistants have been hired as head coaches elsewhere, current players are entering the transfer portal and the remaining staff is working to secure a recruiting class with the early signing period just days away.
It's possible that Swinney already has the replacements for both Tony Elliott and Brent Venables in mind. But, from the outside, there is a lot that's unsettled at a crucial time on the college football calendar.
The good news for Clemson is that Swinney has a pretty good track record with these decisions. Our recollections of the BCS era seem old and dusty, but at the end of the 2010 season, Swinney's future as Clemson coach was in doubt. When the interim tag was lifted and Swinney was promoted to full-time coach at the end of the 2008 season, he faced the same scrutiny that many coaches have and will face in the same situation. While he provided immediate answers with an Atlantic Division title and ACC Championship Game appearance in 2009, a 6-7 finish the following season brought the skeptics out in full force.
The support of then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips, in addition to key university administrators, kept Swinney from being shown the door, and the coach quickly addressed some of the shortcomings of that sub-.500 season by a hiring Chad Morris as the team's offensive coordinator. A Texas high school coach with just one year of college experience, Morris injected new life into the Clemson offense immediately. The Tigers jumped from 10th in the ACC to 2nd in both scoring and total offense, quarterback Tajh Boyd led the league in passing touchdowns (33) and Clemson reached new heights not seen in decades with its first ACC championship since 1991.
Swinney and his staff had hit some home runs in recruiting, too, with then-freshman Sammy Watkins and then-sophomore DeAndre Hopkins playing key roles in that 2011 ACC title. Everything was new and exciting, and the future was bright, but some of the optimism was cooled when West Virginia put up 70 points on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl at the end of that season. That's when Swinney turned his attention to the defense and hired Brent Venables prior to the 2012 season. By 2014, Clemson had the No. 1 defense in the ACC and would never fall lower than No. 2 in the league again under Venables' leadership of the defense.
Hiring staff is an under-discussed aspect of how we grade and evaluate head coaches in college football. The hires of Morris and Venables were not the only key decisions in that two-year span, but they are ones that reflect directly on Swinney and his vision for the program. His ranking as one of the top coaches in the sport only needs the 149-36 record (.805 winning percentage), two national championships and seven ACC crowns, but his work as a manager, CEO and decision-maker away from the field bolster that status.
Nick Saban, the best in the sport's history, has had to face staff turnover more often than most coaches running successful programs, and certainly more than Swinney. Looking at Alabama staff photos from even six or seven years ago can be a journey through time as the Crimson Tide assistants make up a who's who of college football coaching, yet the program has continued to meet the same standard of excellence after those coaches left.
When Swinney made those program-altering staff decisions back at the end of 2010 and 2011, it was to address areas where the Tigers were falling short. Now Swinney has a Saban moment, needing to make key staff decisions because assistants are being hired away to become head coaches as a result of the program's success.
One thing working in Swinney's favor is that the departures of Elliott and Venables don't come as a surprise. Both had opportunities to leave the program prior to 2021 but chose to remain with Clemson. Both are leaving the program with the blessing and support of their former boss, who has predictably pivoted the conversation into the opportunity that lies ahead with replacing them on the staff.
"To see [Tony Elliott] now have a chance to go be the head coach at Virginia -- like Brent [Venables] having the chance to go be the head coach at Oklahoma -- it's a blessing because I know what he's going to bring. Those young men will be blessed by the way we do things here at Clemson. I have no doubt he's going to be successful," Swinney said last week following the news of Elliott's hire.
"It's good to see him move on and sad to see him move on, but it's also exciting for new opportunity here as well."
When Chad Morris was hired away by SMU, it was an opportunity for Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott as they were promoted to co-offensive coordinators. When Scott left to become the coach at South Florida, Elliott jumped into the primary offensive coordinator role. Each move has included the shuffling of responsibilities on the staff and new opportunities for coaches like quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and running backs coach CJ Spiller. An internal promotion of Streeter, who took overt the play-calling duties for last year's Sugar Bowl after Elliott tested positive for COVID-19, would make sense to follow that trend. The defensive side of the ball also has a number of options for internal promotions, but what's left to be determined is how many assistants may opt to join either Elliott or Venables at their new jobs.
But it might not be an internal promotion and the staff shake-up could continue, causing Swinney to look elsewhere to fill those roles. Clemson's program is one of the best in the country, and if Swinney feels it necessary to hit the open market, the coordinator positions would likely be attractive to some of the top candidates in coaching. Chad Morris and Brent Venables were both outside hires, and each played a huge role in transforming the Tigers program into what we know today.
Whether Swinney decides to promote from inside the program or make a splash with an outside hire is yet to be determined, and the fluidity of the situation has led to uncertainty that's going to play a role on the recruiting trail. All of this coming to a head after the disappointments of 2021 and directly before the early signing period has created this moment of flux for one of college football's modern powers. No one knows how the staff decisions will play out for the Tigers in the future, but Swinney has plenty of positive experience to lean on when it comes to answering challenges as CEO at Clemson.