Swinney, Petersen try to step up and join Meyer, Saban as next great coaches

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Following a tough practice ahead of the College Football Playoff this month, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney loaded the buses and took the Tigers to Frankie's Fun Park in Greenville. For the next two-and-a-half hours, they rode Go Karts, shot hoops and played laser tag to inject some fun into the high-pressure business of major college football.

In a way, Swinney symbolizes the new breed of football coaches, who believe a give-and-take must occur to connect with their players. Increasingly, some coaches realize that to demand a lot from players, they must have fun and show them they care, even if that means publicly telling them "I love you," as the Washington Post wrote about recently.

"I've seen [coaches] that are miserable and just never wanted to be like that," Swinney said. "I'm incredibly competitive, but sometimes you learn more from not what to do than what to do. We work too hard at it, and I enjoy it too much to allow outside pressures and things like that to determine my happiness."

There are differences and similarities to how the four coaches in this year's playoff employ both similar and different styles to run a program. What Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Washington's Chris Petersen and Swinney have in common the most: They win.

And winning is always fun in a multi-billion dollar industry.

It's conceivable that, 20 years from now, we might remember Dec. 31, 2016, as the greatest collection of CFP semifinal coaches in history. Four of the top seven winningest active coaches are at the Peach and Fiesta Bowls.

The first two playoffs didn't produce a quartet like this. In 2014, Saban, Meyer and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher reached the CFP, as did Oregon's Mark Helfrich, who was fired in 2016. Last year, Saban, Swinney, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio made a formidable foursome, but Dantonio fell off the map at 3-9 in 2016. Swinney and Petersen feel more sustainable than Helfrich and are in easier leagues than Dantonio.

This year's CFP coaches represent the past, present and (possibly) future of the game.

Saban and Meyer have won seven of the past 10 national titles. Or to put it another way: The last time two straight seasons passed without Saban or Meyer winning the national title was 2004-05, when Pete Carroll's dynasty at USC was rolling before it got clipped by Texas and Vince Young.

How much longer will Saban and Meyer coach at their respective jobs? Neither shows signs of slowing down. The answer to that question could determine who ends up with more national titles.

Saban has five (counting one at LSU) and sits one away from Bear Bryant's six championships. Meyer (two at Florida, one at Ohio State) could pull within one again of Saban if the Buckeyes win this season.

Petersen and Swinney aren't in the same conversation as Saban and Meyer. But somebody will become the next great coach. Why not one of them?

Winningest Active FBS Coaches
Coach Record Win % Age
Urban Meyer, Ohio State 165-28 0.855 52
Chris Petersen, Washington 120-25 0.828 52
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State 77-17 0.819 51
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 189-48 0.797 56
David Shaw, Stanford 63-17 0.788 44
Nick Saban, Alabama 204-60-1 0.772 65
Dabo Swinney, Clemson 87-28 0.757 47
Gary Patterson, TCU 150-52 0.743 56
Mark Richt, Miami 153-55 0.736 56
Bobby Petrino, Louisville 109-42 0.722 55
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame 230-88-2 0.722 55
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan 79-32 0.712 52

"Clemson will win multiple national championships as we move forward here," Swinney said. "History's gonna tell the tale. Regardless of whether I'm here or not, it's gonna happen. I think if you're just sitting around waiting to win a national championship to be validated, you're gonna be left feeling short more times than not."

Petersen is the offensive innovator who carried Boise State to incredible highs, including a stunning upset of Oklahoma at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He wasn't Washington's first choice to succeed Steve Sarkisian three years ago, but Jim Mora stayed at UCLA and Petersen finally got pulled away from Boise to try a new challenge with more resources.

In just his third year, Petersen took Washington to the playoff with a 12-1 record after going 7-6 in 2015. This looks like the start of a successful run for Petersen in the Pac-12. Recruiting should only get better.

Past and present Huskies players and coaches have described shifting from a transactional relationship with Sarkisian to a transformational one under Petersen with lots of transparency.

"Honestly, coming in from a completely different culture with the previous coaching staff, [Petersen's message] was like, 'Why are we wasting time on this? Let's just focus on football,'" Evan Hudson, a Huskies defensive lineman on Petersen's first team in 2014, told the Seattle Times recently. "But you really get from him that he does care a lot about his players individually. Over time you realize these things are darn important. And you can hear it in his voice when he talks about that stuff."

There's probably no coach in America who doesn't speak about helping a player succeed off the field. The question becomes whether the coach connects well enough to earn buy-in from his players for a winning culture.

At Clemson, Swinney first got the job as interim coach in 2008 without any coordinator experience after serving as wide receivers coach. Clemson fans were getting anxious about Swinney when he went 6-7 in 2010. But Swinney now has six straight 10-win seasons -- something Meyer has never accomplished -- and Clemson is 26-2 in the past two years.

Swinney's future at Clemson may rest with Saban. Whenever Saban retires, Swinney -- who played and coached at Alabama -- will be an obvious leading candidate and could face a difficult decision.

If any college coach feels comfortable in his skin, it's Swinney, who says 2016 has been easier to coach than Clemson's 2015 national runner-up season. In a recent interview, Swinney was told that Meyer thought the year after his national titles have always felt like grinds.

"I hope I don't ever have that feeling," Swinney said. "We grind regardless of whether we're 8-4 or 14-1. We're gonna grind because we're gonna compete to win that week. I think keeping a healthy perspective of the makeup of your team is important."

To that end, Clemson will open an elaborate $55 million football operations building on Feb. 1. Clemson's idea is to essentially have almost everything the players need in one building -- an interesting concept given that the NCAA has argued in court that players are amateurs in part because they are integrated into a community with the general student body.

Nonetheless, it's an impressive building. Besides the leadership center for players and the normal attractions in a 21st Century college football facility, the building is a funhouse to wow recruits and entertain players.

Outside, there's a player village with nine-hole miniature golf course, a regulation-size basketball court, barbecue grills, pavilions, wiffle ball field, bocce ball court and sand volleyball pit. Need more fun? Inside, there's a miniature replica of Clemson's famous Howard's Rock and hill to run down, virtual reality room, virtual golf, nap room, lounge area with video games, two-lane bowling alley, 20-person movie theater and barbershop/shoe shine room.

Oh, and there's a slide connecting the second floor to the first. Swinney learned Google's office has a slide so he wanted one for Clemson.

"It's having a little fun and being efficient at the same time," Swinney said.

Forget Frankie's Fun Park. Clemson has Dabo's Funhouse.

Welcome to college football in 2016, where the past and present (Saban and Meyer) may be meeting the future (Swinney and Petersen) on Saturday.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories