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Dabo Swinney Chasing Immortality

By Dave Holcomb
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Entering his fourth national championship game in the last five years, it’s not hyperbole to say with another victory next Monday, Swinney can establish himself as one of the greatest coaches of all time.

It’s hard to believe more than seven years later, but at one point in time, Dabo Swinney and Clemson were known as “choke artists” or the program that just couldn’t win the big game. But in his first five full seasons as the Tigers head coach Swinney went winless against rival South Carolina (0-5) and 3-2 in bowl games.

The next six years have been kinder to Swinney, as he’s averaged just a little more than one loss per season and won a bowl game in each year but one.

Entering his fourth national championship game in the last five years, it’s not hyperbole to say with another victory next Monday, Swinney can establish himself as one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Should Clemson defeat LSU on Jan. 13, Swinney would become just the 16th college football head coach with three national titles. That’s an exclusive club that’s even smaller when looking at more recent history.

Over the last half century, only five coaches have won three national championships -- Nick Saban, Bear Bryant, Urban Meyer, Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer. Of that group, only Saban and Osborne captured their three titles in a four-year span, and the third of Osborne’s three was technically a shared championship.

Swinney can do Monday can join Saban and Osborne with a third title in four years with one more win.

Interestingly, Osborne was another coach that was criticized early in his career for failing to win the big games. Then he finally broke through with a dynasty from 1994-97, winning three championships and going 49-2 over those four years.

Swinney and Clemson aren’t far off that mark with a 55-3 record since the start of the 2016 season. Osborne owned a .961 win percentage during his dominant four years while Swinney’s win percentage would sit just shy of .950 if he beats LSU.

In their non-championship year, the Crimson Tide went 10-3, so Alabama was “only” 49-5 during its three titles in four years window from 2009-12.

By no means is a victory against LSU guaranteed -- actually, it’s far from it. Of its last 30 opponents, on paper, LSU might be Clemson’s toughest. But it’s still fascinating to look at Swinney’s place in history should he win his third championship.

What Swinney is doing at Clemson hasn’t been done at many schools in the last 50 years.

His biggest naysayers will point to his staff as a bigger reason for his success. While Alabama and other top programs have gone through coaching turnover after winning titles, Clemson hasn’t.

All of Clemson’s coordinators -- defensive coordinator Brent Venables, co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, along with special teams coordinator Danny Pearman -- have been in place since at least 2015. Scott just became the first of that group to leave for a head coaching job, but Venables, Elliott and Pearman are all expected to be back next year. From an x’s and o’s standpoint, they may receive just as much credit, if not more, than Swinney for Clemson’s dominant last four years.

Even with that the case, though, their success only happens because of Swinney’s willingness to relinquish some control. He should also receive a ton of credit for hiring the right staff and for finding a way (with a lot of help from the school) to keep that staff intact for so long.

That continuity, in a nutshell, is a huge reason why Clemson has gone from “can’t win the big one” to potential college football dynasty in the last decade.

Should the Tigers not be able to slay the Tigers from the SEC next week, Clemson is recruiting at such a high level that one has to figure Swinney will have another chance at a third title. Him joining the even more exclusive group of coaches with more than three championships isn’t out of the question either.

Only six coaches have accomplished that in the FBS.

But first thing’s first, Swinney is aiming for practical college football coaching immortality against LSU next Monday.