Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney finally reached the apex of college football on Monday night when they defeated Alabama 35-31 in the National Championship game. And if there’s one team and coach who can take a lesson from Clemson and Swinney, it’s Tennessee and Butch Jones.
Five years ago, Swinney found himself in a similar position as Butch Jones now. Swinney took over as interim head coach during the 2008 season and led the Tigers to a 4-3 record during the seven games he coached. He was given full head coaching duties after that season, and after the end of the 2011 season, Swinney had a 29-19 overall record as Clemson’s head coach.
Right now, Butch Jones has a 30-21 overall record through four seasons as Tennessee’s head coach.
Of course, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Swinney already had two division titles, a conference title, and helped get Clemson to the Orange Bowl at the end of his fourth season. But his fourth season saw Clemson go 10-4 and finish ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll at the end of the year. The Vols went 9-4 and finished ranked at that exact spot at the end of Jones’ fourth season as well.
That’s not all, either. That Orange Bowl at the end of Swinney’s fourth season ended in a 70-33 annihilation at the hands of West Virginia. It was at the end of that fourth season at Clemson that Swinney’s job came under fire by fans, much like Butch Jones is right now by a number of Vol fans.
Swinney saw the writing on the wall. He knew if he didn’t change the way he was doing things, he wouldn’t be the head coach of the Tigers after his fifth season. So Swinney went out, swallowed his pride, and made some staff changes.
After that 2011 season, Swinney hired Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables to be the defensive coordinator at Clemson. Swinney, an offensive-minded coach, turned the defense over completely to Venables, and in the five years since that hiring, Venables has helped turn Clemson’s defense into one of the most efficient in the nation. After the 2010 season, Swinney also hired Chad Morris away from Tulsa to be his offensive coordinator, and Swinney allowed Morris to help mold the Tigers offense into a finely-tuned machine under quarterback Tajh Boyd.
It was also around this time Clemson’s recruiting took a massive upward swing. The Tigers went from having the No. 31 recruiting class in the nation in the 2009 cycle and No. 28 overall in the 2010 class according to 247Sports to a No. 10 overall ranking in 2011 and No. 15 ranking in the 2012 cycle. Clemson has yet to have a class finish worse than 17th overall since that 2011 class.
Swinney showed humility and recognized he alone wasn’t going to be able to get Clemson to where he wanted them to go. Swinney surrounded himself with talented coaches and made recruiting a top priority.
And all that effort and sacrifice culminated into Clemson’s second national title in program history.
Now it’s time for Jones to look at what Swinney has done and use him as an example. Is Jones in an identical crossroads that Swinney was in 2012? Not exactly, but it’s similar enough that Jones and Vol fans alike can make comparisons and have hope that things can turn out similarly for the Vols.
Swinney didn’t have any head coaching experience at the collegiate level whatsoever when he took over as Clemson’s head coach in the middle of the 2008 season. He wasn’t even a coordinator beforehand. Jones had six years experience as Central Michigan and Cincinnati’s head coach before Tennessee hired him, so lack of head coaching experience wasn’t exactly an issue for Jones like it was for Swinney early on.
But the fact remains that Jones is at a crossroads just like Swinney was in 2012.
To Jones’ credit, he attempted to make that home-run hire on the opposite side last offseason when he brought in Bob Shoop to coach the defense much like Swinney did with Venables in 2012. The hiring of Shoop, however, was anything but a home run in his first year as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, as the Vols dealt with a massive amount of injuries, assistant coaching chemistry issues, and other problems en route to a 95th-ranked overall defense for the season.
Venables’ first Clemson defense wasn’t first class either. That 2012 defense finished 64th in the nation in total defense, but it improved to 24th in 2013 and then became the nation’s No. 1 overall defense in 2014. It’s finished in the top 10 in each of the last two seasons.
Jones now has to hire a new offensive coordinator. The tea leaves are pointing to Jones promoting in-house for the coordinator position, much like Swinney did at the end of the 2014 season when he promoted wide receivers coach Jeff Scott to co-offensive coordinator.
It’s highly unlikely Jones is the second coming Swinney. The two are nothing alike when it comes to their personalities, and both have different coaching philosophies as well. But if there’s someone Jones can learn a lesson from at this point in his coaching career, who better than the man who faced a similar situation five years ago and is now a championship-winning coach?