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Dabo Swinney opens up on NIL, changing college football landscape

Dabo built a superpower by setting Clemson apart from the rest of college football. Will that approach still work moving forward?

Dabo Swinney says a lot of things -- a lot of things -- but the truest thing he's ever said was this, in a recent interview with ESPN's Chris Low: "We sort of beat to our own drum."

Big-time college football resembles the NFL more and more with each passing hour, while Clemson has remained steadfastly, stubbornly stuck in time. Clemson offers fewer high school prospects than any major power. Clemson was slower to adapt to the transfer portal than any major power. Clemson promotes its coaches from within more than any major power. Clemson was slower to the NIL marketplace -- their program Reign launched yesterday -- than any major power. 

That against-the-grain approach worked remarkably well. The program reached six straight College Football Playoffs, and four title games in a 5-year stretch. They won titles in 2016 and '18, knocking off Alabama both times. Dabo proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his summer camp approach to program-building worked at the sport's highest levels.

And yet.

College football is a different sport than it was even three seasons ago, when Clemson played for a national title, and Dabo Swinney's willingness and ability to adapt with the times -- and Clemson's fortunes therein -- will be one of the sport's biggest overarching questions in the seasons to come.

We all remember this quote, from three years ago, back when it became clear college athletes were going to gain the opportunity to monetize their status sooner than later:

They may do away with college football in three years. There may be no college football. They may want to professionalize college athletics. Well, then, maybe I’ll go to the pros.

He later refined those comments saying that he was in favor of "modernizing" the scholarship, so long as focus remained on education.

Fast forward to today, and Swinney said this:

"That's one of the reasons I do like the NIL because 98% of them aren't going to make the NFL, so it's good while they have a nice platform that they can take advantage of these opportunities. Clemson has a million Twitter followers, one of three football programs out there with a million. So it's good they have an opportunity to make some money while they're going through their journey right here. But we also know that 98% are not playing in the NFL, so we better be getting that degree. As adults, we should do everything we can to incentivize education -- period, the end -- and that ain't ever going to change for me because I know ultimately that's what creates generational change in young people's lives. There's nothing worse than seeing a 27-year-old, 28-year-old or 30-year-old who the band played for and the fans cheered for and they never got that degree and they're struggling."

Hard to disagree with, right?

Later, he said this:

"If they can make some short-term money along the way, great. But if that becomes the focus, there are going to be a lot of bad decisions by young people."

And then there's this:

Q: Do you understand when people say, 'Well, coaches like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are making in the $10 million range, why shouldn't the athletes be able to profit even before they get on campus?'

"Well, Nick Saban is 70 years old. I'm 52 years old. None of us set markets on what we do. We live in a capitalist society. The head of Delta probably makes a lot more than the people who are checking your baggage in, but those people are as vital as anybody. None of us set markets on what we do. It's a free market we live in, in anything. It's just that our jobs are so visible and so public. I can tell you this: None of us got into coaching to make money, but I don't apologize for being successful."

There's just so much here.

Millions of people don't tune in each fall Saturday to watch Delta baggage handlers put luggage in airplanes, and they don't tune in to watch Dabo coach. There's certainly an argument to be made that players are less integral to college football's appeal than the NFL, but there is no game without the players. Period. 

NIL proponents argue that players deserve access to the same free market that paid Dabo a $93 million contract. Either you agree with that argument or you don't. In one moment, Dabo seems like he agrees. In the next, he seems cryogenically unfrozen from 1989.

A player looking to maximize his monetary potential while in college likely reads that quote and crosses Clemson off his list. Then again, Clemson has succeeded by zeroing in on their kind of kid, and Clemson's kind of kid probably agrees with Dabo in the first place. "We're still going to get the same players without manipulating them coming out of high school. We're still going to get Trevor Lawrence, Bryan Bresee, Trenton Simpson, Travis Etienne Jr. We're still going to get those players." 

Following a season in which things went wrong at every turn, Clemson still went 10-3. The Tigers will enter 2022 a top-10 team and the likely ACC favorite. This is still one of college football's major powers. But will Dabo adapt with the times enough to keep Clemson among the sport's elite in the years to come? Or can he keep Clemson at the top while adapting at the minimum amount? Will Dabo's Way work in 2022 and 2023 like it did in 2016 and 2018?

"We've got a good football team coming back and going to have one for years to come," Swinney said.