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Swinney: Be Careful Not to “Pull a Chizik”

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By Jim Weber

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is riding high right now. His Tigers appear to have put “pulling a Clemson” behind them and are in the thick of the national title chase, ranked No. 3 in the country with fifth-ranked Florida State coming to town on Saturday.

But Swinney better be careful. His rise to prominence has mirrored Gene Chizik’s at Auburn - meaning that this current dream season could be followed by a precipitous fall from grace if Swinney doesn’t properly prepare for a mass exodus this offseason.

Let me start by showing the striking similarities between Swinney and Chizik’s head coaching careers so far:

Early Struggles

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Swinney became Clemson’s interim head coach in the middle of 2008 after Tommy Bowden was axed. Swinney was clearly in over his head as someone who had never been more than a position coach before. Yes, he did better than Chizik in his first couple years, but not by much when considering the talent at his disposal. Swinney was just 19-15 entering the 2011 season and situated squarely on the hot seat.

Chizik first became a head coach at Iowa State in 2007. As well all know, he didn’t exactly light the Big 12 on fire with a 5-19 mark in Ames - a record that was drilled into our heads by a heckling Auburn fan.

Game-Changing Offensive Coordinator

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Hiring Chad Morris as Clemson’s offensive coordinator in 2011 saved Swinney’s job. In his first season on the Tigers’ sideline, Morris took an offense that averaged 24 PPG in 2010 and scored nearly 10 more points a game the next fall (33.57 PPG). In the last two seasons, Clemson has averaged over 40 PPG.

It appears obvious that Swinney’s hiring of Morris was inspired by Gus Malzahn’s success at Auburn. Malzahn was hired by Chizik in 2009 and helped Auburn win the 2010 national championship two days after Morris was hired. Both Morris and Malzahn had up-tempo, spread offenses that took college football by storm.

Future NFL QB Falls Into Lap

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All college football coaches need a little luck from time to time and Swinney and Chizik received it when they both landed future NFL stars to be their star quarterbacks. Tajh Boyd would currently be starring at Tennessee if it weren’t for Lane Kiffin.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton originally attended Florida before trouble led him to Auburn via Blinn (TX) Junior College. (I know what you cynics are thinking: Luck didn’t lead Newton to Auburn, cash did. That’s a whole different topic.)

Right now, Swinney is going through the same thing Chizik experienced in 2010: Everything’s fallen into place as the Tigers compete for a national championship.

But Swinney better keep an eye on the future right now. If he plays his cards right, Swinney could stay at Clemson as long as he likes and one day possibly succeed Nick Saban at his alma mater. Or, if he completely botches things, Swinney could potentially end up out of a job a couple years from now just like Chizik did.

This offseason is crucial because like Chizik, Swinney is facing a potential mass exodus after his best season ever.

When Auburn lost Newton to the NFL and Malzahn to Arkansas State a year later, the Tigers imploded with a winless 2012 SEC record and 3-9 record overall. Chizik never found someone capable of playing quarterback for the Tigers between Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier. Then he made a colossal blunder by scrapping the spread offense for a pro-style unit run by new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. That decision was his Waterloo.

Swinney might lose the three most important pieces of his program in one offseason: Boyd, Morris and star junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Morris is currently making more than many college football head coaches at $1.3 million per year but he already flirted with the Texas Tech opening. He could be the hottest assistant coach in the country right now with plenty of BCS jobs to choose from this offseason.

Swinney has always been an ace recruiter and has insisted he will keep the no-huddle, up-tempo offense even without Morris, so he has that going for him. But Swinney better have identified a quarterback that’s capable of keeping Clemson as a Top 10 program in the next several years. If he doesn’t see one on his current roster, Clemson had better land a top-notch quarterback recruit this year or go fishing in the JuCo ranks.

More importantly, Swinney better keep a short list of potential 2014 offensive coordinators if Morris leaves. Names like Mike Norvell (Arizona State), Noel Mazzone (UCLA), Josh Henson (Missouri) and Dave Schramm (Fresno State) should all be on it, with the idea that Swinney can outbid their current schools like he did with Morris.

Because while Swinney seems to have stopped the Tigers from “pulling a Clemson,” the last thing he wants to do now is “pull a Chizik.”

Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber and @LostLettermen.
 
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