Clemson’s Dabo Swinney defends lack of transfer portal activity amid criticism: ‘We’ve been very consistent’

NCAA Football

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AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Dabo Swinney is acutely aware of the criticism and narratives swirling outside Clemson, and he’s not exactly on board with either approach.

“We’ve been very consistent, even the last three years,” Swinney told CBS Sports. “There’s a perception, a narrative that gets drummed up that we stink, that we’re no good because we haven’t made a Final Four. We made it six years in a row. It’s hard, you know? You gotta have a little luck along the way, and we’ve had some tough breaks, but in that three-year span, we won 30 games.” 

It was always going to be difficult for Swinney to quicken Clemson’s sonic-speed momentum gathered in the mid-2010s, when only Alabama rivaled the Tigers’ success rate. Clemson has won eight of 12 ACC championships while recording 13 straight seasons of nine wins or more, but the program’s trajectory has stalled, if not dipped considerably, since the advent of the transfer portal.

Last year, Clemson failed to win 10 games for the first time in 13 years. While such a win-loss record is acceptable at most programs, it’s a disappointment given Clemson’s otherworldly run in recent times. 

“Not every 9-4 is the same, right?” Swinney said.

Not after six straight appearances in the College Football Playoff that included two national titles in three years. 

Times have changed, and the question is whether the blueprint for winning a national championship has changed as well. The portal, player pay for their name, image and likeness, and unlimited free agency has flipped the sport on its head. The sudden changes have led to massive shifts in recruiting philosophies at some schools, where adding 20 or more transfers each year is common. In January, the greatest coach of all time, Nick Saban, retired from Alabama, citing (at least partially) the seismic changes in player behavior.

Meanwhile, Clemson has been an island in the storm. Swinney rarely uses the portal to supplement his roster, even in the face of noticeable shortfalls, particularly at receiver in recent seasons. He’s only added walk-ons, including a quarterback who left Clemson for Northwestern only to return to the ACC school.  Only four universities did not add a transfer this year; Clemson was the only non-service academy among them.

Swinney has been a lightning rod for criticism since he took over as Clemson’s coach 16 years ago, but even more so in the portal era. Just last week he sparked the masses again when he declared “most of the guys in the portal aren’t good enough to play for us.” Later that day on the ACC Network, he tried to oversimplify recruiting by lumping high school players with veteran college players in the transfer portal. 

“Honestly, every player is technically a transfer,” he said. “We just signed a whole class of guys transferring from high school.”

Exaggerated or oversimplified conclusions aside, Swinney seems undeterred by criticism and steadfast in his philosophy.

“There are a lot of storms around college football right now, but we’re kind of anchored, and it’s not that we’re not affected, but we don’t just get washed out to sea and swim for our lives,” Swinney told CBS Sports. “We’re very fortunate because we’ve been established, and we’ve been so consistent for a long, long time. We’re still about the same things that we were 16 years ago.”

Swinney spoke to CBS Sports last week in a one-on-one interview during the ACC’s annual spring meetings in Amelia Island, Florida. The coach discussed the portal, the criticisms of media and fans, and whether the Tigers can return to the CFP and win the ACC after a three-year skid.

Brandon Marcello: A lot has been made about Clemson’s lack of action in the transfer portal, and yet you’ve been able to have success over the years. What do you make of the criticism that Clemson doesn’t utilize the portal enough and how have you been able to have success without using the portal?

Dabo Swinney: Well, I think we’re anchored, first of all, to a very strong foundation that’s rooted in core values. We’re very purpose-driven and have been for going on 16 years. That hasn’t changed. We’re very intentional on the front end in the recruiting process. We just had 127 guys go through spring and we got 125 that are still on the team. I think that’s a rare thing. We don’t have a lot of guys leave Clemson without a degree. We rarely have a guy that has a chance to start for us leave Clemson. We’re very transparent and we’re detailed in what we do. But I think, again, the main thing is we’re purpose-driven, and we’re rooted and anchored to a foundation. There are a lot of storms around college football right now, but we’re kind of anchored, and it’s not that we’re not affected, but we don’t just get washed out to sea and swim for our lives. We’re very fortunate because we’ve been established, and we’ve been so consistent for a long, long time. We’re still about the same things that we were 16 years ago. 

This year, we had the highest graduation success rate in all of college football — in fact, the highest recorded in the past 20 years. Nobody wants to talk about that. We’re 99%. We’ve just stayed the course with who we are and how we do things. 

On perception Clemson has dropped off

“We’ve been very consistent, even the last three years. There’s a perception, a narrative that gets drummed up that we stink, that we’re no good because we haven’t made a Final Four. We made it six years in a row. It’s hard, you know? You gotta have a little luck along the way, we’ve had some tough breaks, but in that three-year span, we won 30 games. We’ve had a postseason win three years in a row: we won the league, we’ve won two bowl games. There’s probably not four or five teams that can say that. You know, it’s all good. It’s all part of your journey. We’re not going to win a championship every year but you want to be a team that has a chance to compete, and I think that we’re a team that’s consistently shown that. We’ve had 13 nine-plus-win seasons in a row, 12 of those 10-plus wins. So, consistency on and off the field has kind of been what we’ve hung our hat on, and we continue to do that.” 

Returning players galore

“We got guys that are developing, we got a lot of guys back on this team. We had two guys [leave] offensively: we lost a center and we lost (running back Will) Shipley. So we got a lot of guys back. Eight guys up front that have started for us on the offensive line. We’ve got a great tight end room. We finally feel like we’re where we need to be at receiver, especially getting the guys back from last year. We love (running back Phil) Mafah, we love the young talent behind him. We love our quarterback room. Cade Klubnik is a one-year starter, and he’s developing and getting better. I love how he finished the season. 

“Defensively, [we] were eighth in the country last year (287.8 yards per game), and we got a lot of guys back. We’ve got good leadership and athleticism. We signed a kicker. The starters coming back on this team, as we looked at our roster, we really like who we have, and then we were able to go recruit another good class and add some more depth, plus some guys that are back as depth guys from last year’s team as well. We got our punter back, both our snappers.” 

Close, but turnovers crushed 2023 hopes

“You need a little luck along the way, but this is a team the last two years has been close. Last year, we were eighth in the country in defense, but we were 112th in turnovers on offense (tied for 108th with 22) and it really cost us. It cost us losing double-overtime, overtime, and on a pick six. You know, we lost a game, that in the 128 years of Clemson football history, when we rush for 250 (yards) and pass for 250 and got beat, that never happened ever. We did a really poor job of taking advantage of some opportunities and taking care of the ball in critical situations, and it cost us, but we recovered, we finished well. We’ve got to improve. The year before, we’re in the playoff and we have a one-point loss at home (against South Carolina) with two turnovers in the fourth quarter. 

“We’ve been right there. Nobody on this team has been to the national championship, so they’re a hungry group. They put the work in and I’m excited to go compete. The schedule is really difficult. It always is. It always is. We’re opening up with probably the team that has been the best in the country the last three or four years (Georgia). I’m looking forward to a great challenge.”

You can check out Swinney’s full interview with 247Sports HERE (VIP access required).

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