Sunday, May 20, 2018
Colleges

Clemson's Swinney, Virginia Tech's Fuente friendly foes

Small world, the coaching stratosphere. A colleague one day is a counterpart the next. Happens every week.

Sometimes, the connections are glaring. Florida's Jim McElwain and Alabama's Nick Saban now occupy different ends of a rivalry, not a headset. The "Bedlam" game has evolved into a literal blood feud as Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy's kid brother Cale is Oklahoma's receivers coach. And on it goes.

Which leads to Saturday night's ACC title game, where the coaches — Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente — were darn near co-workers.

Backpedal six years ago. TCU, then a Mountain West Conference heavyweight, finishes a 13-0 season with a victory against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. In the process, the stock of the Horned Frogs' quarterback (Andy Dalton) and coordinator (Fuente) soars.

Before you can say upwardly mobile, Fuente and his wife, Jenny, are on a plane to Clemson to interview with Swinney about the Tigers' offensive coordinator vacancy.

"I really had kind of done my homework and research, kind of independently, and then confirmed it with some people that I trusted," said Swinney, whose team had lost 14-10 at home to TCU in 2009.

"I kind of got it down to three guys, and (current SMU coach) Chad Morris and Justin were the top two that I wanted to actually bring in and meet with and kind of go from there. I just had a lot of respect for the job (Fuente) had done."

The interview spanned roughly a day and a half. Offensive philosophies were shared, spouses introduced to each other. Fuente said he came away "very impressed" with Swinney and his personality.

"We talked a little bit about offensive football, but I just enjoyed being around him, enjoyed having conversations about different ways to do things," Fuente, 40, recalled. "I thought we could have a discussion back and forth and both listen to each others' points of view. It was a pleasant experience."

In the end, Swinney picked Morris, who installed a high-octane spread system that helped Clemson win 41 of 52 games over four years. Fuente, harboring nary a grudge for being passed over, spent another year at TCU before being hired as coach at Memphis and overseeing a surreal resuscitation of the Tigers program.

On Saturday at Orlando's Camping World Stadium, Fuente and Swinney — who still exchange the occasional texts and have spent time together at league meetings — hook up again in a made-for-TV subplot to a game with clear College Football Playoff implications.

It's the Hokies and Tigers' first matchup since 2012, when neither Swinney nor Fuente — wrapping up his first year as Virginia Tech coach — likely could have envisioned how their career trajectories again would intersect.

"He's a class guy," Swinney, 47, told the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier. "It was fun in spring meetings to have a chance to visit with him and be around him a little bit because I hadn't been around him much. … But I'm definitely a fan of him. He's going to do a great job. Already has."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]tampabay.com.

 
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