TAMPA ― The Clemson alumnus with the Clemson bride and Clemson coaching pedigree packed every transferrable element of Tigers football and hauled it to his new digs in Tampa.
Lock, stock and binder.
Perched conspicuously on the expansive brown desk in new USF coach Jeff Scott’s sparsely-decorated office is the 2019 edition of Clemson’s “All-In” manual, a three-ring behemoth that might make Tolstoy cringe.
Roughly 8 inches in thickness, it covers every molecule of the Tigers culture under Dabo Swinney, from team rules to philosophy to strength and conditioning guidelines to practice schedules. Everything.
Except X’s and O’s.
“This isn’t a playbook,” Scott said. “It’s really just big-picture philosophy.”
And it is revised annually. Scott collected a dozen of them during his Tigers tenure. Every Tigers staffer ― from coaches to film folks to secretaries ― gets one, so all will be up to speed on how to articulate the Clemson football vision.
“I’ve been with Coach Swinney for 12 years, and what’s incredible and part of the success is, he goes over this every year as if it’s the first time he’s ever talked to the staff about it,” Scott said. “It’s not like a lot of other coaches who are like, ‘All right, we went over this last year, y’all are good on that.’”
Want the book on the Bulls’ new coach? There you have it. Scott, who graduated (cum laude) from Clemson in 2003, served on Swinney’s staff for a dozen years and compiled a 70-5 record in five seasons as Tigers co-offensive coordinator, plans to saturate his new school in his old school’s culture.
“I would say that (Scott) truly cares about his players,” said Clemson senior guard Gage Cervenka, selected for last week’s East-West Shrine Game. “And he’s been with Coach Swinney forever.”
Hence the reason Scott’s inaugural team meeting as Bulls coach last week teemed with acronyms, slogans and even seating arrangements used by his old boss.
To be sure, he has some phrases and formations all his own to implement, and his coaching influences (including Bobby Bowden and his father, Brad, a former Seminoles assistant and South Carolina coach) stretch far beyond Death Valley. “United from Start 2 Finish,” a mantra Scott introduced upon his Tampa arrival, is his concoction.
But darned if he’ll deviate far from the Clemson template. And he makes no apologies for it.
“I think Coach Swinney is such a unique man,” Scott said recently over a burger at a sports eatery just east of campus.
“There’s only one of him, and I wouldn’t do myself justice or USF justice if I tried to act just like him. But I think from a foundational standpoint, from a culture standpoint, from a philosophy standpoint, we really were a fit from the very beginning.”
Kindred spirits converge
Swinney arrived at Clemson as Tigers receivers coach in 2003, just as Scott was graduating. But Scott would return to his alma mater each summer and work at its football camps, which Swinney oversaw.
“So whenever I’d come back and work camps with him, each year he’d give me a little bit more responsibility to kind of help as an assistant director,” Scott said.
Ultimately, Swinney vowed to Scott that if he ever got a head coaching gig, the Arcadia native would be his first hire. After two highly successful years as a prep head coach and a year as receivers coach at Presbyterian College, Scott returned to Clemson as a graduate-assistant in 2008.
That October, Swinney was tabbed as the Tigers interim coach after Tommy Bowden resigned under pressure. Scott was at a Firehouse Subs grabbing sandwiches for the staff when Swinney called to inform him he was being elevated from GA to receivers coach.
Hours later, Scott and wife Sara saw this ominous report scroll across the ESPN ticker: Clemson wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney named interim head coach today. Zero of the last 29 midseason interim head coaches went on to be named full-time coach.
“So Sara and I looked at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh. Well, one out of 30,’” Scott recalled.
From there, Swinney and his staff ― the core of which remained mostly intact over the next 12 years ― went about defying logic. Scott observed and assisted as Swinney recruited, raised money and transformed the Tigers culture with a shrewdness and meticulousness belying his aw-shucks veneer.
“I think a lot of people that just see him on the sideline and hear his postgame, they have no idea,” Scott said.
“He literally could run Coca-Cola. He could be the CEO of Coca-Cola. … He’s got a good contract and all that, but he could be making more money if he was in the business world because of his leadership ability, his organization, his vision.”
Presumably, what works for Coke could work for a program that has lost its fizz.
When Scott called his first USF team meeting to order, he made all seniors move to the front, with juniors behind them, and so on.
A Clemson thing? “Absolutely, yessir,” Cervenka said.
“You have to earn your way to the front, it’s not just given. You put the seniors up front, and then you just go by class. You start in the back as a freshman that doesn’t really know much, and just see how the seniors react to all that, and then you just work your way up front.”
When Scott told the Bulls that “best is the standard” going forward, he was repeating the Swinney slogan emblazoned in the Tigers’ indoor facility and palatial football complex. Its meaning: Instead of playing to its opponent, USF will perform to a standard it establishes for itself.
And when Scott told the Bulls their weekly practice schedule would include TANOGA Tuesdays, new receivers coach Xavier Dye ― who played for Swinney and spent two years as a Clemson GA ― knew exactly what he meant.
“Takeaways, No Giveaways,” Dye said. “Basically defense is takeaways, offense is don’t give it away.”
Dye then recited all the other days on the Bulls’ future itinerary, in all their alliterative splendor.
“Workin’ Man Wednesday, Team Thursday, Focus Friday, Successful Saturday and Spiritual Sunday.”
All are straight off the Clemson calendar, which has featured at least one game in January six of the past seven seasons.
“For me, my time as a player and a coach, we’ve lived it, we’ve breathed it, we’ve tasted those championships and we’ve had that success,” Dye said. “If you believe in us, we can help you get to whatever goals you’re setting for yourself.”
Clemson wasn’t built in a day
Before evolving into the well-oiled envy of the collegiate stratosphere, the Clemson model skidded and sputtered a bit. In Swinney’s second full season, the Tigers finished 6-7, losing to Skip Holtz’s first USF squad in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Similarly, Scott is well aware the USF renovation will take time and toil. No slogan, no seating arrangement, no amount of sweat on Workin’ Man Wednesday will yield dividends without players and the proper infrastructure.
That calls for indefatigable recruiting and fundraising. Again, Scott learned from one of college football’s premier pitch men.
“Coach Swinney was great in the fact that he let the assistant coaches have an input and have a part in building what we did at Clemson,” Scott said. “So that’s the thing for me that’s exciting: I’m not doing something that I just watched, I’m doing something that I’ve done before.”
Swinney’s 2014 visit to the home of Leon “Bill” Hendrix Jr., a former Clemson student body president and corporate executive who already had donated millions to his alma mater, has been well chronicled. By the end of that back-porch conversation, Hendrix had agreed to pledge another $2.5 million towards the upgrading of Tigers’ athletics facilities.
That donation was the largest in the history of Clemson athletics at the time. Sixteen “cornerstone” gifts of $2.5 million or more have followed (though the school notes not all gifts have been earmarked exclusively for athletics). In 2017, the Reeves Football Complex ― a $55 million, 142,000-square-foot manor with every conceivable amenity from a training table to a barber shop ― was opened.
Scott believes with similar, plain-spoken donor engagement (a task that predecessor Charlie Strong was reticent to perform), construction of the $40 million USF Football Center, for which more than $20 million already has been committed, can commence sooner rather than later.
“What I’m excited about is where South Florida’s already had some great seasons … and that’s without a new facility,” he said. “Right now, we’re below UCF from a facilities standpoint, but we’re gonna go from below to above, because when we get a facility, now we’re gonna have a new facility, the nicest facility.”
Who knows, a string of Successful Saturdays could follow.