“I have my job thanks to Coach Swinney.” Those were the words of a front-desk employee at The Abernathy, a boutique-ish hotel in Clemson, SC, that commands nightly rates of $600 on weekends during the college-football season.
The Abernathy is one of the many fancy creations of the Dabo Swinney era at Clemson. Swinney took over as head coach of the Tigers midway through the 2008 football season, and has presided over Clemson’s evolution from mid-range power to college football’s 1B to Nick Saban and Alabama’s 1A. Swinney’s monumental achievements have coincided with a rather profound transformation of the town of Clemson itself, and most notably the university within this small southern town.
How to best understand the above is to talk to those who lived in Clemson in the years before Swinney. While Death Valley (the school’s stadium) was a known quantity to ardent college football fans, as were IPTAY and the Esso Club (look them up), Clemson wasn’t Clemson back then. Figure that even Swinney was somewhat of a compromise hire who replaced Tommy Bowden, and his 3-3 record. Not only was money tight amid the economic downturn of 2008, the Clemson of ’08 was not the flush Clemson of 2018. The Abernathy was nine years away from opening. With good reason. Interest in the team had declined amid decades of just-above-average teams. Demand for $600 hotel rooms wasn’t a Clemson thing back then.
The powers-that-be signed Swinney to an incentive-laden contract simply because the money wasn’t there to go after a bigger, more established coaching name. So bad were finances in ’08 that the school’s professors were being furloughed in order to keep the books somewhat balanced.
And then Swinney started winning. In his first full season the Tigers won nine games, six the following year, but since then they’ve never won fewer than ten. The 2016 team won the national championship in a legendary matchup with Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. Crucial about all this is that Swinney’s achievements as football coach lifted all of Clemson’s proverbial boats.
Applications have soared amid Clemson’s football renaissance as students who might otherwise have never considered attending college in a small southern town are increasingly considering doing just that. It’s quite simply fun for young people to attend a school with a powerhouse football program, and the result is that Clemson is inundated with applications from all over the U.S., and all over the world.
Unsurprisingly amid this application surge, the quality of students has risen too. What was once perhaps a “safety school” for high school seniors is now an aspirational one such that average SAT scores for successful applicants have risen in concert with the football team’s prominence. Clemson is now much more than a brand name for NFL GMs. As the team’s wins pile up, so does the university’s notoriety elevate the resumes of Clemson students who will never step on the football field during their four years there.
What about the school itself? Once again, a profound transformation. For obvious reasons. When the football team is winning, excitement among alums jumps. And when graduates are excited, donations soar. The football team’s $55 million, state-of-the-art Allen N. Reeves football complex sits where unused farmland once did. And as contributions to the athletic department have zoomed upward, all sports at Clemson have benefited. The golf and baseball facilities alone would knock any reader over with their opulence, as would the Swann Fitness Center that is available to all students.
To all this, some will respond that the millions finding their way to Clemson speak to a society that’s lost its way as football stokes alumni passions in ways that English, engineering and business departments do not, but such a response would be shortsighted. Indeed, amid the rise of Clemson football, it’s not just that applications have skyrocketed. So have donations to the school itself.
While Clemson’s economics department is presently housed in somewhat antiquated Sirrine Hall, construction is underway on an all new facility. Notable there is that there’s new construction taking place all over campus, and off campus too as The Abernathy attests. “As GM goes so goes the nation” was a popular phrase decades ago, and if you substitute in “Clemson football” and “Clemson” for GM and nation you get an accurate snapshot of what’s currently lifting the school and the town that houses it. Not only do the professors get to teach more accomplished and more interested students, they get to do so in increasingly lush classrooms at ever higher salaries. And Clemson residents have better and better jobs.
It’s worth mentioning that Swinney’s salary is presently $5.75 million annually, which makes him the highest paid Clemson employee. He is very unequal relative to his fellow faculty members (yes, faculty, let’s stop pretending that football isn’t incredibly cerebral), but readers can rest assured that his colleagues and employees are in no way bothered. That’s because Swinney is vastly underpaid. There’s no way Clemson could ever pay him what he’s been worth to the school. Figure that Swinney’s achievements as coach have logically led to an abundant inflow of dollars that paid for the aforementioned football complex, along with a well-paid staff of 55 specialists (Swinney is notoriously generous with the individuals on his staff) who work diligently to ensure that Clemson football keeps on winning. And as Clemson football goes, so once again goes Clemson. Swinney is the monster tide lifting all Clemson boats.
Interesting about all this is that the only football types associated with Clemson football who stand to out-earn Swinney are some of his former players. Deshaun Watson (the quarterback who led the team to the 2016 national championship) is likely just a few years away from a nine figure NFL contract, and then if the scouts are to be believed about junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, he’ll eventually join Watson in the nine figure club. As Clemson’s wins have piled up, so has the number of former Tigers in the NFL.
Important about all of this is that the Clemson students and town residents alike hardly care about this rising wealth gap between them and the football coaches, along with certain players who can look forward to well-compensated NFL stardom. No one’s going to bed in the fetal position in dismay over the earnings of Swinney, or the present and future earnings of Watson and Lawrence. As opposed to shouting down or neutering these obvious examples of inequality in terms of wealth and talent, the three men mentioned are heroes. If not for them showcasing what makes them unequal, Clemson, SC and Clemson University would be fractions of their present abundant selves.
It’s all a reminder that we look askance at and aim to fight “inequality” at our certain peril. Looked at through the wondrous prism of Dabo Swinney, it’s easy to say that one very unequal man transformed a town and a university in ways that will pay handsome dividends for a very long time for hundreds of thousands of people who don’t share the Clemson coach’s last name. Isaac Newton surely had people like Swinney in mind when he made his “standing on the shoulders of giants” remark.