Clemson Football: Coach Dabo vs. Coach Prime

April 15, 2023; Clemson, SC , USA; Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney during the first quarter the annual Orange and White Spring game at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Saturday, April 15, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY NETWORK
April 15, 2023; Clemson, SC , USA; Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney during the first quarter the annual Orange and White Spring game at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Saturday, April 15, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY NETWORK /

Clemson Football was three scholarships over the 85-player limit after spring football. Head coach Dabo Swinney candidly discussed that there might be a few walk-on players who were previously awarded scholarships that might not receive them again this fall.

As has become typical with anything that Swinney says, his detractors immediately latched onto his statements and condemned them. Never mind that several other schools, like Florida State, Notre Dame, and Michigan, are also over the limit coming out of spring. Never mind that a school like Kansas is actually excited about being at the 85-player limit for the first time in years.

The difference is that at other schools, they have little doubt that enough players will ultimately transfer out of the program, so the coach is never asked about the mechanics of getting under the scholarship limit. Even if a coach is asked, they would likely divert away from answering the question.

Swinney was open about the belief that he wasn’t going to have enough players choose to transfer (of their own volition). As a result, he was unfairly criticized for mentioning the only way they could possibly handle the situation without telling kids to transfer behind the scenes.

“Cutting” a few players away from the public eye is the quiet way to handle a team being over 85 scholarship players. Many also consider it to be an unethical way to address the situation.

The current situation at Clemson is a stark contrast to the current situation at Colorado.

Deion Sanders was hired to take over the struggling Buffalo program after three decent seasons at Jackson State. Sanders didn’t attempt to keep his plans for the Colorado roster out of the public eye. When he was hired in December, Sanders told the remaining players from the team that went 1-11 in 2022 that he intended to bring in transfers to transform the roster.

Sanders is being blunt with the public about what he feels is necessary to make his program competitive quickly.

"“There’s no way I can put new furniture in this beautiful home if we don’t clean out the old furniture, and that’s not a shot.”"

Some observers have framed Swinney and the Clemson program as the antithesis of Sanders and the way he is running the Colorado program so far. Swinney has been categorized as the program builder, while Sanders is the guy who is tearing down his program. Swinney presumably isn’t telling kids to transfer while Sanders isn’t trying to hide that he is telling kids to transfer.

While there is truth to this comparison, the full reality is a bit more complicated.

The current era in which Sanders has been tasked with rebuilding the Buffalo program is considerably different than the time when athletic director Terry Don Phillips surprised everyone by promoting Swinney to be the head coach of the Tigers. The biggest difference is the transfer portal and the changes to eligibility rules for players who haven’t earned their undergraduate degrees.

We know that Swinney uses the portal sparingly today, but we can only speculate how he would have used it if it existed in 2009. Clemson’s roster was in a better situation than the Colorado roster was at the end of the 2022 season. Huge changes wouldn’t have been necessary, but would Swinney have been more likely to take action to quickly address shortcomings on the depth chart? Despite what some might say today, its fair to assume he would have been more likely to utilize the portal if it existed back then, especially if he had the knowledge of how Jeff Scott’s tenure at South Florida would go.

Scott attempted to rebuild the USF program using high school talent, the way Clemson builds. Either Scott underestimated how much success they would have early, he underestimated how patient the Bulls fans would be with him, or both. By year three, Scott abandoned his plans and used the portal to remake the roster as best he could. South Florida was better in 2022, but it wasn’t enough, and Scott was dismissed.

Would Scott have had more success if he was willing to mine the portal earlier? Maybe, but we know the way he attempted to build the program didn’t work.

The institutions that employ each man have been quite different. Clemson was a competitive program that usually had a winning record and went to bowl games, but struggled to get over the hump from being a good program to being a national contender. When they hired Swinney, they went ‘all in’ and began putting considerable investment into the program so it could compete with SEC programs in the region, but the university didn’t neglect the program prior to 2009.

Colorado was the opposite. The Buffaloes were nationally prominent for most of the 1990s but fell off a cliff after the turn of the century, appearing in only four bowl games after Gary Barnett left the program in 2004. Many have pointed to a lack of support for the football program from the university as a major contributing factor. It is unknown if Colorado intends to continue investing in football under Coach Prime, or if they are counting on his celebrity to bring attention to a program they can’t afford to fund the way SEC or Big Ten schools are funded.

While Swinney had a foundation to build upon in 2009, Sanders doesn’t have the same advantage. The football team has been neglected by Colorado for years. It is only natural that the manner the two coaches manage their situations is drastically different because their environments are drastically different.

Clemson Football and Coach Swinney have one big thing in common with Coach Prime and his early leadership at Colorado

While it seems like the two coaches couldn’t be more different, they both have one thing in common – they aren’t trying to hide how they are running their programs.

Swinney has been open about underestimating how many players would return in 2023, and thus overbudgeting scholarships during the high school recruiting cycle and the addition of one transfer (Paul Tyson). He’s been open about the possibility of taking back scholarships from walk-ons. Other coaches would have told players to transfer behind the scenes so they wouldn’t have to deal with the negative press.

Sanders has been open about his plans to turn over the Colorado roster using the transfer portal. He doesn’t have to build a program the way it was done fifteen years ago, and he believes he can attract the right kind of players to join his program in 2023 and make it more competitive. Other new coaches might have been more conservative with turning over their roster, either because they had more to work with or because they didn’t have the celebrity of Coach Prime to attract talent to their program. Either way, most coaches would have handled the situation a lot more quietly to avoid the negative press.

They may run their programs differently, but neither Swinney nor Sanders is trying to operate in the shadows, which is a lot more respectable than how some other coaches handle their business.