PHOENIX — They seem so different. One will tell a total stranger his life story—warts and all—with little to no prompting. The other guards information as if he is protecting state secrets. One dances like no one is watching. One dances like, as his center put it this week, "a dinosaur."
Deep down, though, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is more like Alabama coach Nick Saban than he is like you or me. Monday's national championship game will be billed as a complete clash of styles, but the CEOs of the Tigers and the Crimson Tide aren't the polar opposites their public-facing images would suggest.
Guess which coach this describes: "There's no doubt who runs the show. He is very strong. He's got a deep belief in how he wants to do things and in the culture he wants to create. He wants to hire people to fit that."
That sounds exactly like Saban, doesn't it? A quote about Swinney would emphasize fun or looseness, right? Except those words were spoken by Clemson defensive line coach Dan Brooks, who since 1988 has worked for Mack Brown at North Carolina, Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee and Swinney at Clemson. Brooks, whose position group overcame huge personnel losses following the 2014 season to become the strength of the Tigers' defense, was one of the inspired hires Swinney made after being elevated from interim to full-time head coach following the '08 campaign. Swinney can have fun, but just as in Tuscaloosa, the staff in Clemson is always aware who the boss is.
There is no doubt Swinney and Saban have different personalities. Swinney is an extrovert. He can talk to anyone. Saban is an introvert. He won't reveal much right away, but communication seems to come far more naturally to him in a football setting. Swinney is so free with the details of his life—whether it's his Discover card story or the tale of his father's fight with alcoholism—because of his faith. He considers every moment he lives to be part of his testimony; if sharing his experiences can bring someone into the flock, all the better. Saban learned to organize a program while working for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. The less he can give away, the better. Information is power, and in his program Saban is all-powerful.
But while the words and tone they use with their players may differ, both coaches are extremely hands-on CEOs. Woody McCorvey, Clemson's associate athletic director for football, was Swinney's position coach at Alabama when Swinney was a walk-on wide receiver under Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings. McCorvey believes Swinney is emblematic of a new generation of head coaches who work closely with their players at every practice. "Back then you had a lot of coaches coaching in the tower," McCorvey said. "That connection with the players was not there. That's what makes him so dynamic. He's with the players. He's around them. They respect him, but he can let his hair down around them."
Even though Saban is 18 years older than the 46-year-old Swinney, they share a similar attitude. At almost every Alabama practice, Saban assists secondary coach Mel Tucker with the cornerbacks. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who once coached defensive backs for Saban in East Lansing, heard the jokes that he essentially used to be Saban's graduate assistant. The truth is, at times during practice, Saban acts more like the secondary coach's GA than a $7.5 million-per-year head coach. He doesn't want to lose his connection to the players, so he works just like he did 40 years ago.
Swinney has also noticed another similarity between him and Saban: Both are ferocious recruiters. For example, Alabama's 2015 class ranked No. 2 in the nation, according to Scout.com. Clemson was No. 15. Saban's recruiting classes have consistently finished at or near the top of the rankings on National Signing Day—and in the final polls. Swinney, meanwhile, was recommended to be the interim coach in '08 by the just-fired Tommy Bowden in part because Swinney had helped recruit most of Clemson's best players at the time. On Saturday, a reporter asked Swinney what makes Saban so successful, and Swinney didn't hesitate.
"That's the easiest question I've had all day. Recruiting," Swinney said. "You've got to have great players and you've got to have great coaches. Nick Saban can't do it by himself. Dabo Swinney can't do it by himself. He's a lot better coach with Derrick Henry than without him, and it's the same thing for me. I'm a lot better coach with Deshaun Watson than without him. I think you have to have great talent. There's a lot of great coaches out there that are great coaches, but they're at places where maybe they can't acquire the type of talent that you can at a place like Alabama.
"And it's not that anybody can just go to Alabama and be successful. That's not the case, either. But he's great at recruiting, and he's great at putting a staff together. He hires great coaches. He's got great coordinators, he's got great assistant coaches, great support staff. He understands the importance of that, having that type of infrastructure. So do I."
Swinney has beefed up Clemson's support staff in a deliberate attempt to make it more closely resemble what Saban has at Alabama. In a 2012 interview, Swinney said administrators "looked at me like I had three eyeballs" when he asked for money for player personnel and other support positions. He explained it to them this way: "It's not right to have a donkey running in the Kentucky Derby." When the national title game kicks off Monday, the team in crimson and white won't be the only thoroughbred program on the field.
Both coaches also aren't afraid to make drastic changes. After Clemson averaged 24 points per game during a 2010 season in which it finished 6–7, Swinney fired offensive coordinator Billy Napier and hired Tulsa's Chad Morris, who was then one year out of coaching at the high school level. Morris proved to be the perfect coordinator for quarterback Tajh Boyd and a loaded receiving corps that included Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. The Tigers won the ACC title in '11 before getting smoked by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. So, Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and hired Brent Venables, who had proven at Oklahoma that he could run a sound defense opposite a hurry-up, no-huddle offense. When it became obvious Morris would become a head coach, Swinney began grooming Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott to replace him. Those two took over as co-offensive coordinators after Morris landed the SMU job in November 2014, and Clemson's offense kept humming.
Saban, meanwhile, hired Lane Kiffin in January 2014 to run Alabama's offense and encouraged him to stop huddling, spread the field and raise the tempo. This allowed Blake Sims to go from a guy who got moved to tailback to the starting quarterback of an SEC champion last season. This year, Saban helped correct for deficiencies in Alabama's pass defense by going small at safety.
The coaches are also similar enough to be friends. They have vacation homes near one another, and that has led to dinners and boat rides between coaches from different generations who share more traits than they let on in public. They may have contrasting personalities, but both understand how to leverage their best aspects to create a successful program. "Everybody's got to be who they are," Saban said.
Swinney and Saban are the coaches of the nation's two best teams this season. But only one can finish Monday night holding a trophy.
A random ranking
Guns N' Roses will play at Coachella later this year, and if the reports are to be believed, Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan will play together again for the first time in a looong time. (Also, Axl uses a disconcerting number of emoticons for a man his age.)
Here are the top 10 Guns N' Roses songs.
1. "Welcome To The Jungle"
2. "November Rain"
3. "Sweet Child O' Mine"
4. "Paradise City"
5. "You Could Be Mine"
8. "Don't Cry"
9. "Live and Let Die"
10. "Mr. Brownstone"
1. Chip Kelly, who has some spare time these days, visited Tuscaloosa this week as Alabama prepared to face Clemson in the national title game. What did he and Saban talk about? Good luck getting that answer. "Well, Chip Kelly is a good friend of myself and a lot of coaches on our staff, and he just happened to be in the area and he stopped by and visited with us for a little bit," Saban said on Saturday. "Not really anything of significance relative to this game."
Riiiiight. "You can bet coach Saban was asking Chip a bunch of questions," an Alabama staffer said. That certainly fits with Saban's personality. If he had a master of college offensive tempo in the building, it's all but a guarantee Saban picked up something that can help the Tide's offense and defense in that department.
2. If Clemson wins on Monday, the locker room may stink. Fifth-year senior left guard Eric Mac Lain hasn't shaved since July, and his beard will come off following the game. "We might have a little burning ceremony," Mac Lain said. Mac Lain and the other members of the Tigers' "Beard Gang" pledged to avoid shaving until their season ended. It just so happened that lasted longer than everyone else's—much to the chagrin of Mac Lain's girlfriend. "She hates it," he said. "She can't stand it. Luckily, she's going to grad school in Greenville, so she doesn't have to see it every day."
3. Quarterback Jalen Hurts only joined Alabama's team last week, but he walked into an important role. On certain plays in practice, the class of 2016 early enrollee from Channelview, Texas, has simulated being Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Fellow Crimson Tide quarterbacks Blake Barnett and David Cornwell have also played the role of Watson. "I don't know that anybody could actually do that as well as Deshaun Watson does it," Saban said. "But Jalen did a really, really good job. He's very athletic, and I think that was a real plus for our team to have him there for a few days to be able to have that kind of quickness for us to try to react to."
4. Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, who missed the last three quarters of the Orange Bowl with a knee injury, appears to be on track to play Monday. "There's a very good chance I'll play," Lawson told reporters on Saturday. "I'm just trying to get my knee stronger before Monday." The junior leads the nation in tackles for loss with 23.5, and he said his knee hasn't fully healed since he injured it during the Tigers' 37–17 victory over Oklahoma. "It hurts right now," he said.
5. If Alabama wins the national title, don't expect Saban to reprise his dance moves from the Cotton Bowl. Saban's daughter, Kristen, gave her father some notes. "I really didn't want to dance. I really do have some moves," Saban said. "I didn't want to let them all out. I really was criticized pretty harshly by Kristen, who has seen me dance before and knows I can do better. She thought my effort was not really good."
6. The NCAA granted Clemson a practice-time waiver last week so the Tigers would have as much time for workouts and meetings as Alabama. Without it, Clemson would have faced time restrictions the Crimson Tide would not have because Clemson has started its spring semester, while Alabama has not.
Clemson added meeting time Wednesday, but Swinney said the Tigers didn't plan to add much more to the schedule. "At this point, to be honest with you, more isn't better," Swinney said. "I kind of believe in less is more. … We are who we are, they are who they are. Let's go play the game."
7. On Saturday, Alabama offensive coordinator Kiffin revealed some of the details of his firing as USC's head coach after the Trojans' 62–41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28, 2013 in nearby Tempe. The memories came flooding back when the Crimson Tide arrived in Phoenix on Friday. "I didn't think about that until the bus ride to the hotel," Kiffin said. "On the bus ride, we took a right turn. On the day of, I jogged. It was about 100 degrees. I remember that turn."
Kiffin said USC athletic director Pat Haden made the decision to fire him during the game. Kiffin also said he realized during the loss that then-redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler was the best quarterback on the Trojans' roster. "I was in the locker room. I said to Pat, 'At least we found our quarterback.' He kind of shook his head," Kiffin said. "Little did I know he'd already fired me."
Haden fired Kiffin after the Trojans landed in Los Angeles. It has been widely misreported that Kiffin was fired on the tarmac. The firing actually took place in a room near the team bus. "I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac," Kiffin cracked.
8. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will bring his up-tempo scheme from UCLA to Texas A&M to try to rescue the Aggies from another mediocre season. There will be plenty of pressure on Mazzone, who may be trying to save everyone's jobs at a program that has gone 11–13 in SEC play over the past three seasons.
All of Texas A&M's coaches are now working for a new athletic director. A day after giving head coach Kevin Sumlin a vote of confidence, Eric Hyman stepped down as the AD. Washington's Scott Woodward, who has SEC West experience thanks to his time working on former LSU AD Skip Bertman's staff, will replace him.
9. Congratulations to North Dakota State on winning its fifth consecutive FCS title. On Saturday, the Bison crushed Jacksonville State 37–10, holding the Gamecocks to only 204 yards and nine first downs.
10. None taken, A'Shawn. None taken.
What's eating Andy?
It's the same thing that eats at me during this week every year. After Monday, our long national nightmare begins. September feels so far away.
What's Andy eating?
A reader razzed me on Twitter Friday night for my lack of experience with international meats. He probably assumed that because I've never written about food outside this country, I've never been outside this country. He is mostly correct. I've been to Jamaica twice and Italy once. That's it. I'd love to eat steak in Argentina or sushi in Japan, but like most of you, I have a job, a family and a budget. So, you get my provincial gustatory musings. U-S-A! Love it or leave it.
Fortunately, there is plenty of excellent international food available here in the U.S. Last week, I feasted on the cuisines of two very different countries in the wilds of the Atlanta suburbs. With an assignment to cover Clemson and Alabama's on-campus media days, I knew I would spend a significant amount of time driving through metro Atlanta. So, I visited a place I knew nothing about and one I've been meaning to try for years.
The first was Country Pepper, a two-year-old Jamaican restaurant in Suwanee, Ga. When I walked in a few minutes before closing time, the first thing a wonderful young lady named Denise said to me was, "Welcome to our table." Denise's family moved from Jamaica to Connecticut when she was a toddler, but her family recipes have survived the years in the U.S. intact. I came for jerk chicken, because I love jerk chicken. My favorite world traveler on Twitter would appreciate that I have actually eaten jerk chicken at restaurants and roadside stands in Jamaica. Grilled chicken dripping with a sauce made molten by Scotch bonnet peppers is tough to beat. But there is one way: Combine it with coco bread.
When I was in college, there was a place two doors down from the newsroom of my school paper called Caribbean Spice. For $2.99 it offered a beef patty, coco bread and a soda. I always threw in another 50 cents for additional coco bread. It's sweet and soft, but not quite as sweet and not quite as soft as King's Hawaiian bread. It's a little more substantial, and that's what makes it so perfect with jerk chicken. A little of the jerk sauce goes a long way on a piece of perfectly cooked chicken, and Country Pepper's chicken was tender and juicy. So, what does one do with extra sauce underneath the chicken? Sop it up with coco bread. It's spicy, sweet and savory all at once, and it's worth the trip to Jamaica—or the wilds of Gwinnett County.
The second place requires full disclosure. I don't usually have any affiliation with the places I write about, but I know the family that runs
Mirage in Sandy Springs, Ga. The Davoodis have a son named Puya who grew up to be an excellent plastic surgeon, and he spent a four-year fellowship working in the same practice as my wife. When Puya's parents would come to town, my wife would come home raving about the delicious Persian dishes they brought by the office. I told Puya I would visit his parents' restaurant the first time work brought me nearby.
If you've read this space long enough, you know my taste buds don't discriminate between friend and stranger. I wouldn't choose to write about this place if its food wasn't delicious. Puya's mother, Farah, guided me through Mirage's menu, and she did not steer me wrong. My world-traveling friend on Twitter might have eaten in Iran before, but since I haven't, I had no idea what cooks in that country did with rice.
How good is the rice at Mirage? It made me momentarily forget about the glorious chunks of grilled lamb on the kabob on my plate. To make me forget meat in favor of a side dish is quite an accomplishment. I ordered the Shirin Polo, in which rice is cooked with raisins, barberries, almond and pistachio slivers, orange zest and shredded carrots. Shirin Polo translates to "sweet rice," but that doesn't tell the entire story. The raisins and carrots add sweetness, but the orange zest provides the ideal bitter counterbalance.
I also ordered the Loubia Polo with chopped beef tenderloin. This is rice cooked in a tomato base with green beans and chunks of beef. It would have made a satisfying meal in its own right, but luckily for me, I still had lamb and baklava to go.