Dabo Swinneys faith has aided in the recruiting thats made Clemson a college football powerhouse, while drawing the ire of groups that say he runs afoul of the First Amendment
When a reporter asked Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney to discuss his faith in July 2018, Swinney chuckled and said that it was the easiest question of the day. Over two minutes, Swinney invoked Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future) and stressed that when he meets his maker one day, he wont pat me on the back and tell me how many wins I had.
We can pass the bucket if yall want and keep going! Swinney said after finishing his remarks.
Of Swinneys many memorable interviews during his 12 years in charge of Clemson, the 2018 sermon was the ideal encapsulation of his public persona: eloquent, charismatic and focused on the importance of Christian faith in daily life. Before Swinney assumed the program in 2008, Clemson was a middling college football team with a limited national profile. Over the last four years, the Tigers have won two national titles and are currently ranked No 1 in the AP rankings.
Think of Clemson like Manchester City a once middling team now an established elite if Pep Guardiola invoked Catholicism as a tactic to lure the worlds top young players. Through masterful recruiting, savvy hiring and major financial investment in facilities, Swinney constructed an empire at a South Carolina public university that is located more than 100 miles from any major American airport.
Swinney doesnt shy from emphasizing how his Christian faith guides his life and his work. That publicity has inspired a fandom from American Christians beyond the Clemson fan base and drawn the ire of watchdog groups that find his methods to be violations of the First Amendment.
In 2014, the Wisconsin-based non-profit Freedom From Religious Foundation (FFRF) submitted a letter of complaint to Clemson voicing constitutional concerns about how the public universitys football program is entangled with religion and citing Swinney as a chief violator of separation of church and state. The most visible example was when Swinney invited a local Baptist preacher named Perry Noble to perform baptisms of wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at practices in 2012. Nobles involvement with the team was part of FFRFs 35-page report detailing the perceived proselytizing of Christian coaches and team chaplains at Clemson and several other major college football programs.
I think coaches should use anything that is positive and inclusive to support the team says Texas Southern professor Dr Yoruba T Mutakabbir, who co-authored Religious Minority Students in Higher Education, part of which studies how Christianity is embedded with college football in the American south. The problem is when it is exclusive to one religion.
Swinney did not invent Christianity as a tool to recruit talented high school players to join his program, hes just the most successful at deploying it. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, head coach Bill McCartney transformed a dormant football program at the University of Colorado into one of the nations elite teams. While coaching the team in 1990, he founded Promise Keepers, an Evangelical organization that describes itself as a Christ-centered organization dedicated to introducing men to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, helping them to grow as Christians. Where some academics and nontheists see brazen constitutional violations from coaches who profess their faith as a way to help grow young college students, those involved with college football see a savvy strategy in the ruthless game of recruiting teenagers.
Every year, a college program has a set number of scholarships vacated by players who either graduated or left the team. Those scholarships are then awarded to high school or junior college players who choose to attend the university. To secure a commitment from a top player, a coach must convince a player and his family that he will compete for playing time, receive a college degree and be supervised by a responsible coaching staff.When a coach can cite his faith as a guiding principle to a religious family, its often the parents who are convinced even more than the player himself.
When you recruit in the [American] south, a coach can use Christianity as a weapon, says Tom Lemming, the lead college football recruiting analyst at CBS Sports Network. They proclaim a lot of faith to kids and parents and its the parents who fall in line.