Why Clemson could find staying power among elite programs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- So the question here is whether No. 1 Clemson rented its slot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T from Airbnb, or will remain among the national elite for years to come.

There's a reason to ask. College football has a soft spot for familiar faces. In the past 17 seasons, dating to the beginning of the BCS, few teams have shown up for a championship game and glided out of sight as quickly as they arrived. In fact, only four teams -- Tennessee in 1998, Virginia Tech in 1999, Nebraska in 2001 and Notre Dame in 2012 -- made a single appearance in a championship game. The other 28 slots were filled by a total of 11 schools.

There are a lot of reasons to believe Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has built a program that will continue to contend. He isn't the buttoned-up head coach, the prototype of which he will face Monday night.

"He's very passionate about his job," said Clemson associate athletic director for football administration Woody McCorvey, a college football lifer. "What you see is what you get. He has a lot of energy. He [hasn't] separated himself from the player. He doesn't coach from the tower. He's on the field. He's among the kids every day on the field, in the facility. The same thing in the town and in the region. He's not trying to hide himself."

Swinney's emotions run across his forehead like the news zipper in Times Square. His good friend David Shaw is so identified by his stoic sideline facial expression that the Stanford students sold T-shirts mocking it. Yet Shaw has a good perspective on what makes Swinney's teams tick.

The two 40-something head coaches have more in common than their last-second two-point victories over Notre Dame this season. Shaw and Swinney pick each other's brains during the annual vacations that Nike stages for the head football coaches whose teams wear the Swoosh.

Shaw praised Swinney's "windshield mentality," which he said distilled a gut reaction of Shaw's and put it into a succinct thought.

"You can't spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror," Shaw said. "You've got to see where you are. ... The GPS, you plug in your long-term destinations. But if you stare at your GPS too long you're going to crash, right? So you have to spend most of your time looking out your windshield. Here's where we are and here's what we need to do. You can glance back and see the road that we've traveled. You can glance down and see the ultimate goals. But you still focus on where you are.

"That mentality, we're both on the same wavelength."

A closer look at what Swinney has built in seven-plus seasons as Clemson coach reveals he is not only winning -- 14-0 this season and 75-26 overall -- but he is checking all the boxes good coaches must check for a program to stay on top.

Swinney had the resources to hire a good staff. The first surprise is that, as an untested head coach, he used them well. He didn't hire only his friends. He hired veteran coaches who have a résumé full of winning.

Associate head coach Dan Brooks, one of Swinney's first hires, for years has been considered one of the best defensive line coaches in the college game. Brooks is one of four Clemson assistants -- assistant head coach Danny Pearman, defensive coordinator Brent Venables and defensive ends coach Marion Hobby are the others -- who won national championship rings at other schools.

McCorvey, Swinney's position coach at wide receiver at Alabama in the early 1990s, won a ring the same time as Pearman and Swinney, in 1992 at Alabama. McCorvey and Pearman coached for Gene Stallings.

The second surprise is Swinney kept his staff together. As difficult as it is to identify and hire good coaches, loyalty is a different task. Seven of Swinney's nine assistants have been on the staff four seasons.

Swinney has recruited players well, too, not just by the five-star-becomes-All-American measure, but in terms of the solid citizens who populate a good program. For instance, Clemson's graduation rate of 83.6 percent, as reported this season by the NCAA, ranks among the best not only in the Atlantic Coast Conference but in the top 25.

"Sitting in staff meetings with him every day," McCorvey said, "he wants to do it the right way. He talks about compliance. He talks about graduation, and grade reports, and then he gets into football. What he's talking, he's backing it up."

You don't see many players leave out of disgruntlement, and you don't see many busted for bad behavior. When they do, Swinney's rules are clear, hard and fast. After three Tigers failed NCAA drug tests before the Capital One Orange Bowl, Clemson didn't appeal the findings. Swinney sent them home.

As Alabama and Florida State and Oregon and Texas A&M and a whole bunch of other programs scramble to find quarterbacks, no one has combined stability and productivity behind center the way Clemson has. Tajh Boyd started for the Tigers for three seasons, and was replaced by Deshaun Watson in 2014. Watson, a Heisman finalist this season, should return for his junior year in 2016. Behind him are freshman Kelly Bryant and presumably, Hunter Johnson, the No. 5 quarterback in the 2017 ESPN 300.

Swinney has built a program that has all the signs of being a perennial contender. Shaw, who has won three Pac-12 championships in four seasons and also has proven how important the right fit is to coaching success, says he believes Swinney will succeed over time.

"None of us has a crystal ball for 10 years down the road," Shaw said. "You're talking about a guy that loves the community, that has invested in the community, that is a big part of the community, and loves the school. The people in the school love him, love what he stands for in football as well as out of football. It's a great relationship between him and Clemson and the community."

Injuries, graduations, bad bounces, bad calls, good opponents -- all stand in the way of guaranteeing a long-term lease of the penthouse. But Clemson appears as if Swinney has them ready to contend for some time to come.