If the transfer portal is good enough for Nick Saban, why isn't it good enough for Dabo Swinney?
Adapt or die.
Those 3 words can define many things in sports. Failing to adapt could mean a lot of things. It could be refusing to acknowledge the 3-point line in basketball. It could be refusing to acknowledge the impact of analytics in baseball. It could be refusing to acknowledge the advancements in teaching the forward pass in football.
Dabo Swinney is staring “adapt or die” in the face as he enters 2022. For now, not surprisingly, the Clemson coach is shrugging it off.
“Adapting” is using the transfer portal. That, Swinney has refused to do. Even though last year we saw NCAA restrictions loosened to allow undergraduates to receive a 1-time exemption for automatic eligibility, Swinney held firm on his stance to make the transfer portal a 1-way street and to only rely on recruiting high school players.
Coming off his first Playoff-less season at Clemson since 2014, an issue that was once on the back burner is now cranked up to high heat.
Since the portal became a thing in 2018, Swinney has never signed a player from it.
Oh wait. My bad. Swinney just actually signed his first player from transfer portal. It was former 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson … who actually started his career at Clemson before transferring to Northwestern once Trevor Lawrence emerged as the Tigers’ starter. Johnson came back to Clemson in hopes of initially becoming a grad assistant, but he’ll instead use his 6th and final year of eligibility to back up DJ Uiagalelei.
Does that count? Hardly. To claim that Johnson’s return shows that Swinney is now “using the portal” would be like claiming you’ve been to the Empire State Building after you walked around the lobby.
To be fair, Swinney isn’t claiming that he’s using the portal. He was asked about his stance on it following a 30-0 win against South Carolina back in November just ahead of the Early Signing Period.
“As I’ve said many times, we’ll use the portal if it’s something that we have to. It’s not been a need for us at this point,” Swinney said in his postgame news conference (H/T The Athletic). “We’re always going to be a developmental program, and if we can’t address a need through high school kids and there’s a gap somewhere, we’ll always look at that as an option. But only if it’s something that we need.”
I’ll agree to disagree with Swinney’s assessment that “it hasn’t been a need” at this point. You can’t say that as you’re getting ready to play in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Swinney must’ve missed the part where his team was taken to the woodshed in consecutive Playoff games by transfer portal quarterbacks. Perhaps Swinney opted to not watch this past College Football Playoff National Championship wherein Jameson Williams and Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick both played monumental roles in the outcome of the game. It’s possible that Swinney was so Clemson-focused that he missed Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson become the ACC Defensive Player of the Year for Florida State.
But sure, let’s hear more about Swinney not needing the portal after his passing offense failed to crack the top 100 in FBS and his scoring offense was 10th in the ACC.
Ask any Clemson fan and they’d tell you the Tigers desperately lacked offensive line depth and a backup quarterback who could’ve saved the day after Uiagalelei’s struggles. The fact that Swinney is running it back with Uiagalelei and not dipping into the transfer portal is worrisome.
Swinney is all about development and continuity, even though he’s dealing with more turnover on his staff he’s had at any point at Clemson. Gone are top assistants Brent Venables and Tony Elliott after a decade on staff (Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich also took the same job at Miami). Both coordinators became first-time head coaches at the Power 5 level. To no one’s surprise, both Venables and Elliott already used the transfer portal to build up their respective rosters.
Make no mistake about it: This is entirely about Swinney.
To be clear, Swinney is at least aware that the portal is becoming a bigger part of the sport. He’s no longer publicly denouncing the role of grad transfers who “come in here to be one-offs” like he said back in 2018 (via The Athletic).
“There’s not a school in the country that’s not going to have to recruit the portal,” Swinney said in November. “That’s what’s been created. I don’t like it, but that’s the way the world is. You deal with it.”
But has Swinney actually dealt with it? And will he actually deal with it to improve his roster instead of acting like it’s the ultimate college football sin?
This year, Swinney will try to bounce back with a defense that ranks No. 82 in FBS in percentage of returning production, and it lost arguably the best defensive mind in the sport. He’ll bank on Uiagalelei figuring things out after he got healthier and improved down the stretch (he still didn’t have a 2021 start in which he completed 60% of his passes with an average of 8 yards per attempt). Either that or Swinney will turn to 5-star true freshman Cade Klubnik.
Meanwhile, Clemson had 11 players leave via the transfer portal since the start of the 2021 season. Instead of pursuing coveted, instant impact transfers like Eli Ricks or Kinglsey Suamataia, Swinney never even pulled up a seat to the table.
The portal has allowed teams to address immediate needs and plug holes rather than potentially waiting on (or rushing) an underclassman who isn’t ready to play. As long as Swinney refuses to utilize the portal, he’s closer to dying than adapting.
Clemson earning a Playoff berth wouldn’t validate Swinney’s stance, either. If he bounces back in 2022, it’ll be in spite of his portal approach.
Swinney isn’t chasing a paycheck and in reality, he’s one of very few Power 5 coaches with essentially untouchable status as it relates to job security. But he’s facing a defining time in his legacy. There’s nothing wrong with holding true to values. Lord knows few programs in America are more synonymous with their culture than Clemson.
But sooner or later, Swinney has to be willing to pick up the telephone and acknowledge its existence.