Few coaches have enjoyed a week of publicity quite like that of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. As he prepares his Tigers to face Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, the media have showered him with positive coverage — all of it deserved.
His story truly is amazing. The product of a broken home and an alcoholic father, he was a teenager when his family lost their house to foreclosure. Swinney spent his senior year in high school moving from place to place. During his freshman year at Alabama (yes, he’s playing his alma mater), his mother came with him to campus. She had nowhere else to go. So at an age when most young men are enjoying the time of their lives, Swinney was rooming with his mom, sharing a bedroom in a tiny apartment with another student.
Despite the troubles at home, Swinney walked on to the Alabama football team and earned a scholarship by his junior year. He won a national championship as part of the 1992 team that shocked a seemingly invincible Miami in the Sugar Bowl; not long after, he began a coaching career that ultimately put him at the helm of one of college football’s most storied programs.
Oh, and like many football players and coaches, Dabo Swinney is a devout and outspoken Christian. In 2014 — before he’d established himself as one of college football’s elite coaches — his faith landed him in the crosshairs of one of America’s most malicious anti-religious organizations, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
On April 10, 2014, the FFRF faxed a letter to the office of Clemson’s general counsel in which it complained that “Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program.” The FFRF demanded that Clemson — a public university — not only require Swinney to “cease” his allegedly unconstitutional religious activities but also that it “train” the coaching staff and “monitor their conduct going forwards.”
Specifically, the FFRF claimed that Swinney had invited a man named James Trapp to become a team chaplain and gave him access to the team for Bible studies. They also claimed that Swinney scheduled team devotionals and “organized transportation for coaches and players to ‘Church Days.’”
The FFRF claimed that even optional team religious events violated the Constitution, and that Swinney “sends a message of exclusion to those players on his team not in conformity with his personal religious beliefs.”
#share#At this point, the university’s response was predictable. Surely it would do what virtually every public university does when confronted by far-left, anti-religious complaints: capitulate with all due speed. After all, universities from coast to coast have worked to systematically exclude Christian groups from campus, discriminate against Christian faculty in hiring, promotion, and retention, and they tend to believe that a “diverse” university should include only secular, progressive voices.
But Swinney held firm, and his university backed him. Swinney’s statement was a model of polite conviction. First, he outlined the three simple rules that every player must follow: “(1) Players must go to class, (2) they must give a good effort, and (3) they must be good citizens.” Next, he noted that he’s recruited players “of many faiths.” Then, he made the crucial point:
Recruiting is very personal. Recruits and their families want — and deserve — to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are. I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith.
In other words, Swinney is a Christian, and he’s not going to hide that fact from recruits, their families, or the public.
For its part, the university made it known that there had been no complaints from athletes and that participation in religious activities was “purely voluntary.” The school went even further, declaring that the FFRF had “misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.”
Swinney didn’t yield, the university didn’t yield, and more than a year later, Swinney’s message was clear:
We weren’t doing anything . Ain’t nothing to change. . . . People have just got to be who they are, it’s that simple. We’ve never tried to force anything on anybody. Everybody who comes here to Clemson knows who we are as people. There’s no surprises in that regard.
Football has enormous cultural power, and it’s thus no surprise that some on the left are trying to drive God off the gridiron. Two years ago, they took aim at a young coach on the rise. He stood strong, and today he’s playing for a national championship and college football’s first 15–0 season.
I was born in Alabama, raised in Kentucky, and now live in Tennessee. That means I’m an SEC loyalist through and through. But just this once, I won’t be upset if the hated ACC triumphs. Dabo Swinney is a man of conviction, and his conviction commands respect. The Tide has rolled far enough. Tonight is Clemson’s night.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.