April 24, 2009

By Adam Caparell

Dabo Swinney is relatively new to the whole head coaching thing so Clemson’s young leader felt like he could learn a thing or two before spring practice started. So he decided to take a crash course from one of the game’s most respected coaches.

And just for good measure, he took his entire staff with him.

Austin, Texas was the sight for a meeting of the minds in early March as every Clemson coach accompanied Swinney for a few days of intensive learning under Mack Brown and the rest of the Longhorns staff.

While some fans shudder at the idea of their school exchanging ideas and talking strategy with another team, head coaches and their staffs visiting another campus to discuss a little football is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably happening more than ever before.

Schools like Texas, West Virginia, Florida and plenty of other high profile programs have played host to schools for years as coaches look to increase their football knowledge with off-season summits.

“We have a lot of people visit each spring and a lot of coaches do across the country and we always enjoy it,” Brown said. “They come and watch us practice and we usually spend and take time and visit with them and we usually do get some ideas.”

Florida has become one of the most popular destinations thanks to Urban Meyer’s two BCS Championships over the last three years. He and the Gators have even hosted NFL staffs (most notably the Patriots) to study the spread offense while West Virginia was always a popular off-season destination for coaches from all levels of football when Rich Rodriguez was there. Rodriguez would welcome anyone interested in learning the Mountaineers’ spread – from the FBS down to the high school level – and sharing a little strategy of their own.

“There were a lot times, especially the last couple of years when we were at West Virginia, that a lot of different college staffs and high schools staffs would come and talk some football and share,” said Rodriguez, now entering his second season as Michigan’s head coach. “A lot of fans would get nervous and wonder why would you share? Really you were just talking general football and some schemes. It’s not really anything coaches wouldn’t pick up if they studied enough film.”

More than anything, the get-togethers stoke the creative process.

“We found it invaluable not only for us to develop those relationships with coaches and trading ideas, but to get some new ideas,” Rodriguez said. “You’d get a bunch of coaches come in running a similar scheme and all of the sudden one comes up with an idea that may work for both schools.”

That was certainly the case for Clemson the first week in March as the Tigers learned some of the nuances of the Texas offense and defense. Swinney said he “picked up two or three things” that will help the Tigers this season, but neither he nor Brown would elaborate on what they were.

“I was really looking at their program as a whole, first of all,” Swinney said. “From a head coaching standpoint, I wanted to go somewhere and take the staff somewhere where I feel like they’re doing a great job. I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Brown. I’ve followed him since he was at North Carolina. He won at North Carolina and he’s won big at Texas.”

The Clemson-Texas connection might puzzle some, but it made perfect sense on several levels. The two schools feature similar offensive and defensive principles and both staffs are very familiar with each other.

“We were really able to bring back some things, protection wise offensively. And defensively, they’re an attack type defense just like we want to be,” Swinney said. “It was a very productive trip for everyone involved and I think we got a lot out of it.”

But no one got more out of it than Swinney. He holds Brown in very high regard and has looked on from a distance as Brown built up two programs; first at North Carolina and then at Texas where he led the Longhorns to a BCS Championship in 2005.

More than anything, Swinney just wanted to pick Brown’s brain. And he did.

“I was interested in visiting with him on some of the things he did when he took over (at Texas), in getting people to believe and change the culture and things like that,” Swinney said. “From a head coaching standpoint, it was a great, great experience for me because here is one of the most successful guys out there. It was almost like sitting down and having the CliffsNotes of coaching 101, sitting down with Coach Brown.”

Swinney took about six pages of notes devoted strictly to head coaching strategy as he looks to put his stamp on Clemson entering his first full season at the helm. 

But rest assured Longhorns fans, Swinney did not return with any Texas state secrets he can turn over to Oklahoma. There’s a fine line when it comes to these visits and coaches aren’t going to let someone just thumb through the entire playbook, especially considering how much movement there is every off-season in today’s game.

“I think you have to be limited,” Rodriguez said. “Our profession, sometimes coaches move around and you don’t want to share too much with people you’ll play to give them a little bit of an edge. You always hold some things back, but I expect each and every spring that our coaches will enhance themselves through professional development. Whether it’s visiting with pro guys or college guys or high school guys – whatever – I would expect each member of the staff, myself included, to try and increase our knowledge each year.”

Woody Hayes would rather have donned maize and blue than opened up his playbook to outsiders – the former Ohio State coach wouldn’t even let broadcasters preparing for games take a peak. But many of the old school ways just don’t cut in today’s game and the off-season visits have become an integral part of the spring for many.

If Rodriguez can turn around the Wolverines and establish his spread offense yet again, expect coaches to start flocking to Ann Arbor every winter. Brown isn’t going to close the doors at Texas anytime soon and considering how much Swinney got out of his visit; chances are the Clemson coaching staff will be making a few more trips. And before you know it, they could be hosting.