Is Dabo Swinney’s transfer stance crippling Clemson?

Swinney didn’t need transfers to build Clemson into a national powerhouse. But the times have changed and his old-school approach has not. (John Byrum/Getty Images)

There are 134 programs playing FBS college football. Just four of them did not add a single transfer to its roster this offseason.

Army, Navy, Air Force and … Clemson.

Maybe you can spot the outlier.

Transfers have long been part of college football roster building but they took on a pronounced role over the last few years as the NCAA began allowing players to move between programs without having to sit out a season.

Coaches use transfers to fill holes in rosters, add depth and experience, bring in pops of talent and so on. It’s not quite as important as high school recruiting (unless you’re Colorado), but it’s close. Adding 20 players — about the size of a high school recruiting class — is now common.

Even major programs use it strategically to get specific players. Michigan added nine players last offseason to bolster its eventual national title team. Runner-up Washington brought in eight, not to mention quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in 2022.

And yet Clemson, a program that from 2015-2019 went 69-5 and won two national championships, continues to sit it out in the transfer portal era. Not one guy this year after adding just one in 2023 and 2022 and zero in 2021.

Maybe not coincidentally, the Tigers have gone 30-10 the last three seasons, including 9-4 (4-4 in the ACC) in 2023. It was their worst season since 2010.

“Well, it wasn’t really necessarily like an intentional thing,” Coach Dabo Swinney told the ACC Network last week about getting no transfers.

Swinney said Clemson looked at some potential transfers but either couldn’t find a fit or couldn’t win the player over. That’s likely true. That said, transfers are clearly not a priority for him.

He also noted “most” players in the portal aren’t good enough to play for the Tigers. That is also technically true — most guys in the portal are shuffling between schools far worse than Clemson.

That said, there were plenty who are apparently good enough to transfer into Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State, Texas and so on. So “most” isn’t really relevant. There were guys — especially at say wide receiver — who could help.

Swinney’s hesitation to jump all in on transfers comes from an admirable place.

He’s repeatedly explained that he values the players who committed to Clemson and are already in the program. He wants to develop them, elevate them and show them returned loyalty by not just bringing in someone new to take away playing time or opportunities.

“We like our guys,” Swinney said.

He notes that players are treated well at Clemson and the program doesn’t suffer from waves of outgoing players. In turn, the Tigers’ most recent graduation rate was 99 percent, “the highest ever recorded among public Power Five football programs” since the NCAA began tracking the metric.

In a perfect world, this is exactly what you’d want out of a college football coach and program. Player commits to the coach and the coach commits to the player. The team is the team. Everyone gets a degree.

It’s good, old-school stuff. It is reflective of the overarching ethos of Dabo Swinney and one of the reasons he was able to attract so many great recruits and elevate the Clemson program into the national elite in the first place. Dabo has never done anything like everyone else. It worked. But can it still?

This isn’t a perfect world, after all. It’s 2024 and the sport is more cutthroat and competitive than ever. Kirby Smart, Ryan Day, Mike Norvell and every other coach will do nearly anything to gain an advantage and understandably don’t blink at the chance to add talent, depth and experience to their team.

Dabo Swinney's Tigers have lost at least three games each of the last three years. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have lost at least three games each of the last three years. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Swinney is instead trying to beat those teams without not just all the tools at his disposal, but arguably the second most important one. It’s like trying to win Daytona with the parking brake on.

Are you honoring your players by not transferring guys in, or are you just putting them at an unfair competitive advantage by leaving glaring holes in the roster?

Swinney, 54, built the monster at Clemson. The program went two decades without a 10-win season before he made them routine. Still, how long can he glide on past accomplishments?

The fans and the school have become accustomed to competing for national titles and the Tigers haven’t been close to that the last three years.

It’s one thing to have a natural ebb to a program. It’s another to have it while not embracing the new transfer rules that are flattening the competitive balance away from high school recruiting success.

Swinney believes in his way and his guys and his coaches. That’s nice.

There’s a difference between belief in your ideas and obstinance.

Dabo says everything will be OK.

The season — starting in Week 1 against Georgia in Atlanta — will tell plenty about that.


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