College Football Playoffs: Saban, Swinney Pregame Media Conference Transcript

NICK SABAN: First of all, good morning to everybody. I’d like to, first of all, thank Bill Hancock and College Football Playoff staff for creating a great venue, probably one of the best venues in college football relative to players, competition, rewarding teams that have had a great season. The city of Tampa has been a great host here for the couple days that we’ve been here, and we certainly appreciate that.

I know both teams have worked very hard all year and certainly very deserving to have the opportunity to play in this game, and we certainly look forward to it. I appreciate the effort that our team has put in from the very start of the season, all the way through the season, in the off-season, to give themselves an opportunity to have a chance to play in this game against a very good Clemson team.

THE MODERATOR: Coach Swinney, your opening remarks.

DABO SWINNEY: Just congratulate Coach Saban and the University of Alabama for just another great year. I told him back in March we’d see each other in Tampa again, and kind of neat to be here, but what a phenomenal job they’ve done. Really proud of our team to have the opportunity to get back here and it’s been a fun journey, really great leadership all year long, and here we are, this is where we wanted to be, and very thankful for the opportunity that we have. Very appreciative of all the folks who worked so hard to make this a great experience for these young people. This is something that both teams will carry with them forever. It’s a great moment.

Tampa has been awesome. It really has. Some of the people complain about the weather the last day, but hey, we had snow up in Clemson, so it’s been just fine here. This has been great.

Looking forward to a great Monday night of competition, and again, hats off to Bill Hancock and Michael Kelly and the job that they’ve done and really pulling all this together and making it a great overall experience. Looking forward to a great game.

This is to Nick: Do you expect Dabo to maybe pull off any surprise plays against you tomorrow night, maybe perhaps an onside kick or two?
NICK SABAN: Well, look. Dabo does a great job. They have a great coaching staff. They’ve done a great job of recruiting a lot of good players and they’ve done a good job of developing those players, and systematically, what they do on offense, defense and special teams are very, very challenging. And I think that we need to be ready for whatever might happen and whatever the situation might be. But I think even without any new wrinkles, it’s been a very challenging week for us in terms of our team getting ready for what they do because they do a fantastic job.

Q. Dabo, you just said that you told Coach in March that you’d see him here. What did you think you had coming into the season when you looked at your team back before the season began, and what were your concerns and how do you think you’ve overcome them?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, for me, I thought that — we’re a young team. We play about 22 seniors and juniors on our roster. We’re mostly a freshman and sophomore roster. Played a lot of freshmen last year, so I knew we were going to have a very strong sophomore group and the seniors and juniors that we did have were impactful people, incredibly committed to our program, to the way we do things, to the standard in our program, and guys like Deshaun Watson and Ben Boulware and Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Carlos Watkins, Jay Guillermo, these are very impactful leaders, and I could just tell right out of the gate from the very first meeting that we got by that these guys were locked in.

You know, I think they had an experience to draw upon that no other team I’ve had has had as far as what it takes. I was excited about the leadership and the talented young players that might mix in. I knew we had a guy like Dexter Lawrence coming in that I thought may have a chance to help us early. The chemistry that I saw develop in the spring and carry over into the summer, the accountability. So those are things that I was excited about.

But most of all, Deshaun Watson. I mean, I felt like he was the best player in the country coming back, and the type of worker he is and leader, you know, you’ve always got a chance when you can surround a great quarterback with a good cast. You know, the biggest question was whether or not we were going to be able to pull it all together defensively because we did lose seven or eight guys to the NFL.

But I’m proud of these guys because we got it done to get here, and we’re going to try to finish.

Q. Coach Swinney, when we talked this year, you talked last year about the way the bye week and the scheduling was. You came in a tired football team. The bye week and the scheduling this year helped you a little better?
DABO SWINNEY: There’s no question. I really did not like how we finished last year. I appreciate we found a way to win in November, but we were straining to get to the finish line, if you will. We played 10 straight. We were a very top-heavy team. We didn’t have a very good rotation defensively, seniors and then freshmen. The bye week was better. We were not healthy, either, down the stretch. We had a couple guys that didn’t even practice for this game last year, Mackensie and Shaq, and both tried to play. Shaq was able to play and played pretty good, and Mackensie didn’t make it.

But we’re a healthier team, but more importantly, we’ve got more functional football players. We’re competitively built differently from a depth standpoint than we were last year. I think that’s always the position you want to be in as a coach because it just brings a different edge to your meetings, your practice and everything.

Last year we didn’t quite have that, and this year we do. I like where we are as a team, and hopefully we can play our best four quarters tomorrow night.

Q. Coach Saban, having built the kind of program you’ve built at Alabama and knowing Dabo, what have you seen in Clemson the way they’ve gotten back to the title game two years in a row and what you see from them in the future?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think Clemson and what Dabo has done with his program there is one of the top college football programs in the country. They do an outstanding job of recruiting. They do an outstanding job of coaching. They do an outstanding job of developing players. I can’t tell you how much respect we have for the job that they do.

I think it’s reflected in the way they play on the field, the success that they’ve had, the consistency in performance that their team has shown, whether it’s offense, defense, and in every phase of the game. I think this is one of the top programs in the country, and certainly is reflected by the success that they’ve had on the field. It’s no surprise to me that they are where they are relative to last year’s team and this year’s team.

Q. I just have a question for each of you. You usually have very diverse coaching staffs. I was wondering, do you think in the next 10 to 15 years you’re going to see a larger pool of talent since there are so many young black players coming in? Do you think you’ll see a larger pool of talent coming into the coaching ranks, head coaching ranks, and what do each of you do to sort of encourage that and mentor that?
NICK SABAN: Well, we’ve always tried to have programs inherent with our staff relative to creating opportunities for diversity, minorities. I think it’s really, really important that your coaching staff represents and has the role models that a lot of these young men actually need and can be helpful in their development of helping them be successful as people, as students, and as players.

So we have created a lot of positions, and I think sometimes to the point where a lot of administrators say, why do you need all these people, and whether they’re interns, graduate assistants, people that you can develop in the program so that they can gain experience and knowledge and come up through the ranks, I think it’s very important that we make a commitment to that, and where rules are in the NCAA relative to only having four graduate assistants on the field other than your full-time staff makes it a little more challenging to have an opportunity to do that.

But I think it’s really, really important that we all do that.

DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I agree with that. One of the things that I really want for our players is I want them to know that they can come to Clemson and not just score touchdowns and be an All-American on the football field, but they can be an AD at Clemson. They can be an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator. Tony Elliott, who played for me, is our offensive coordinator, and calls the plays, does an unbelievable job, and I think that’s a great message to those guys.

Now, you’ve got to — nobody is entitled to anything. You’ve got to earn it, and it’s the same thing if you look at Jeff Davis, who I always say he’s kind of the Joe Namath of Clemson, if you will. He’s in the Hall of Fame, in the College Football Hall of Fame, captain of the National Championship team, unbelievable guy. He’s in the Ring of Honor. But he’s one of our athletic directors.

His role is critical.

And so I think we have a very diverse staff, and I believe in hiring great people regardless. But I do — I’m very — we have a ton of former players in our organization, a ton, probably 18-plus, and I think that’s a great, great message for our team. And again, same thing, it’s great when you have opportunities, whether they’re GA’s or full-time coaches or player development guys or whatever, but to create these paths for them to grow and nurture them so that they have opportunities to be great coaches or whatever it is their path is in this business.

Q. The turnaround from the semis to the championship this year was two days shorter. What adjustments did you have to make, and how does it compare to a game week during the season?
NICK SABAN: I think that this year’s turnaround was probably a little closer to what a normal regular season would be relative to the number of practice days you have for a game. It’s more challenging preparation that way. But at the same time, I think the routine for the players is probably a little more satisfying. Last year it was a little bit of a tough management with the number of time you had between the season and the first playoff game and then the time we had from the playoff game, and I thought our team was a little bit tired. We played a little bit tired in the game last year, didn’t seem like we had the juice. Maybe we practiced a little bit too much. Maybe it was just a little bit too much for them. Seemed like — seems like this year, because the games were closer together, that that really wasn’t as much of an issue.

DABO SWINNEY: I agree. I thought we had great prep for Ohio State. We actually had a couple extra days built into that schedule, and it just seemed — I think we managed that very well. It was a little bit more of a challenge for us as coaches, because last year we did play on Friday down here in the Orange Bowl, and we just kind of had a day to get back, on Saturday, get situated, and then we had a full day as a staff to get going, brought the players in on Monday. Didn’t really change much for players in that they came back on Monday, but the difference is we played Saturday night, we didn’t get back until between 9:00 and 10:00 Sunday night. Coaches, we had to kind of make the plane our office, if you will, coming back. Players were able to sleep and rest.

But I think it’s been good. I think at this point, less is more. These guys just prepared almost a month for one game, and the biggest thing is getting these guys mentally and physically ready to go.

You study the opponent and you try to put a good plan together, but we pretty much have treated it like a normal week and have tried to be smart with the amount of time we’ve spent on the field.

Q. I wanted to ask both of you about the new agreement between the AFCA and the NFL where a handful of underclassmen are going to be allowed to participate in pro days in the spring. What kind of impact can that have as far as the draft committee providing better draft grades and helping those players maybe make a better decision in the winter when it’s time?
DABO SWINNEY: I’ll give Coach Saban credit for that because he actually called me I guess it was maybe back in the spring, and we actually had a — he put together a conference call of four or five coaches, because there were some issues and some problems, and he can speak to it in more detail. But it was frustrating. It was frustrating when you have a young man that gets a second-round grade and he doesn’t get drafted, or it’s frustrating when you have a guy that gets a seventh-round grade and comes out and goes in the second round. The consistency in the evaluation was an area of concern for us as coaches.

And then from the NFL side, it’s like, well, we don’t have enough time to get the amount of information, so Coach Saban kind of spearheaded that to where, okay, let’s let them come in and do some evaluation as juniors so they have that, and then evaluate those guys throughout the season, because they’re technically not supposed to watch them.

So I think that it’s a good change that hopefully can — it’s sad when you see 100-something guys come out and half or more than half don’t even get drafted and they’re walking away from an opportunity to continue — this is a developmental sport, an opportunity to continue to develop and compete, and the NFL doesn’t like it because now their pool for the next year isn’t as ready.

I give Coach Saban a lot of credit for that.

NICK SABAN: And I think the philosophy here is the more information that the NFL can get on players, the more accurate they can be in evaluation. And I think that players are trying to make a business decision after three years in school, business decision being, where will I get drafted relative to if I stayed in school, where could I develop and get drafted a year from now and have a better opportunity for myself, because once you enter the draft, you can’t improve your draft status. But if you stay in college, you can improve your draft status dramatically.

If you get the right information to start with and you know you’re going to be a first-round pick or a second-round pick that can’t really enhance his draft status that much, then you can make a good business decision.

But when you get misinformation, which there’s probably been too much of, then it makes it difficult for us to give the player the right information, and it makes it difficult for the player to trust that he’s getting the right information wherever it came from, not that he doesn’t trust his coach, but the information that he’s getting may not be accurate.

I think the whole philosophy here is to try to get the right information so people can make good business decisions.

Q. Coach Swinney, talk about your days at Alabama as a walk-on and how that helped make you the man and the coach that you are.
DABO SWINNEY: I always tell everybody, I was a crawl-on. I was one notch below a walk-on. I crawled on the field out there. I had to go through — they didn’t invite me to come out. I had to go through Rich Wingo’s weight room program. But it was an unbelievable experience for me. My very first spring in the fall of ’88, I was in the weight room, and went through this — they’d put us all in jail today, this program. But to get to go out that spring and be a part of the Crimson Tide was unbelievable for me. I mean, grew up in a small town, first one to go off to college, and I was one of those kids that watched the Bear Bryant Show every Sunday, and every time Alabama was on or on the radio, I was listening, fight you in school if you talked bad about them.

It was surreal for me to finally be in the room and to be introduced to the team, guys that I went on to the teammates with and great friends with to this day. So at the time I just wanted to be on the team, and then it was — I just wanted to gain some respect. Then I wanted them to learn my name. Then it was, okay, I want to play. Then I want to get a scholarship. So it just kind of went from there. It was an incredible journey for me to be a national champion my senior year and to be a part of an incredible senior class.

And at that time, Alabama hadn’t won a National Championship — it’s not like now, they win it like every year or every other year with Coach Saban. It had been a long time since Alabama had won a National Championship. And so for my last game, to be the National Championship Game and to do it against Miami was just an incredible moment and something that kind of bonded that group together forever.

You know, it’s amazing. A few of those guys on my staff that were teammates, and a couple of the coaches that were on that staff. So it’s special even to this day.

But a great — and then to have an opportunity to be a GA. Coach Stallings kept me on as a GA and got my masters there and then he hired me full time, so ended up — I went to Alabama as an 18-year-old kid and I left when I was 31. Just an incredible experience.

I wasn’t happy to leave. I was mad at the time. I was not happy. But God had a plan for me, and he knew what I needed. You know, I needed to go. I had never really been anywhere but the state of Alabama, and to have to pack up my family and move to South Carolina, to Clemson, it was great for my family. The grandparents didn’t like me very much taking all the kids away, but it was a great opportunity to kind of have a new chapter and learn different things and be exposed to different things. Now I just finished my 14th year at Clemson. It’s been a blessing all the way through.

NICK SABAN: I’d like to add something to that because I think Dabo has done an outstanding job of managing the situation that he’s in, in a very competitive program that he’s done a great job in. But he has also been very supportive of his teammates that he played with at the University of Alabama, Coach Stallings — you know, Coach Stallings does a lot to try to raise money for Rise. Dabo comes back, we both try to sort of do everything that we can do to support that and help that.

I really appreciate the way he has managed his loyalty to his alma mater, but done a great job at Clemson at the same time, and never seems to be in conflict.

Q. For both coaches, there’s so many distractions and media opportunities in both playoff games. When you walk off of this podium today, what sense of relief will you feel, or how much relief will you feel that the talking for all of the playoff is finally over and you can just go back to your teams and your coaches and finish up your preparations for a bowl game?
NICK SABAN: I don’t know that you really feel any sense of relief. I think that what you do, what the media does, creates a tremendous amount of interest for college football and college football players. And I think that’s what makes this venue a great venue for the competitors and the players that are in the game.

So this is a part of it that sort of goes with it, and it’s an important part of it. So as much as you all think I don’t like the media, I respect what you do and think it’s important that we do a good job of trying to help you do your job because you do a great job for the fans in reinforcing what the players do in creating a lot of interest for our game. Yeah, do we like to focus on the game? Absolutely, that’s what coaches like to do. That’s what competitors like to do.

I don’t really feel any sense of relief. I’m sort of glad to be here.

DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I second that. I like structure. I like structure. I like to be organized. When you get into this, you spend a lot of time with the itinerary, and as long as I know I can kind of compartmentalize, okay, this is what we’re doing right now, and I just believe you try to be great where you are, man. I’m very thankful to be here. I’ll just tell you, I’m not real excited about playing Alabama tomorrow night, but I’m very, very thankful to have the opportunity to be here.

It’s one of the things I try to tell our players, in having been a part — this is my third National Championship experience. We all know how time just — it’s just gone. And I think it’s important that you breathe a little bit and that you enjoy it. Don’t let the pressure of the moment and the situation cause you to lose any pleasure. Have some pleasure, too.

So that’s what I try to do. I just try to enjoy all of it. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to have a team that is talented and been incredibly committed and has worked really hard to be in this position.

I don’t see it as a relief, either. I see it as a privilege.

Q. Dabo, in talking about your experience at Alabama, you just said it’s not like now, they win it every year or every other year with Coach Saban. You’ve said you’re a college football fan and you clearly know Alabama, but can you give a sense of what Nick has accomplished in the history of the game?
DABO SWINNEY: I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean, obviously I grew up, Coach Bryant was a hero of mine, and everybody here knows about Coach Bryant. But with what Coach Saban has done, the amount of championships in the span of time with scholarships, it’s just incredible. I really have no words, because it’s really hard to do. And I just think that that’s a credit to his — you know, it’s just like us, if we can win this thing tomorrow night, it’s not like it’s our final destination, like we just hang up the cleats and walk away. You’re always trying to get better, and that’s what I give Coach Saban credit for. He’s worked really hard — every year is kind of that season of its own and you have your challenges, and it’s a journey of its own.

But to be able to regroup and create that edge and meet those challenges, continue to manage your staff and your roster and compete at the highest level, I mean, it’s just unbelievable what has happened.

You know, he came there, obviously Alabama was kind of in a state of flux when he got there — almost went with him, actually. But he has brought a system and a philosophy, and it didn’t take him long to get it in place. But he’s changed college football. I mean, he really has been a pioneer and changed a lot of the way things are done in college football, in building infrastructure, which I think are great, because now you have young people that have lot more resources. They have a lot more people trying to help them be successful.

Just incredible the run that they’ve had, no question.

Q. Nick, if you had your pick of any team to play in the championship game tomorrow, would Clemson maybe be the last team you’d want to play?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think that based on competition, competitors, you want to play — you should expect to play the best team. If you’re going to compete for a championship. And I think certainly think that Clemson deserves to be here, and I think they’re the best team, and I think our team deserves to be here, and they’ve done a great job all year to beat a lot of good teams to have the opportunity to get here, as well.

If I was going to pick who the two best teams are, I would say the two best teams are here. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way a playoff should be.

And I think if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. I think that probably goes both ways for both teams. So we’re excited about the challenge that we have to play against a great team that has great players, and we know we’re going to have to be our best as football players to have a chance to be successful against them.

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Thomas Derlan worked directly in the online casino industry for a number of years as an affiliate manager at a large online casino and writes about the global gambling industry for Rouletters.com