CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he had issues to hash out with ex-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, even if the Tigers hadn’t surrendered a record 70 points in their embarrassing loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
“This was just a case of more where we’re going and being 100 percent on the same page with each other,” Swinney said Friday.
And after a face-to-face meeting Thursday, Swinney said he and Steele shook hands and agreed change had to occur. So Steele left after three seasons and will receive at least the $1.35 million buyout his contract calls for, Swinney said.
The coach said he has gotten plenty of interest in Clemson’s vacancy and has had some preliminary phone calls about the position. He would not identify potential candidates and says he’s got no timetable for choosing Steele’s replacement.
Swinney praised Steele for his effort and skill at helping Clemson achieve its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 20 years this past fall. However, Steele’s defense had slipped from among the game’s top 25 in total yards and points given up his first two years to yielding more than 29 points a game – 81st in the country – this fall.
Swinney said he didn’t fire Steele and that Steele did not resign. The two talked last Saturday and then Swinney stepped back to evaluate the defense and whether he could go forward with Steele in charge defensively.
“The change was more philosophical differences, bottom line,” the coach said. “Our conversation? I’m just going to tell you that we both agreed that change was good.”
That certainly worked with Clemson’s offense a year ago. The Tigers were 6-7 in 2010, their first losing year since 1998, and Swinney then changed offensive coordinators. He dismissed coordinator Billy Napier and replaced him with Chad Morris, whose high-flying attack led the Tigers to the conference title and a school record for points scored. Swinney’s seeking the same home run he hit with Morris’ hire. The head coach said he wants Clemson to keep the attacking style it had under Steele – Clemson had the ACC sacks leader the past two seasons with Da’Quan Bowers in 2010 and Andre Branch this season.
“I think Kevin Steele is a great coach, a great coordinator,” Swinney said. “He and I just have some differences of opinion and as the leader of the program that’s not good from a moving forward standpoint.”
Swinney said he didn’t expect any other staff shakeups, no matter the Internet chatter about offensive line Robbie Caldwell or strength and conditioning coach Joey Batson. Swinney was upset with chat-room posts, calling the Internet “a devil’s playground.”
Swinney also used the hour-long meeting with media, the coach’s first since the 70-33 Orange Bowl defeat, to remind Clemson fans about the program’s success the past three years. Trophies from Clemson’s ACC title and its two ACC divisional wins stood nearby the lectern and Swinney kept gesturing to the hardware the Tigers had accumulated since he was named fulltime coach after the 2008 season.
He said the disappointment of the bowl blowout will linger for some time.
“It was a really poor performance,” Swinney said. “As I step back from it, I can’t let the disappointment from a terrible night lose sight of the special things we did this season.”
Swinney told the same thing to his players Thursday night at a team meeting. They’ll celebrate the school’s first conference championship since 1991 at a banquet Saturday.
He is confident the defense would improve as will Clemson’s program overall.
“I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever after three years that we can become the dominant team that this conference has needed,” Swinney said. “That’s my goal and that’s what I believe.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is Clemson football is back and we’re not going anywhere.”