Picking Dabo Swinney’s brain: NBA champs, World Series winners seek out Clemson coach | Clemson

CLEMSON — He looked out of place walking around the Clemson campus on a sweltering summer day. But there was Erik Spoelstra, the Miami Heat head coach who twice led LeBron James and Co. to NBA championships.

He fit right in, just another coach from some corner of the profession committed to mining insight from Dabo Swinney and his “culture.”

What started as a trickle several seasons ago has become a steady stream of requests with Swinney’s Tigers having won two of the last three national championships.

The record — 106-58-1 overall as an assistant coach, 116-30 as a head coach, 15-0 last season, four straight College Football Playoff appearances — is part of the draw. Swinney’s engaging personality is the other.

For high school coaches.

Up-and-coming college coaches.

NFL types.

Major League Baseball managers.

NBA guys.

Most place phone calls.

Others pay their way to Clemson, or they carve out extra time when Swinney shows up on a sideline or in a dugout.

NBA Finals Game 7 (copy)

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (left) talks to a game official during Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Spoelstra is a big fan of Dabo Swinney. File/AP

“Some of my favorite phone calls are when we get on the horn to talk shop about coaching,” said Spoelstra, who made his way from Miami to Pickens County last summer.

Freshly-crowned NBA champion Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors is a fan, too. He met Dabo in May when a Swinney family sports trip included a stop in Ontario.

“We had a great talk about leading and winning,” Nurse said from Australia, where he was coaching Team Canada in exhibition games to prepare for the World Cup in China.

You probably can’t credit Swinney for the Raptors’ unexpected NBA title; maybe Kawhi Leonard had more to do with that.

Then again …

“Dabo said he brought some Clemson mojo for the Raptors,” Nurse said. “We went out and kicked some butt.”

Swinney on the same trip huddled with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon at Wrigley Field. They talked about the odds of bunt success against defensive shifts within the evolving world of baseball analytics.

That’s the thing. Coaches bending Swinney’s ear get smarter, and Swinney soaks up new knowledge, too.

Not like Coke and Pepsi

“I love that,” Swinney said Monday during a break from preparations for Thursday night’s season opener against Georgia Tech at Death Valley. “Any time I get a chance to talk to somebody, I get a chance to learn. I don’t have all the answers.”

But he did get an invite from manager Mike Shildt to talk to the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training.

And he does have an indoor basketball court attached to his year-old Clemson home.

That’s where Swinney and Spoelstra went at it one-on-one.

“He’s not a bad hooper, either,” Spoelstra said. “I beat him at horse on his home court, but he’s worthy competition on the hardwood.”

Coca-Cola, Swinney pointed out, rarely meets with Pepsi.

But coaches love to hang out and gab, even with coaches from other sports.

“You’re dealing with people,” Swinney said. “And you’re dealing with teams. And you’re dealing with challenges that happen within teams. You’re dealing with competition at a high level.”

The Clemson formula, however defined, is spreading.

“I love the fact that we can maybe help other people,” Swinney said, “by how we do things here. And be a good example, a good model, to help other people and other players at different places that I may never meet. I think that’s great.”

Clearly, for some coaches, Swinney’s unusual resume is part of the attraction. He walked on as an Alabama wide receiver. The 49-year-old with an MBA degree took a break from coaching to go into the commercial real estate biz.

He had never been a coordinator when former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips elevated him to head coach in 2008.

Spoelstra and Nurse

Spoelstra, 48, started out coaching a German club team after short overseas playing career. He worked his way up in Miami after joining the team as a video coordinator.

Nurse, 52, bounced around as a low-profile coach from 1989 to 2013. He worked at Northern Iowa, in England, in Belgium and in the NBA’s D-League before catching on as a Raptors’ assistant.

What began as a short Swinney-Nurse exchange in Toronto extended into a 90-minute discussion.

“We found a lot of similarities in our beliefs and in our stories,” Nurse said. “It was an honor to have him there and learn from him.”

Spoelstra keeps in touch.

“Dabo is one of my favorite people in this profession,” he said. “He’s a ‘one-and-only’ personality. I love the way he’s built a positive culture of love and competition at Clemson.”

Just the same, Swinney enjoyed talking about the relentless Raptors, managing expectations that come with LeBron James and National League double-switch strategy.

All of which can help Clemson win more football games.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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