Note: The following appears in the Florida State football gameday program.
Dabo Swinney was born Nov. 20, 1969, just two days before Frank Howard coached his last game leading the Clemson program. Entering today’s game with Florida State, Swinney is just two wins away from equaling Howard’s school record for career wins.
It is obvious to deduce that Swinney is about to break a record that has lasted his entire life, almost to the day.
The two mentors have a few things in common. The most striking is that they are both graduates from Alabama. Howard was from the class of 1931. He was a lineman leader of the Crimson Tide’s 1930 team that won the Rose Bowl with a 24-0 win over Washington State. Swinney was a member of the Alabama graduating class of 1993 and was a team leader of the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl championship team of 1992, a club that won the national title with an upset win over top-ranked Miami (Fla.).
Technically, both came to Alabama as walk-ons. Howard matriculated thanks to an academic scholarship from The Birmingham News, and Swinney was a walk-on who watched games from the stands as a freshman.
Howard grew up in Barlow Bend, Ala., and Swinney in Pelham, Ala. Their homes as youths were about a 165-mile drive apart, the same number of victories Howard posted in his 30 years running the Tiger program. At some point this year, they will both have 165 victories.
Entering this season, they are also tied in the Clemson recordbook for the most conference championships, having contributed a combined 16 of the 27 in Tiger history. Howard took Clemson to Southern Conference crowns in 1940 and 1948, then ACC championships in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1965, 1966 and 1967.
Swinney’s eight ACC championships have occurred in the last 12 years, winning titles in 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022. Howard was the second ACC coach to win three titles in a row (including shared titles), and Swinney was the second to win six in a row (including shared titles).
In addition to Swinney approaching Howard’s figure for Tiger wins, a victory today would tie Howard’s Clemson record for conference regular-season victories in a career. Howard was 100-48-5 in SoCon games and ACC games combined between 1931-69, and Swinney enters today with a 99-20 ACC regular-season record.
When we come to the end of this season, Howard will still have one career record that will take Swinney a number of years to catch. Howard had 72 wins on opponents’ home fields, and Swinney has 50 at this point in the season.
That stat leads to one of the underrated aspects of Howard’s win total. Howard was also the athletic director, and balancing the athletic budget was one of his important jobs. That meant he had to take his Tigers on the road to help the balance sheet.
Clemson played at Georgia Tech nearly every year he was the Tiger head coach. Only his friendship with Bear Bryant enabled the Crimson Tide to play a four-game, home-and-home series with Alabama during the final four years of Howard’s career.
Howard coached only 38 percent of his 295 games as Clemson’s head coach at home.
Howard also suffered from an overall record standpoint from the ACC’s “800 rule” of the 1960s. That rule stated that no ACC school could give an athletic scholarship to a prospect who had an SAT score less than 800. As a result, schools in other conferences, especially the SEC, had huge recruiting advantage over Clemson. In the decade of the 1960s, the Tigers had an 0-17 record against SEC foes.
Swinney’s 163-40 record entering today’s game includes 40 victories over top-25 teams, double any other Clemson coach in history. His 13 top-25 seasons (in just 14 full seasons) is also nearly double that of any other Tiger head coach.
There is no doubt that Swinney will surpass Howard’s victory total later this year. Entering 2023, Swinney’s 161-39 record computed to an 80.5 winning percentage, best among active FBS coaches (even Nick Saban). To put it in further perspective for the long-time college sports fans, John Wooden’s career winning percentage as a college basketball coach was 80.4.
All those records are impressive, but Swinney would be the first to tell you that he could not have accomplished these feats without the foundation of the program that was set by “The Bashful Baron of Barlow Bend.”