Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

COLLEGE FOOTBALL ; KEEPING THE FAITH; Coach Dabo Swinney Helps Merge Religion and Football at Clemson

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

COLLEGE FOOTBALL ; KEEPING THE FAITH; Coach Dabo Swinney Helps Merge Religion and Football at Clemson

Article excerpt

CLEMSON, S.C. - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney pats Howard's Rock and then leads his team down the hill into a hyped Memorial Stadium. There are few pregame rituals in college football as recognizable as the Tigers' blood-pumping entrance. But before Death Valley becomes one of the most raucous sites in sports, it falls as quiet as church while a prayer is said by a local religious leader over the public address system.

Faith and football go together at Clemson, as they do at many universities. Here, though, where Swinney's devotion to Christianity is a pronounced part of his and the team's identity, may be one of most prominent displays of religion at a public university.

"As a Christian I hope a light shines through me, Swinney said. "I don't want to be persecuted for that and I don't try to persecute somebody else because they have different beliefs.

The convergence of religion and football has its critics. There has been scrutiny - and a re-examination of rules - for how Christianity has been interwoven into the program at Clemson.

Swinney said his faith has helped build a culture that is the foundation for the team's success. The top-ranked Tigers enter the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 against Oklahoma in search of the school's first national title since 1981.

"I try to be who I am. I try to be transparent. I try to live my life in a way that I hope is pleasing to my maker, Swinney said. "As a program, we try to challenge these guys to be the best that they can be every day.

Swinney was raised in a family with divorced parents. He said he went to church when his mother dragged him there. In high school, when he was searching for guidance, Swinney found his way to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The turning point was an FCA talk by one of his idols, former Alabama wide receiver Joey Jones, who is now the head coach at South Alabama.

"I thought he was going to talk about touchdowns and all the money he made playing for the Falcons and for the USFL Stallions, Swinney said. "All he talked about was his faith in Christ and his relationship there. If you're not saved and you want to be saved here's what you have to do. I realized I wasn't saved.

"Joey Jones led me to the Lord that night.

Swinney dismisses any suggestion that he and his staff cross the divide between church and state, and Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said a review by the school in 2014 supported his coach. Radakovich points out careful guidelines are followed and the pregame invocation is submitted to school officials for approval before it is read on Saturday.

"People who are doing this, they live in today's world and they know and understand that this is a unique, special honor for them to be able to do that and they understand what the audience is and what the law of the state is, Radakovich said.

While Swinney said his program is welcoming to all, there is no doubt it has a strong attraction for those who have similar beliefs to the man in charge.

"I know for me personally, I'm a Christian, and I don't have to be somebody different whenever I come into work, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said.

All-America quarterback Deshaun Watson, a cross hanging from the chain he wears around his neck, said his faith played a small part in his deciding to attend Clemson. …

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