Former Cajuns' AD Terry Don Phillips started this hiring craze on interim head coaches

Glenn Guilbeau
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

NEW ORLEANS — Little did Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips know on Dec. 1, 2008, that he started a trend still ringing more than a decade later when he promoted interim head coach and non-coordinator William "Dabo" Swinney to full-time head coach at Clemson.

Swinney's No. 3 Tigers — 14-0 this season and 29-0 over the last two — will play for their second straight national championship on Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and third since the 2016 season. He has Clemson in the College Football Playoffs for the fifth straight time.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who was also never a coordinator like Swinney, was named interim head coach at LSU on Sept. 24, 2016, when Les Miles was fired after an 18-13 loss at Auburn that dropped the preseason No. 5 Tigers to 2-2. After going 5-2, Orgeron was named the full-time coach on Nov. 26 by then-athletic director Joe Alleva.

Orgeron's No. 1 Tigers — 14-0 this season and 24-3 over the last two — will play Clemson for the national title. 

Clemson's interim head coach Dabo Swinney hugs Tyler Grisham (13) and athletics director Terry Don Phillips after the Tigers beat Boston College on Nov. 1, 2008.

Clemson beat No. 2 Ohio State, 29-23, on Dec. 28 to reach New Orleans. Ohio State is coached by Ryan Day, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to acting head coach at Ohio State in 2017 when coach Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave for three games when an investigation found he enabled assistant coach Zach Smith in domestic abuse of his wife.

After Meyer returned to finish the season, he resigned, and Day was named the permanent head coach by athletic director Gene Smith. Day has taken the Buckeyes to two College Football Playoff appearances.

LSU beat No. 4 Oklahoma, 63-28, on Dec. 28 to reach its first national title game in the College Football Playoff format. Oklahoma is coached by Lincoln Riley, who was an offensive coordinator with the Sooners in the 2017 season before being promoted from within to replace retiring head coach Bob Stoops by athletic director Joe Castiglione. Riley has put the Sooners in the playoffs in two straight seasons.

"That's interesting," Phillips, who retired after Clemson beat LSU, 25-24, in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, said from his home in Clemson on Friday. "Promoting interim coaches used to not be the case."

More:College Football Playoff: LSU vs. Clemson 2020 national title game gambling odds

When he was Oklahoma State's athletic director, Phillips hired Les Miles from a Dallas Cowboys assistant coaching position to be Oklahoma State's head coach after the 2000 season. Miles turned a loser in 11 of the previous 12 seasons into a bowl team for three straight seasons and moved on in 2005 to LSU, where he won the national championship in the 2007 season and reached the national title game at 13-0 in the 2011 season.

When he was Louisiana-Lafayette's athletic director, Phillips hired former LSU quarterback Nelson Stokley from the offensive coordinator post at Clemson to be the Cajuns' head coach after the 1985 season. Stokley had seven winning seasons in 13 years.

And Phillips strongly considered hiring a sitting head coach from elsewhere to replace Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who was let go after his No. 9 team lost, 12-7, to Wake Forest to fall to 3-3 in the 2008 season. Swinney, then a 38-year-old wide receivers coach whose only previous stop was as a receiver and tight end coach at his alma mater Alabama, was promoted to interim coach.

More:LSU vs Clemson: Coach Ed Orgeron's story of redemption in full swing

More:Clemson's Dabo Swinney, LSU's Ed Orgeron are worth more than their catchphrases

Unlike Alleva, Phillips proceeded to conduct a nationwide search and actually interviewed several coaches — then-Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, then-and-now Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, and then-Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who is now Maryland's head coach.

Phillips also considered TCU coach Gary Patterson, then-Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who later was Baylor's head coach, and then-Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who became Florida's head coach and is now South Carolina's head coach.

"But at the end of the day, I kept going back to this little receivers coach," Phillips said. "I didn't know Dabo from Adam's house cat. But I developed a strong affinity for him during the interim period. It's one of those things. If you feel good about somebody on the staff — even if he has not been a coordinator or is very established — there is no reason not to go for it with him."

Phillips athletic director office was separate of the football office, but he would walk through the football office from the parking lot to get to his desk.

Related: LSU's top 10 moments with room for one more

"Invariably, as I walked by before he was interim coach, he was either in staff meeting or had two or three players in his office who were not necessarily wide receivers," he said. "After a while, it became evident that he had a tremendous rapport with the players. Had I not gotten to know Dabo, given his credentials, I wouldn't have hired him."

Swinney's interim season was similar to Orgeron's. He finished 4-2, got the job, then lost to Nebraska, 26-21, in the Gator Bowl.

"It was not a popular hire early on," Phillips said. "Oh yeah, I was criticized. It was a difficult time."

Swinney went 9-5 in his first full season in 2009, but that was followed by a 6-7 mark in 2010.

"If I have to fire you, I'll come help you pack," Phillips said he told Swinney to lighten the mood. "And then you can come help me pack, because I'll get fired, too."

The 2011 team rebounded to go 10-4, though, before it lost to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl by 70-33.

Since 2012, though, Clemson has lost more than two games just once in 2014 when it went 10-3. Starting in 2015, Clemson has gone 69-4 with one national championship game loss to Alabama in the '15 season, a national championship win in the 2016 season and national titles the last two seasons.

"Eight-and-a-half years ago, Terry Don gave me the opportunity to lead this program and let me do it my way," Swinney said after beating Alabama, 35-31, for the national championship on Jan. 9, 2017. "He let me do it the way I felt like we needed to do it."

It was an impulse decision by Phillips.

"Dabo was simply a gut call," he said. "But it was based on seeing him as an assistant. I elevated Dabo based on what I saw him do as a recruiter. Soon, he started bringing in four- and five-star kids who we used to couldn't get to visit. It was one of those things that over a period of time, I had an opportunity to see what kind of a person and coach he was and could be."

Swinney, who had come to Clemson in 2003 as receivers coach before becoming assistant head coach in 2007, also had tremendous knowledge of the program and what it needed, similar to Orgeron, who was recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach in 2015 and part of 2016 before getting the interim post.

"Just because someone hasn't proven themselves at another place or failed there, you don't just cancel them off your punch list," Phillips said. "I think now sometimes you're better off when you have someone already in place as opposed to going across the country for someone you don't know that well."

Phillips doesn't know Orgeron, but when he got the permanent job, he did not see him as much of a risk as Swinney.

"He had significantly more experience when LSU hired him than what Dabo had," he said. "Orgeron also had more age and experience coming in."

Orgeron was 55 when he was named LSU's full-time head coach and had been the head coach at Ole Miss from 2005-07 and was USC's interim head coach in 2013.

"Dabo had some experience, but nothing to hang your hat on like Ed did at USC," Phillips said.

Like Orgeron, Swinney was also out of coaching after a firing or resignation. Orgeron sat out the 1993 season after getting fired at Miami by Hurricanes' head coach Dennis Erickson. And Orgeron sat out the 2014 season after leaving USC when it hired Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian instead of promoting him from the interim head coach position following the 2013 season. Swinney worked in real estate in his native Birmingham, Alabama, in 2001 and '02 after not being retained at Alabama when Mike DuBose was fired and replaced by Dennis Franchione.

"When you're an athletic director, there is no proven formula," Phillips said. "Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. I just felt strongly about rolling the dice with Dabo, and it has worked out pretty well, I'd say."

Naturally, Phillips will be pulling for Clemson against LSU in the "Interim Coach Super Bowl" from his home television Monday night .

"It's going to be an exciting game," he said. "LSU has a great offense. I'd like to say, 'Good luck,' but I'm not going to."