Religion, game converge at Clemson
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.
"But it was a part of it, of course, knowing that my coach is a man of God," Watson said.
Former Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly played for the Tigers when Swinney was receivers coach and when he first became head coach in 2008. Kelly, a Jehovah's Witness, said he didn't feel comfortable going to church with the team or taking part in Bible studies and it was never a problem.
"You just knew that that's something that was important to him. It wasn't something he hid or shied away from. You knew it up front, but it was nothing that he ever forced on us and made us feel like we had to do that," Kelly said.
Swinney did not bring Christianity to Clemson football. In fact, in some ways it is what led him to Clemson. His predecessor and first boss at Clemson, Tommy Bowden, was also a devout Christian. When Bowden offered Swinney the job as receivers coach in 2003, they both agreed to pray on it before he accepted.
Clemson's at-times overt displays of Christianity — including a player being baptized after practice with coaches and teammates watching — drew the attention of the nonprofit watchdog group Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2014.
FFRF sent a letter of complaint to Clemson, saying the football program promotes Christianity in a way that violates constitutional guidelines.
An attorney for Clemson responded to the complaint, writing the foundation "misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law."
Radakovich said after receiving the complaint the university called on its legal counsel to ensure policies were being followed.
"In that review, we found that we were," Radakovich said.
Radakovich said Swinney and his staff did not need to change their practices, but the review was an opportunity to provide some clarification as to what is a mandatory team activity.
"We go back and make sure in this particular case that voluntary is there. Where it may have been understood before and spoken you don't want to have a team sheet, a calendar or other pieces of paper out there that says this activity without that word there, even though it's understood," Radakovich said. "Saying what we mean, I think is real important to be able to go through."
Another report by the Freedom From Religion Foundation earlier this year cited football programs at 25 universities, including Clemson, most of the Southeastern Conference, Florida State, Wisconsin and Washington, as employing team chaplains in ways that are inappropriate for public schools.
"One of the problems with a program like this at a public school it's not just those who participate in it but those who are excluded from it," said Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for FFRF. "If I were an atheist player I would not go to Clemson University."
Radakovich doesn't necessarily see that as a problem.
"You're not drafted to Clemson," he said. "You have choices and you choose to come and go to this academic institution and you choose to play for these coaches."
As for Swinney, he hopes to build more than winning football teams, but he also knows that wins and losses determine whether he stays employed.
"We're going to play the best football players. We don't play the best Christians. I can assure you that," he said. "We probably wouldn't have five 10-plus win seasons if that was the standard."