When a reporter in July last year asked Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney to discuss his faith, Swinney chuckled and said that it was the easiest question of the day.
Over two minutes, Swinney invoked Jeremiah 29:11 and stressed that when he meets his maker one day, he “won’t pat me on the back and tell me how many wins I had.”
Before Swinney assumed the program in 2008, Clemson was a middling college football team, but over the past four years, the Tigers have won two national titles and are currently ranked No. 1.
Think of Clemson like Manchester City if Pep Guardiola invoked Catholicism as a tactic to lure the world’s top young players.
Through masterful recruiting, savvy hiring and major financial investment in facilities, Swinney constructed an empire.
Swinney does not shy from emphasizing how his Christian faith guides his life and his work.
That publicity has inspired a fandom from US Christians and drawn the ire of watchdog groups that find his methods to be breaches of the First Amendment of the US constitution.
In 2014, the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Freedom From Religious Foundation submitted a letter of complaint to Clemson voicing “constitutional concerns about how the public university’s football program is entangled with religion” and citing Swinney as a chief violator of separation of church and state.
The most visible example was when Swinney invited a local Baptist preacher named Perry Noble to perform baptisms of wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at practices in 2012.
“I think coaches should use anything that is positive and inclusive to support the team” said Texas Southern University professor Yoruba Mutakabbir, who coauthored Religious Minority Students in Higher Education. “The problem is when it is exclusive to one religion.”
Where some academics and nontheists see brazen constitutional violations from coaches who profess their faith as a way to help grow young college students, those involved with college football see a savvy strategy in the ruthless game of recruiting teenagers.
Every year, a college program has a set number of scholarships vacated by players who either graduated or left the team. Those scholarships are then awarded to high-school or junior-college players who choose to attend the university.
To secure a commitment from a top player, a coach must convince a player and his family that he will compete for playing time, receive a college degree and be supervised by a responsible coaching staff.
When a coach can cite his faith as a guiding principle to a religious family, it is often the parents who are convinced more than the player himself.
“When you recruit in the [US] south, a coach can use Christianity as a weapon,” CBS Sports Network lead college football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said.
However, where there is high-stakes competition, there is corruption that can undermine the Christian faith that so many coaches profess.
Former University of Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze was arguably the most public advocate of his Christian faith, but he was eventually forced to resign after the school discovered he made telephone calls from a university phone to an escort service.
The calls were part of a pattern of breaches — cash transfers and academic impropriety among them — committed under Freeze’s watch.