Among all of the things that decorate Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s office is a 13-year-old photo.
An interim head coach at the time, Swinney recorded his first-ever win as a head coach after the Tigers beat Boston College, 27-21, on Nov. 1, 2008 in Newton, Massachusetts. To commemorate the victory, a photo was taken with him and the team. Wide receiver Tyler Grisham and running back CJ Spiller were among those players in the picture.
Since then, both have traded in their jerseys for a different kind of uniform as coaches.
Grisham became Clemson’s full-time wide receivers coach in 2020, while Spiller, a 2021 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, earned the job as the team’s running backs coach this year. He spent the 2020 season doing an unpaid coaching internship with the program.
“I’ve known him since ‘05, or something like that,” Swinney said of Spiller. “You know him just as this young kid, now he’s lived his dream and accomplished all his goals and got his college degree, gone off, lived a life and he wants to come back. He’s passionate about what he’s doing now.”
Clemson’s football staff is full of former players. Four of the 10 on-field assistant coaches are Clemson alum, including offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter. Swinney estimates there are 22 former players working for the program in some capacity, whether as an assistant coach or as part of the support staff.
It’s no coincidence that it’s worked out that way. From the moment the athletes step onto the campus, the goal isn’t just to win championships and have winning records. It also includes being prepared for life after the final down and when the stadium lights go out for the last time.
“From Day One, coach Swinney’s been about graduating our players, equipping them with tools for life, making sure they have a great experience and winning a championship — and equipping them with tools for life means they’re prepared for what’s next,” said Elliott, who played for the program and graduated in 2002.
Not every one of Swinney’s players goes into coaching, but the ones that do have a place in which they can get their start, if needed. Grisham and Spiller opted in.
“They’re so invested, so I love the perspective they bring,” Swinney said, “and they’re passionate about Clemson and they’re passionate about the philosophy of our program. So it’s great. You sit there and see Thomas Austin, who was a captain for me. Tajh Boyd, who was a captain for me. … We’ve got all these guys, Cole Stoudt — it’s a special group all across the board and a blessing to be able to watch them grow and see them put the work in each and every day.”
More than just providing the opportunity, Swinney has fostered an environment where players want to come back and coach. Spiller took an unpaid coaching internship with the Tigers in 2020 before being promoted to the running backs coach in February.
His time at Clemson had such an impact on him that when it was time to pursue the career, there’s no other place he could’ve imagined getting his start. In many ways, Clemson reminded him of his hometown of Lake Butler, Florida.
“The people here make it so special, and I think that’s what makes people come here and stay here and want to live here even when they’re done playing,” Spiller said. “I think it’s just the people here, how well they treat you. They treat you like a family member because it is a family.”
That’s why when it came time for the former Tigers running back to start fall camp, it was an easy transition.
Boyd, a former quarterback for the Tigers, is now in a similar position as Spiller was last year where he has taken an offensive player development position as part of the team’s support staff this season. He’s been helping out wherever needed since camp began in early August. Having that perspective, along with Spiller’s, is one of the Tigers’ greatest advantages.
“It’s a reminder to me to continue to strive every single day because I was here with Tajh,” Elliott said. “I didn’t play or coach with CJ, but I was here with Tajh, and Hot Rod McDowell and (support staff member) Artavis Scott. I was heavily involved in his recruiting process so it’s so cool to see these guys back and that’s really what the program is all about, is about building men and now these guys are men.
“They’re 30, 34 years old. They have families. They’re very accomplished in other arenas and now, they’re back in a position to give back to the program, so it’s pretty cool.”