Dabo Swinney and Justin Fuente: two paths finally intersect

Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire

Add this to the many reasons to applaud Dabo Swinney’s success as Clemson’s football coach: He knows how to find offensive coordinators.

Five years ago he searched for a new offensive coordinator. He narrowed his finalists to three and brought two to campus for two days of interviews.

One was Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris. He’s now the head coach at SMU and still ascending as one of the leading candidates for the Baylor job.

Another was TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente. He’s now the head coach at Virginia Tech, a coveted job he landed following his success as Memphis’s head coach from 2012 to 2015.

Swinney admits he was leaning toward Morris for the 2011 hire, or else he would have hired Fuente, but history tells us he couldn’t go wrong.

The almost-mentor and almost-pupil intersect again in the ACC Championship Game Saturday in Orlando. Swinney and the ACC Atlantic champion Tigers (11-1) seek their second-straight conference title and a berth in the College Football Playoff against the ACC Coastal champion Hokies (9-3).

“Obviously, we ended up hiring Chad, but (Fuente) and I became friends,” Swinney said in an ACC teleconference call.

“We kept in touch, and the next year he got the Memphis job, and kind of stayed in touch in that regard. I would shoot him an encouragement text from time to time or he might send me one.

“We talked a little bit about some recruiting. We had a couple players we had recruited here and for whatever reason they looking for another place to go, so I reached out to him a couple different times on a couple different players that had opportunities to go and play for him.”

It’s worth noting that Morris and Fuente were both eager to join Clemson’s staff, even though at the time Swinney had yet to establish himself as a respected head coach. Swinney was coming off a 6-7 record in his second full season as a head coach upon replacing Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season.

They must have seen a bright future in Swinney and Clemson.

Morris stayed with Swinney from 2011 to 2014 before he took the SMU job. Clemson went 10-4 in 2011 to claim Swinney’s first ACC title. The Tigers were 11-2 in both 2012 and 2013 and 10-3 in 2014.

Swinney said he was interested in Fuente after the Tigers lost at home to TCU (14-10) in 2009, and after noting that Fuente developed TCU quarterback Andy Dalton into an NFL prospect. The 2010 Horned Frogs went 13-0 with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Dalton is a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Swinney made some calls to people he trusted for background on Fuente. He heard what he wanted to hear and contacted him for an interview.

“My wife and I came down and spent a day and a half,” Fuente said in a separate ACC teleconference call. “I really enjoyed Coach Swinney and his wife’s company. I was very impressed with him and just his personality. Obviously I didn’t really know him, but I really enjoyed the conversation.”

Once Morris left for SMU and Fuente was already at Memphis, Swinney again made a good hire. This time he promoted from within, splitting the job of co-offensive coordinator between Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Scott’s focus is the wide receivers and Elliott the running backs.

“Obviously they’re very talented and very well-coached,” Fuente said.

“Coach Swinney, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s done a fantastic job down there. They have athletes all over the field on both sides of the football, and they play together. They’ve been in some close ballgames and found a way to win them, and obviously came darned close to winning the whole thing last year.”

Now Swinney and Fuente meet again, but from opposite sidelines.

Follow Tom Shanahan of FanRagsport.com on Twitter @shanny4055.

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