Top-ranked Clemson plays Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl today in the first College Football Playoff semifinal game, and if you know anything about Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, you might wonder if his team has God on its side.
That's because Swinney runs his program in accordance with strict Biblical standards. Like this:
"Ass" means something different in the Bible, and "damming" someone to "hell" isn't exactly the nicest thing in the Biblical context, but forget Swinney's reasoning. Semantics aside, it's clear that the Bible dictates much of the daily life of Clemson's football players. While many teams have prayer groups, Clemson takes religiosity to another level.
In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Clemson coaches pass out Bibles to players and bring them to church in groups. Swinney even baptized a player on the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium in an animal trough in front of the entire team. Swinney says he doesn't discriminate based on religion, but he also knows his style isn't for everyone.
"I'm a Christian," Swinney tells Clemson recruits, according to the Chronicle. "If you have a problem with that, you don't have to be here."
If that sounds like a sentiment more likely to come from the football coach at a private religious school such as Notre Dame than a public university in South Carolina, well, that's where things get tricky. Swinney's overt religiosity raises a thorny question: Should a football recruit really have to avoid a state-sponsored institution because he isn't comfortable with its coach-sponsored Christianity?
In this way, Clemson's program can be culturally divisive, with Swinney a hero or a villain, depending on whom you ask.
On one side of the divide stands the Freedom From Religion Foundation. To them, Swinney is blurring Constitutional lines—the separation of church and state—by making his personal religion something to consider in the recruiting process.
"What we have observed in the records is that the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes," foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott told the Greenville News last year.
"What we'd like to see is the end of this chaplaincy position and end to Bible distributions by coaches, an end to devotionals scheduled and put on by coaches and staff. The coaches need to step back and just coach (football) and not coach in religious matters."
On the other end of the spectrum are people who either don't have a problem with Swinney or find his unapologetic fusion of religion, football, and public education both appropriate and refreshing. If you're the sort of believer who approves of government-funded holiday nativity scenes and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms—or who questions the whole church-state firewall in the first place, at least when it comes to Christianity—then Swinney is creating neither a division nor a distraction. He's simply bringing the word of God to others through his powerful and visible position at Clemson. What's more, he claims his faith is what has allowed him to get to where he is today, rising from a walk-on at Alabama to an "entitlement culture"-slayer who has the Tigers two wins away from a national title.
Big-picture cultural and political questions aside, that's probably the bottom line when it comes to Swinney's status as a quintessential Southern man of faith: so long Clemson keeps winning, he'll have plenty of support, irrespective of his seeming quest to bring Jesus into virtually every part of the school's football program. It's nice to have God on your side; it's a whole lot nicer to beat Oklahoma. In big-time college football, the only real golden rule is render unto Caesar.