Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Former Razorback Phillips helped ignite Clemson run
Clemson University athletic director Terry Don Phillips answers questions about Tommy Bowden's departure from the head football coaching position at Clemson during a press conference in Clemson, S.C., Monday, Oct. 13, 2008. (AP Photo/Patrick Collard)
Preceding a planned interview with Terry Don Phillips, Google was consulted. What would it say about the retired Clemson athletics director?
“I have a pretty good feeling what it said,” Phillips said 30 minutes later. “I don't think I want to go there again.”
Of course, Phillips is the man who hired Dabo Swinney, now the top dog in the college football world with two of the last three national championships under his belt. Swinney coached Clemson to a 44-16 victory over Alabama on Monday night.
It always does my heart good when in the closing seconds of one of these great Clemson victories that Phillips gets another mention as the man who saw great things to promote Swinney from wide receivers coach to head coach. Never a coordinator, the former Alabama walk-on might have been given long odds in Las Vegas to be successful without the usual background to be head coach.
Back to Google, the first page on the search for Terry Don was beautiful. The first story was a short, but factually correct bio from Wikepedia. Second was his retirement story from the official Clemson site. It's worth a read.
The third story was just what I was hoping to find, a roast of Phillips soon after he had named Swinney the coach. SBNation's blog headline: "Terry Don Phillips Must Be Removed as Clemson Athletic Director Immediately."
The lead paragraph by the silly blog writer who called himself DrB: Clemson athletics depends upon it.
It's best to skip that long narrative on SBNation. Go on to the fourth story, hailing Terry Don's induction into the Hall of Honor at the University of Arkansas. There's anecdotes from Terry Don from his playing days, including memories of beating Texas playing side by side with his brother, Loyd.
Loyd, the Outland Trophy winner in 1966, helped in setting up the interview with Terry Don. The brothers from Longview, Texas keep up with each other in almost daily phone calls.
I told Terry Don what I'd found on Google, the SBNation story in particular. That story was published on Nov. 30, 2010. Phillips had named Swinney as Clemson head coach to start the 2009 season, after he finished the 2008 season as the interim replacement for the fired Tommy Bowden.
Dabo Swinney, left, shakes hands with Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips as he is announced as the new Clemson head football coach during a press conference, Monday, Dec. 1, 2008, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
“I read all of those for two years,” Phillips said. “They'd come to my desk. It was bad. All I can say is that our president and trustees had support or both Dabo and I would have been fired in those two years. Really, it was probably those first two, three, four years that was pretty rough.”
In particular, Phillips recalled the 2010 trip back from the post-season game in Charlotte, then the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Clemson lost to South Florida, 31-26, finishing 6-7.
Swinney at the time was 19-15 at Clemson, and 15-13 since his full-time appointment.
“That trip on the plane home, I won't forget that feeling,” Terry Don said. “Pretty rough. But fortunately, our president had confidence in Dabo and me. He said, 'Give them time,' and the rest is history.”
There have been eight straight 10-victory seasons since. The Tigers have gone 14-1, 14-1, 12-2 and 15-0 the last four seasons. They have won the ACC each year and played in four consecutive College Football Playoffs, advancing to the championship game three times.
It was soon after that “rough” plane trip back from Charlotte that Swinney came to Phillips with a plan to revamp the offense.
“He wanted Chad Morris and showed me his credentials,” Phillips said. “Most of it was what he'd done in high school and the one year in Tulsa. Dabo had great confidence in Chad. That was the perfect hire and it was a big thing that turned it for us.
“What Chad did was bring us help both in recruiting and in his coaching. He did great things for us as far as coaching, and the way he built relationships in recruiting. And he was great in our community.”
It's no secret that Phillips was a strong reference both when Morris was hired as head coach at SMU and again at Arkansas last year. Phillips still feels strongly that his alma mater has the right man.
“I did believe he was the right coach at Arkansas,” Phillips said. “I still believe that, but it's going to take time.
“It's the same way it was at Clemson with Dabo, just going to take patience. The administration and fans at Arkansas need to join hands. It wasn't the best of circumstances when Chad got there. That's being nice about it.
“I don't know what happened at Arkansas for it to get that way and it's none of my business. But it's going to take a little while to build it back.”
Some say Arkansas is not Clemson. Phillips disagrees and says the similarities between the two programs are similar in vast ways.
“I can draw all kinds of parallels between Arkansas and Clemson," he said. "It's not farfetched whatsoever. You can recruit to Arkansas. You can recruit to Clemson.
“We have great fans at Clemson. There are great fans at Arkansas. Now at both places, there is always going to be an element that aren't happy unless you are winning a lot.
“I'm just telling you that the worm will turn. I was excited that Arkansas hired Chad. I'll be just as happy with what he's going to accomplish there as what we've done at Clemson. I saw what Chad can do in recruiting and in relationships.
“It is an excellent hire.”
Expect criticism and ignore it, Phillips said.
“The likes of SBNation are not going away,” Phillips said. “I don't think Dabo ever read a word of it. He just went about his business coaching and recruiting. Chad can't pay attention to the negativity. It's always out there.”
Swinney may not have said he read those blogs, but he knew about them. And, he credits Phillips for staying firmly behind him. There's always mention of his former AD when he accepts the bowl trophies, including two national title crowns.
“I just love him,” Swinney said when Phillips retired. “He is a great man, who is a man with class, integrity and he has vision. He is a man with some guts…he had the guts to hire me for this position. It was a special moment when I was able to hand him that ACC Championship trophy in Charlotte.
“What he has done with the facilities in all our sports has been incredible. He has given us a chance to compete at the highest level and has changed the playing field here. We just moved into a new dining facility in the West Endzone and next year at this time we will be in a new Indoor Practice Facility. They ought to name it after him.”
Terry Don Phillips (seated) is shown watching an Arkansas football practice on Sept. 28, 1992, in Fayetteville. Standing is former Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles. Phillips played for Broyles and later was a trusted assistant athletics director in his department. (Photo by Tom Ewart)
I finished the interview with Phillips with a thank you. It was in the spring of 1992 that I went to Frank Broyles to ask about starting Hawgs Illustrated. I was sent down the hall to meet with Phillips, then Senior Associate AD at Arkansas.
“Do it,” Terry Don said quickly, then there was help in gaining traction. He OK'd a mailing to season ticket holders.
As Terry Don likes to say, the rest is history.
Last month as I was changing desks, I emptied a file cabinet with official UA correspondence. In the back was a congratulatory note from Phillips after the first publication of our magazine.
It read he hoped the magazine would have a long life. I reminded Terry Don this week that the magazine was in its 28th year.
About 10 minutes after the phone interview, there was a thank you text from Terry Don for remembering him. He said he “enjoyed” the phone visit and to call again. Oh wow, how can you forget someone like that?
Needless to say, I feel the same way about Terry Don as Dabo Swinney and Chad Morris. SBNation couldn't have been more wrong.
What say you now DrB?
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.