Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente will be on opposite sidelines in Saturday’s ACC Championship game, but they were almost much closer than that.
Then the offensive coordinator at TCU, Fuente was a finalist in 2011 when Swinney was looking for a young and innovative coach to direct the Tigers’ offense.
“I really had kind of done my homework and research kind of independently, and then confirmed it with some people that I trusted, and I kind of got it down to three guys, and Chad Morris and Justin were the top two that I wanted to actually bring in and meet with and then kind of go from there,” Swinney recalled this week.
“I just had a lot of respect for the job he had done and watched him closely.”
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Swinney eventually hired Morris, and Fuente earned his first head coaching job at Memphis, turning around a program that had gone 5-31 in the previous years. The Tigers were 7-17 in his first two seasons, but then 10-3 in 2014, including a double-overtime victory against BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl, and 9-3 in the 2015 season.
That team also went to a bowl game, but Fuente was already on his way to replacing Frank Beamer, the winningest active coach in the game, with the Hokies.
The interview process at No. 3 Clemson (11-1; No. 3 CFP) created the foundation for a friendship.
“We just got along well,” Fuente said of his day-and-a-half in Clemson. “I mean, we certainly didn’t spend two days talking about how he runs his program. I mean, we talked a little bit about offensive football, but I just enjoyed being around him, enjoyed having conversations about different ways to do things.”
The coaches now exchange occasional text messages and spend time together at ACC coaches’ meetings.
“I would shoot him just an encouragement text from time to time or he might send me one and then we talked a little bit about some recruiting,” Swinney said. “I had a couple players that had an opportunity that we had recruited here and for whatever reason was 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.”
On Saturday night, Swinney’s Tigers will be looking to not only claim their second consecutive ACC championship, but preserve their spot in the College Football Playoff against a four-time ACC champion back on the rise.
The Hokies (9-3; No. 23 CFP) had to win their final game three times in Beamer’s last four seasons to achieve the six victories needed to ensure an bowl opportunity, but they had no such concerns with Fuente taking over this season, installing his up-tempo offense and retaining longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster to guide the defense.
“For them to be back in the championship game, I think, is just an incredible accomplishment,” Swinney said, “and I knew when they hired him that it wouldn’t take long for him to get them back to this point.”
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