Garrett Riley was a successful coordinator at TCU. Why he couldn’t say no to Clemson

DAWSON POWERS/Special to The State

Dabo Swinney was weighing one of the bigger decisions of his coaching career, and he needed advice. So he phoned a coaching buddy: Southern Cal’s Lincoln Riley.

It was early January, and after a disappointing Orange Bowl loss Swinney was re-evaluating Clemson football’s offensive coordinator. Was Brandon Streeter still the right man for the job? Did he need to make a change?

Swinney called Riley, someone he knew would “shoot me straight and speak in confidence,” to talk about the looming decision and get his thoughts on three or four potential candidates. One of them just happened to be his little brother.

TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, at that point, was knee deep in preparation for the national championship game against Georgia. But in speaking with Lincoln, Swinney said Tuesday, “I found out there might be some interest.”

“Then I kinda put a hold on everything and just said, ‘Well, I’ll wait til after this game and I’ll reach out and go from there,’ ” Swinney said. “And that’s what we did.”

That was the first of many dominoes to fall in a program-altering sequence of events that saw Swinney — one of college football’s biggest proponents of internal hires — fire Streeter after one season on Jan. 12 and formally replace him a day later with Garrett Riley, TCU’s star OC.

The 33-year-old Riley, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2022, is widely considered one of the sport’s top young offensive minds and will be paid accordingly, with an annual base salary of $1.75 million that ranks third nationally among offensive coordinators.

Riley doesn’t make decisions lightly, he said Tuesday at his formal introductory news conference, and someone who needed a lot of boxes checked before moving his family from Texas to South Carolina after “one of the funnest years I’ve ever had as a coach” at TCU.

And Clemson checked all of them.

The hiring timeline

Swinney and Riley had their first formal phone conversation on Tuesday, Jan. 10, the night after Georgia beat TCU 65-7 in the national championship game. The call lasted at least 90 minutes, Swinney said, and further conversations between the two bled into Wednesday.

As talks accelerated, Swinney said he also consulted with starting quarterback Cade Klubnik and 2023 QB signee Christopher Vizzina — the two players who’d be most affected by a staff change, since Streeter was also their quarterbacks coach and lead recruiter.

By Thursday, Jan. 12, Swinney had a final decision, a staffing change he felt Clemson needed to get back to the College Football Playoff after missing two in a row and finishing 11-3 in 2022.

That’s the same day he met with Streeter and informed him of his termination, he said. Streeter had spent a combined 15 seasons at Clemson as a quarterback, graduate assistant and, since 2014, a full-time assistant.

Swinney had promoted Streeter to the offensive coordinator position in December 2021 to replace now-Virginia coach Tony Elliott. At the time, Swinney said he’d interviewed no external candidates for the job and made the decision to hire Streeter in “30 seconds.”

Just over a year later, Streeter became the first assistant coach to be fired by Swinney since former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele after the 2011 Orange Bowl. Swinney reiterated Tuesday that Streeter “absolutely deserved and earned the opportunity to lead our offense.”

“But I just felt like it was the right time,” Swinney said. “We weren’t quite where we needed to be. These are hard decisions, especially when you love the people that are involved.”

A ‘whirlwind’ first month

Swinney described Riley as a “great fit” for him as a head coach and for Clemson’s offense, personnel-wise. He’ll be tasked with unlocking the full potential of Klubnik, a talented sophomore who unseated DJ Uiagalelei as starting quarterback late in the 2022 season.

In his lone season at TCU under coach Sonny Dykes, Riley helped the Horned Frogs jump from No. 65 to No. 9 nationally in scoring offense and helped one-time backup quarterback Max Duggan develop into the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

TCU also averaged a sizable 193.3 rushing yards per game en route to a 13-2 record and a Fiesta Bowl win over a Michigan team that, leading into the game, was favored by 7.5 points and considered the more physical team. TCU ended up running the ball on 55% of its snaps.

“If you study him, they’ve run the football,” Swinney said. “Sometimes when you think about air raid (offense), you think about not running the ball. They had a 1,400-plus-yard rusher last year.”

February will be a crucial month for Riley, who was on the road recruiting for two straight weeks after being hired. He has players to meet and tasks to deliberate and, frankly, doors to find.

“Every time we go on a tour or do anything like that in this building and meet somebody new, I’m right there with them,” he said. “I told the recruits: ‘You better not ask me where something is.’ ”

It’s been a “whirlwind,” Riley said, but a good one, dating back to his first formal call with Swinney. Clemson’s offensive coordinator job was “the total package.” Now he has it.

“People that know me know I’m a very thoughtful person,” Riley said. “I want to think through things — hopefully from all angles. The more and more we kind of learned about it, and the more we talked, the more this just made sense.”