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December 10, 2015

Nick Saban

Dabo Swinney

Mark Dantonio

Bob Stoops

Grapevine, Texas

THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to today's press conference featuring the four head coaches of the College Football Playoff Semifinals. In a moment I will call on each coach for a brief opening statement, and then we'll open it up for questions from the audience. The coaches are positioned up front here according to match-up. From the audience's perspective, to the left of the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy, we have Clemson head coach, Dabo Swinney and Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. They will meet in the playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on December 31st in a 4 p.m. Eastern kickoff on ESPN.

To the right of the trophy is Alabama head coach, Nick Saban, and Michigan State head coach, Mark Dantonio. They will square off in the playoff semifinal at the good year Cotton Bowl also on December 31st at approximately 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. We'll now go to opening comments starting with Coach Swinney. Coach, welcome.

COACH SWINNEY: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Just a real honor to be here and represent Clemson. We're really thrilled to be a part of the College Football Playoff and to be along these great coaches and these other great programs is a real honor and tribute to the great work that our team did this year in really just competing relentlessly all year with one goal, and that was to find a way to win and to try to find a way to be right where we are. So we look forward to being a part of it, and I appreciate y'all showing up today.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Coach Stoops?

COACH STOOPS: I would echo a lot of what Coach Swinney said. Proud to be here and representing the Oklahoma football team. I want to compliment my players' hard work and assistant coaches' hard work through the year to have fought their way to this position. We know it's going to be a tough journey here in the next few weeks with these great teams, great coaches, great players on all these programs. But everyone's genuinely excited about it, and we look forward to doing our best to compete with everybody here in the near future.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you. We'll turn it over to Coach Saban.

COACH SABAN: First of all, I'd like to congratulate all the coaches that are here and their teams for the great year that they had, and great competition on their part, great consistency on their part to be able to get to this point. I'd like to say that I'm very pleased and proud of our team for the way they competed throughout the year when they had their backs against the wall early in the season losing a game and responding time and time again.

So really pleased and proud and happy about the way they were able to finish the season to get to this point. They also really did it the right way.

So we're very happy to be a part of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. This is an outstanding competitive venue to be a part of, and there are a lot of great teams here and the competition's going to be fantastic. We certainly look forward to being a part of it.

THE MODERATOR: Coach Dantonio?

COACH DANTONIO: I'd just like to add congratulations to the other three football teams and their coaches. Very proud of our football team and what they've been able to accomplish this year, representing the Big Ten Conference. I'm excited to go back to the Cotton Bowl. Won a lot of close games this year, showed a lot of character the way we've gone through our football season in so many different ways. Excited about the challenge and within that challenge lies great opportunity.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, we'll open it up for questions.

Q. Nick, when you hired Lane Kiffin a year ago, what were you hoping he would add to your offense?
COACH SABAN: We had a tremendous amount of respect for Lane from having played against him and watching his offensive teams play in the past. We were hopeful that he would be able to add a new dimension from an energy and enthusiasm standpoint. And we knew that a year ago we were going to have a different kind of quarterback, and we were going to have to adapt some things. We felt like he was the kind of guy that could be able to adapt our offensive team to the players that we had.

So we're very different offensively this year than we were a year ago, and it's because he has shown an ability to adapt to the players that we have, and I think that's really been the key to us having the success that we've had.

Q. Nick, for Jarran Reed, what kind of emotional leader is he for this team?
COACH SABAN: Jarran Reed has done an outstanding job of providing leadership for the younger players on our team by the example that he sets, the energy and enthusiasm that he plays with. And Jarran's come a long way in our program in the last couple years and certainly had a great year for us and has done a lot to influence the other players on our team and our entire front which has been one of the strengths of our team.

Q. Coach Saban, since you left Michigan State it's been rehashed often and as recently as a couple weeks ago that you said when you left Michigan State you left in part because, no matter what you did, Michigan was always going to be No. 1, if not Michigan or Notre Dame or Ohio State. I realize it was a long time ago. Can you clear up once and for all whether you said anything like that upon leaving Michigan State, whether you felt that way, and with the perspective you have now from the outside looking in, where do you think Michigan State matches up?
COACH SABAN: First of all, I don't recall making a statement like that. But I think Mark has done a fantastic job there. They've won three Big Ten Championships. They have an opportunity to win a National Championship this year. So I've had nothing but respect for Michigan State all my life. I spent ten years there. I had a lot of friends there that still are good friends. I almost feel like in some ways it's a part of my home for the time we spent there and the relationships that we're able to build.

I have nothing but positive things to say about Michigan State and the great program that they have now and the accomplishments that they have.

Q. Can I ask all three coaches who had a loss this year, that first practice after the first loss of the season, may I ask maybe what the message was? And maybe when you looked at your team that day, what did you know going forward was still possible by the way they attacked that practice moving forward?
COACH STOOPS: Left to right? You're out, Dabo, so...

You know what I noticed immediately? As much energy as any practice we've ever had, and it was from the start of stretch. When we broke to go to individual, guys had all kinds of energy. You could tell there was a determination that they were going to do something about it. I can't say when you go out for that first practice that you know you're going to end at this point, but there was a determination to improve.


COACH SABAN: The first thing I asked our players after the game was how are you going to respond to a loss? It's a real true test of your character, not only as a competitor and a football player but also as a man to how you respond when things don't go well for you, and the players responded extremely well. And we didn't do anything different in the next practice, but I do think the players were much more -- had much more intensity, were much more interested in what they could do to try to improve and get better, and that's probably one of the things that helped us finish the season the way we did.

COACH DANTONIO: We've always talked a lot about how you handle success and how you handle failure, so it was a message that was sent. This is about an opportunity to grow as well. Young people are resilient in so many different ways. I think the coaches handled the loss a little worse probably than the players did, but it was about getting back on our feet.

We knew we controlled our own situation by who we were playing in the near future at that point in time. So we just sort of made a statement and continued on. I think after you do have a loss or after something bad happens to you, it's how you respond to that that defines people. So we talked a lot about that and tried to make that happen.

Q. Dabo, you said several times this year that you have a very young team and pointed that out. What makes you confident they're ready to go out on the big stage and play well?
COACH SWINNEY: They're 13-0. I mean, we've played on a big stage all year. I think that every week it's a big stage when you're in college football. These guys have responded to all the challenges. I think we've had great leadership. That's been the real key. We do have 40 freshmen and 28 of them played this year. But the leadership on our team was consistent all throughout. Didn't always play perfect, but they just continued to find ways to win each and every week.

It's been a fun group, but they've responded to every challenge. If we get beat, it's not going to be because they're overwhelmed by some stage. It's because we got beat by a really good football team that was better than us on that day. So really not worried about that at all.

Q. Coach Swinney, you had a great statement earlier today about the program is like the redneck who has moved into the nice neighborhood. As you sit at a table with the head coach of Oklahoma, Alabama, do you feel like Clemson is to a point now where we belong with these elite programs? Or what would it take to have Clemson mentioned in that same breath?
COACH SWINNEY: I think 7 years ago when I got this job the biggest goal for me was just to become a consistent program. Not really be a great team, but have a great program. A program that's consistent. It's been a long time since Clemson was relevant in that top 10, top 15 area. Even though we won a National Championship in 1981.

So that really was our goal, and our objective was to build a program, to not take any shortcuts, and you do that in a lot of ways. Graduation, recruiting, disciplining your program, structure, your staff, all of those things. We've been able to become very, very consistent. In '11 when we won the league for the first time and won ten games for the first time in 20-something years and that was great. That was a good place to start.

But the message then was, okay, let's see if we can kind of keep our head down and go play three, four, five ten-plus-win seasons together and become a consistent program. Because if you can be a consistent top-ten, top 15 type program, then you're going to have those years where you can put it all together. That's kind of the way it's been for us.

But there is no question Clemson belongs. I mean, we've been as consistent as anybody out there in the country. Then you've got to be able to step out of your conference and win big-time games and we've been able to do that. So lot of hard work by a lot of great coaches and a lot of great young men over the last seven years. It's not just this year's team. It's been a culmination of all of those guys that have helped us build a good foundation that I think can allow us to sustain that type of consistency.

Yeah, that's what I said this morning on the radio show. We're kind of that redneck that moved into the nice neighborhood and everybody's going where'd you come from? But these guys belong right where they are and they've earned it.

Q. Nick, I know you're not a big fan of questions that look back at things that happened 20 years ago. But do you remember at all what put Mark on your radar leading up to when you hired him as an assistant or what are some of the memories you have of his development as a coach while working on that stuff?
COACH SABAN: I remember Mark when he played at Zanesville High School. I was the coach that recruited that area and he went to South Carolina. I think sometimes when you meet people, like I've known Bobby's family ever since I was 25 years old, recruiting Youngstown. His dad was a great defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney and Uncle Bob who was a coach at South High School.

So when you kind of know these people and you develop relationships with them, you never forget them. Mark coached at Kansas with Glen Mason who I coached with at Ohio State and done a really good job. I thought we were fortunate to be able to hire him and he did a fantastic job for us in the five years that we were there.

I always thought he'd do great if he ever got an opportunity to be a head coach. He's certainly done a lot better job at Michigan State than I ever could do. So he's done really well. I'm proud of him.

Q. In terms of coming out of the game on Saturday where a lot of the rhetoric was stay in the moment, not letting it get too big, and not trying to repeat the same mistakes last year during this time. Do you feel that's more on the players or did you feel you needed to address that more and more with the team?
COACH SABAN: I think everyone in the organization would say that they didn't think they did as good a job as we needed to do because we didn't feel like we played great against a really, really good Ohio State team who won the National Championship. I think it was our first time to go to a bowl game that was really a playoff game. So maybe that experience will now help us a little bit in the future be able to do a little better job with our players.

It's really my responsibility and all of us in the organization who affect the players to try to get them to play as well as they can play in a game. I think if you don't feel that your team plays great, you always feel like you need to do a better job as a coach, and that's certainly how we felt last year after this game.

Q. Coach Dantonio, how does bowl preparation, bowl practice change at all, if any, since you're talking about if you win the Cotton Bowl there is still another game you have to play?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, it's a little bit of new ground for us in terms of that situation. So we're going to prepare for this like we've done for every bowl game. If we're fortunate enough to go beyond that, we'll work on that week. But I don't think there's any question that it's a little bit different. We, just like a lot of these football teams, we've tried to raise our level of play throughout the years and go beyond where we were. So we're fortunate to have this opportunity. So it's very important that we play our best because our best will be needed here in this situation.

Q. Coach Stoops, talk about just the betterment of Baker Mayfield especially after the Texas game, and that tough 24-17 loss and how he responded to get that team turned around?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah, Baker did an exceptional job. And you have to compliment Lincoln Riley our quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. I think he simplified some things formation-wise and some of the things that we were doing by substituting, not substituting, cleaning some things up. From that point on, not only Baker continued to thrive, so did our running game.

But Baker is exceptional. He's got an incredibly accurate arm. He has a quick arm, and that innate ability to scramble and make plays running, make plays scrambling, and eventually throwing. So he can do it all and does it with excitement.

Q. Dabo, before the Wake Forest game you mentioned the 18 days and trying to make the most of that stretch with the team. When you guys reconvene in a few days, will your message be along those lines?
COACH SWINNEY: You mean before the Notre Dame game? The layoff that we had?

Q. No, when you talked about getting the most out of the 18-day stretch during the season. I think it was during the Wake Forest game.
COACH SWINNEY: Oh, yeah. We just talked about capitalizing on each and every day just trying to be the best we can and trying to sprint and accelerate through the finish line was the biggest thing. This is a new beginning. I think that we were able to do that. We were able to finish as the champion in our league, and that's always been our goal because if we can win our league, then we have a chance for new things.

But we played ten straight, counting the championship games. I think it's great for these guys to get a little bit of a break. But it's a new season, new beginning and just like Mark just said, we've got a formula that we believe in as far as how we get the team ready for a bowl, and that's what we'll do. Because it's really not about planning for another game. You've got to win this game.

So we'll put everything we've got into how we prepare. This is a time to get back to your fundamentals and your technique with your guys. It's a time to really work on Clemson. Obviously, you're preparing for the opponent, but you also want to develop your team. A lot of these young guys develop these guys and give them a little bit of a head start for spring practice. So we have a combination of all those things as we get into bowl practice.

But the message is, hey, it's a new season and it's a one-game season and it's our bowl season. The veteran guys on our team that understand what we do and how we prepare, that's what we'll start off doing this Sunday.

Q. Coach Stoops, I've heard Nick Saban say on a number of occasions this year that he was really proud of his team. And I think, Nick, you went so far as to say you were hoping for this opportunity for this team as much as any you've ever had. I don't want to get into the territory where you're asking a parent which child they like the best. But can I ask you this season how this one has stacked up after all the years being a head coach?
COACH STOOPS: Oh, it's definitely at the top with some of our best ones. It's only a few. When you go back to clawing from behind at Tennessee to finishing, everyone counting you out after Texas and then to get on the roll that we did, I don't think I've had a team that changed from the first week to the last four or five weeks as much as this one. That grew, that matured, that really just exploded that way and everything that we're doing, technique on down to line, to schemes, to everything.

So it's gratifying when you're the one coaching them or part of the one coaching them that, hey, you continue to grow that way and mature and improve. That, to me is very rewarding, and this team did that constantly. And they had the willingness to do it.

Q. Bob, after 8-5 last year, could you imagine being here this year at this point right here? What were the elements that really turned this team around? I know you had some staff changes, but what turned it around in a year like that?
COACH STOOPS: I think a little was made too much of that. We were sixth in the country and what, 11-2 the year before, so we weren't real far off. We weren't out of the picture real long, and we had some tight losses.

What turned it around? I think more consistency offensively, definitely and an improved defense. More maturity and consistency on defense, the two of them together made a big change. So we're a much different team.

Q. Nick, what's the schedule like for you guys during the course of the next few weeks leading up to the game? I'm not sure if you've started looking at film yet of Michigan State, but what are your early impressions of the challenges that they pose? Along the same lines for Mark, what do you know about Alabama at this point and just what they do?
COACH DANTONIO: I've taken every opportunity to watch film in the midst of this recruiting. What I knew about Alabama first of all is what Nick has done there because he was hired really at the same time that I was hired at Michigan State. So I've sort of seen him take Alabama back to a championship-type level, obviously. When I watch their football team, I see guys play with great technique. I watch their corners, their balance, I watch how firm their defensive line is. I watch their running back. I watch their offensive line. I see great precision. I see great technique, and I see guys playing together.

I don't know all the names yet, but I will. I know numbers, and some of those numbers are big numbers.

With that being said, we've got guys too on our football team that knows how to win, and right now that's what we've been able to do. We've won a lot of football games, so quite sure we'll come to play.

COACH SABAN: Our focus has mostly been on recruiting. But while you're recruiting and flying around on the plane you do watch the other teams that you're going to play. One thing I did see after the Florida game on Saturday was I got home just in time to watch Michigan State go 22 plays in 9 minutes and something and score a touchdown. That told me probably as much as I needed to know about that team in terms of the grit that they had, the kind of competitive spirit they had, how they believed in one another and how they thought they could win the game. And the fact they've won several games this year late in games by making big plays tells you a lot about the confidence of a team and how they compete in a game.

So they're a very physical team. They run the ball, play really good defense. So this is going to be a really challenging game for us. We're going to have 7 practices before Christmas break, and we'll come back and start up in Dallas and have a regular week so our players had finals week this week, so we're basically we just did a couple workouts trying to keep them in a little bit of shape.

Q. Nick, obviously Bob and Mark could speak to this because they've all had extensive time in Ohio. How, Nick, did the State of Ohio shape your coaching career?
COACH SABAN: Well, I guess I learned how to recruit in the State of Ohio because that was my recruiting area northeast Ohio was my recruiting area for many, many years. Played at Kent State. Had a great mentor and coach in Don James who was a fantastic coach and really cared a lot about his players and shaped my philosophy to this day of trying to help players be more successful in life for having been involved in your program. I started out there, so I think my roots were all there.

Some of the relationships that I developed early in my coaching career certainly were all certainly in that area and I learned a tremendous amount from some of the great mentors that I had. I've been very fortunate. George Perles was the first person at Michigan State to give me the responsibility of being a defensive coordinator. Was involved in rebuilding the program and going to the Rose Bowl there, and that was a great learning experience for me because he had been with Chuck Noll for 11 years and really knew how to win, knew how to handle people and had a great defensive philosophy and certainly helped shape mine.

Then to be able to work for Bill Belichick in Cleveland for four years and knowing a lot of people in Cleveland, that was a great learning experience for me. But because of all the roots that I had from all the time that I coached, Bill was constantly trying to keep the press out so they couldn't see practice. So he'd put them in a little box somewhere in a corner where they wouldn't want to stand. And Linda, who is my secretary now, was Bill's secretary, and I would give her a list of 40 high school coaches all over northeast Ohio who were my buddies that I grew up with and a lot of them were from Youngstown, and they'd get the A-passes, so they'd be right on the sidelines and be able to watch practice.

Then Art would come out and chew Bill's butt out because he's saying who are all these guys over here. They have the good passes and I want the media to get the good passes and they're over there where they can't see. And Belichick would turn around and look at me and say, you see why I'm getting chewed out? Because of you.

So I've always really valued our profession and the people in it, because my high school coach probably affected me as much as anybody, other than my parents, in terms of the things I learned around the coaches and mentors that I had when I was a young player and my college coach Don James.

So these relationships that we have in northeast Ohio have lived on and on and on, and some of them have become great friends and it's because of a coaching profession and the respect that I have for coaches, these guys included.

Q. Coach Dantonio, you smiled when Coach Saban got asked the question about you and meeting you. Let's flip the question on you. What was it like meeting Coach Saban, working for him, and now having to prepare against him?
COACH SABAN: He's not going to smile about that one.

COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, no. I got to know Nick a little bit outside of -- before I came to Michigan State. Just really he was at the Browns, and he would talk to me about a couple players that maybe were in college. When I got the opportunity, as hiring goes, it happened very, very quickly. I had the opportunity to go to Michigan State. Had I never had that opportunity to go to Michigan State, I wouldn't be sitting here right now.

He's a defensive back guy. I'm a defensive back guy. So I learned a tremendous amount of football in that time. You know as an assistant coach I worked for Dom Capers as a graduate assistant. But I was my own guy as I was going to Youngstown State, and I was a coordinator there, and I was with Jim Tressel, obviously, and I was at Kansas. I was at the University of Akron as well with Jim Dennison. So I never worked for a head coach who had been a secondary coach.

So when I did come to Michigan State, I had the opportunity to work with a guy who had been in the NFL and had a, obviously, a lot of success as a coordinator in the NFL. So my knowledge in the secondary grew greatly in those five years. I appreciate everything that he's done for me in that vein.

Yeah, it's difficult. Let's not kid ourselves. It's difficult. But there's a silver lining with that. I knew when that ball went over our guy's head, he was never going to look at me and say what were you telling them? So there were a lot of positives there. He taught me a lot about organizationally and preparation for games. A lot of the things we do and the way our program is shaped is patterned after really Jim Tressel and Nick Saban.

Q. Coach Stoops, after facing Clemson in the bowl game last year, did you think it was the team that had the potential to do what it did this year, going undefeated?
COACH STOOPS: Sure, I know they lost a fair amount of guys, but you can tell they beat the heck out of us without Deshaun Watson. You talk about a smooth, great athlete throwing the football, running it, all of it, you know? So didn't surprise me that they continue to have another great year the way they have.

Q. To see Mark right here with you and see how far he's come, what does that mean to you?
COACH SABAN: We have several guys that have worked for us in the past that have done extremely well in this profession, and it always makes you -- makes me very happy to see people who did a great job for us when we were together and worked hard, because they had goals and aspirations that they wanted to accomplish and achieve, and that's why they did a great job for you. To see them go on and do that is something that makes me feel proud and very happy for Mark and his family, also Michigan State because he's done a fantastic job there. So there is always a good feeling that goes with that.

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