How 'Finishing Strong' Has Become a Mantra for Clemson Football

About the Author: Mike Austin is a contributing editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more. Coach Smotherman photo courtesy of Clemson Athletics. Main photo courtesy of Chuck Cox, RoadTripSports.com.

Adam Smotherman ClemsonClemson football strength coach Adam Smotherman works every day to make sure his student-athletes complete their reps and sets, but finishing strong applies to everything they do, and that’s certainly not limited to the weight room.

In a span of nine days in early 2019, the Clemson Tigers did the remarkable – beating No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 1 Alabama by a combined score of 77-19 to win the school’s second national championship in three years. Clemson didn’t just finish the season strong, the Tigers slammed the door.

And, it all starts with how the Tigers want to finish, especially in the weight room.

“Our program is built on finishing strong. We emphasize the finish in everything we do,” says Smotherman, the senior assistant football strength and conditioning coach at the school. “Every drill, every practice, every lift, every day, everything has a finish. So we emphasize dominating the finish.”

That mindset starts with Joey Batson, the director of football strength and conditioning at Clemson, and a 33-year coaching legend for whom Smotherman credits with setting the tone for this area of the program. The strength and conditioning staff follows Batson’s daily philosophy: be prepared, be consistent, be the example, build and strengthen relationships and respect the finish.

•   Be Prepared. Have a plan. Know your plan. Execute your plan. “These young men and their families are trusting us to be the best at our jobs, so we owe it to them to be tremendously prepared,” Smotherman says.

•   Be Consistent. Getting the best from the players means as a coach, you must be consistent when it comes to your approach, attitude, energy and character. This cannot change on a daily basis.

•   Be The Example. Smotherman says head coach Dabo Swinney wants players to “be the example, not an example.”

•   Build And Strengthen Relationships. This goes beyond the idea of leading someone. There must be a deep, personal relationship the coach and player have with each other. “This job cannot be all about sets and reps. It has to be about hearts and souls,” Smotherman explains.

Respecting the finish circles back to the start, and Smotherman says the daily philosophy also requires tremendous accountability on behalf of the players. Their roles are not easy ones when balancing full school loads with the requirements of playing high-level FBS football.

“We work to serve hearts, not talents. To serve hearts, we must hold people accountable to the standard of best that has been established by Coach Swinney in our program,” Smotherman says. “The standards do not change for anyone, players or staff; so you must have an ‘all-in’ mindset every day.” 

He says the strength and conditioning coaching staff make sure their mindset is “all in” on a daily basis by observing and listening to players, conducting research, attending conferences and professional development courses and collaborating with staff. Just as football is the ultimate team game, so too is the process of coaching. It can’t be about a single individual. The entire staff must challenge each other to grow as a unit for the benefit of the players.

“We are always looking for ways to add tools to our collective toolbox and if there is a different way out there to utilize a tool in our toolbox, we will look for it, analyze it and determine if it fits into what we are working to accomplish,” Smotherman says. “You cannot be great without constantly striving to improve yourself; and by improving our knowledge, we are able to better help our student-athletes achieve their best, which is why each of us is here. It’s not about us, it’s about the players.”

As much as Smotherman credits the players for their attention to detail, consistency, grind and perseverance last season, he knows that tremendous finish now is behind them. The 2019 Tigers don’t get extra credit for what the previous year’s team accomplished.

“Coach Swinney demands that we start over every year,” Smotherman says. “Last year’s points, sacks, catches, they don’t carry over to this year. Everybody starts at base camp. Who is going to stay focused in the climb?”