Prior to the Cheez-It Bowl, South Florida head football coach Jeff Scott had served in multiple roles for Clemson, except one: spectator.
The Tigers’ former player and co-offensive coordinator sat in the stands with his family at Camping World Stadium in Orlando and watched his old team come away with a 20-13 win over Iowa State. His daughter, 6-year-old Savannah, spent most of the time running up and down the aisle reconnecting with former playmates. She was only a toddler when the Scotts left for South Florida in December 2019, so her memory of Clemson isn’t as sharp as her father’s.
Jeff Scott accumulated plenty of them during his 12 years with the program, many of which he’ll spend the rest of his life sharing with Savannah. Some memories and takeaways from his time coaching at his alma mater have even been key in his first two seasons as a head coach, which haven’t gone quite as planned.
The Bulls went 1-8 in 2020 then 2-10 this past year. Of course Scott, who received a two-year extension last week, would’ve loved to have won more games. If he learned anything from Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, though, it’s building the culture of the program and dealing with any obstacles in the process of establishing that culture come first. The wins will come later.
“Coach Swinney told me whenever I left Clemson that you’re going to be challenged but hey, you’re ready for it,” Scott said. “One of the things I learned working there with Coach Swinney for the last 12 years is that sometimes your most growth as a coach is during adversity and during tough times. To learn how to lead in a positive way in the midst of adversity is something that I watched Coach Swinney model.”
During the offseason, Scott was able to secure three former Clemson players in wide receiver Ajou Ajou, running back Michel Dukes and safety Ray Thornton. Not only do the three help with experience, but they also help to establish the kind of culture Scott wants to build in Tampa.
“Anytime that you’re looking in the transfer portal, not only are you looking for the right type of players and the right type of people, you’re also looking at what programs they’re coming from,” Scott said. “The fact that Mikey and Ajou and Ray were coming from Clemson, I knew exactly what we were getting and the environment they’ve been in and trained in and worked in the last two or three years. … I think they’ll definitely be able to help us as we continue to move forward.”
Ajou and Scott already had an established relationship during Scott’s time with the Tigers. He’d recruited Ajou, a Class of 2020 three-star recruit from Clearwater Academy, but Scott left before he had the opportunity to coach Ajou. Once Ajou entered the transfer portal, the Bulls’ head coach reached out to bring him back to the Sunshine State.
Ajou even spent time with the Scott family during the holidays and taught Savannah a few new dance moves. He kept it simple for his young pupil, sticking with a side-to-side sway and snap as Chris Brown’s rendition of “This Christmas” played throughout the Scott house. Savannah was a natural and picked up the moves in no time. Her father recorded the routine and posted it on Twitter the evening of Dec. 15, the early National Signing Day.
“That was a neat moment,” Scott said. “Sometimes you’re able to capture some of those moments in recruiting that I know years later, I’ll be able to show my daughter those videos and it’ll be a lot of fun.”
A little over two weeks later, the Scotts had even more fun after making the nearly 1 ½-hour trip to Orlando to watch Clemson earn its 10th win of the season. It’s the 11th year in which the Tigers have reached double-digit wins.
Scott can remember a time before that when Swinney was still setting the foundation for the program to be where it is now. Hearing Swinney talk about the importance of establishing culture was one thing. Seeing it unfold successfully, however, might have resonated with Scott even more as he enters Year Three with South Florida.
“Where we have made a lot of progress is getting the culture right,” Scott said. “What I know from my experiences, when you get the culture and the foundation right, then your harvest day is coming. I truly believe that here in the next two or three years, we’re going to be able to see a lot of the success that we’ve been working towards.”