Student of the game: Clawson boils down background to basics

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson talks to players during practice Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 at Haslam Field.

Photo by Wade Payne

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson talks to players during practice Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 at Haslam Field.

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson talks to players during practice Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 at Haslam Field.

Photo by Wade Payne // Buy this photo

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson talks to players during practice Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 at Haslam Field.

Dave Clawson, Williams College player. He is now offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee.

Photo by Submitted Photo

Dave Clawson, Williams College player. He is now offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee.

The coach is right where he wants to be.

Maybe it's the easy camaraderie of the locker room. Perhaps it's those endless hours when a football field becomes an oblong chessboard, when quarterbacks turn into kings and safeties become pawns.

Or it could just be the dress code.

It's easy to imagine Dave Clawson, Tennessee's offensive coordinator for the better part of eight months, in a smart pinstripe suit behind a massive desk in some New York City skyscraper. That's certainly the path most of his college classmates took.

But most days, he's on a football field, dressed in an orange pullover and shorts with a whistle and a laminated practice script draped around his neck.

As Clawson tells it, his coaching career didn't have the meticulous planning that goes into one of his practices. Football doesn't usually favor those who take the long view, anyhow.

If there's a secret to the 41-year-old Clawson's journey to Tennessee, it's his ability to focus on the short term.

It's how the self-described gym rat from a small Upstate New York town on the Canadian border hung with his classmates at one of the nation's most elite liberal arts colleges.

By focusing on the little things that help a football team win, the competitive, self-effacing coach rose through the ranks from his first job at Albany to head coach at Richmond, having success at every stop along the way.

And ultimately, it's how Clawson wound up in a second-floor office with a top-tier football program in Tennessee.

Public To Private

Until Dave Clawson arrived here in January, the closest a Williams College alumnus got to the SEC was Arthur Levitt. And that was as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Known as one of the "Little Three," the small school in northwest Massachusetts boasts an endowment of nearly $1.9 billion, a reputation as the nation's best liberal arts college and a list of alumni comparable to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or any other school for that matter.

Over the years, Williams has graduated diplomats, politicians, writers, lawyers, doctors, CEOs and America's 20th president. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner went there. So did former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.

"And then a football coach," Clawson jokes. "They're not putting me in the front of the alumni network magazine."

Much as he'd like to say the litany of achievers led him to Williams, Clawson's reasoning was a lot less complex.

As a three-sport athlete from Lewiston-Porter High School in Lewiston, N.Y., he simply wanted to keep playing ball. Williams just happened to be the only school that would let him play both football and basketball.

A product of public schools, Clawson was tossed into the deep end of the academic pool, competing against students with private school pedigrees and professors who demanded the best.

"It's kind of like if you play football against a guy that's faster than you …" Clawson said. "You're in the classroom competing against someone that maybe because they went to some New England prep school had that training. Your paper's being graded by the same professor, and you want to try and do better than them in that, too."

When it came time to choose a career, most of his classmates took the usual Williams path. But Clawson's competitive drive made it too tough for him to walk away from the sport he played in sandlots a kid.

The game of football - and the pure elation of victory and even the gut churning of a tough loss - simply couldn't be found anywhere else.

"Guys were going off to law school and med school and going down to Wall Street," Clawson says. "When I initially thought about a career, doing that stuff had zero appeal. I wanted to stay involved in sports."

So 20 years ago, he took a graduate assistant job at Albany, not far from his hometown of about 16,000 on the Niagara River.

And he began working the short-term plan, focusing on the little things.

He learned that at Williams, too.

QB to DB to OC

Aside from a chance to play two sports at Division III Williams, Clawson also was promised a spot on the depth chart at quarterback.

But the future offensive coordinator's collegiate career under center lasted all of about 24 hours.

"After throwing three passes, I was lining up in a different position the next practice," Clawson says. "Obviously I didn't throw it too well those three passes."

So Clawson became a defensive back, where he soaked up every detail he could from Williams' defensive-minded head coach, former NFL defensive back Dick Farley.

"I taught the kids the game here and then let them play it," says Farley, now semi-retired. "I'm not big on calling everything for the kids. David's always been a student of the game."

Clawson studied film for the nuances and embraced the X's and O's. His game of football lived in the small tells of an offense, from the way a receiver held his hands to the slight discrepancies in the way a fullback lined up.

Clawson also became a student of Farley, who he credits as being one his biggest influences.

For all his bluster on the practice field, Farley cared for his players. But he also was brutally honest.

"He'd say, 'If you can't play here, you can't play anywhere. There's no Division IV,' " Clawson says. "It was refreshing. You may not always like what he said. You may not always like the way he said it, but you never ever questioned the truthfulness of it."

That approach is something Clawson adopted as he moved up the ladder - from his first graduate assistant job at Albany, to stops at Buffalo, Lehigh and Villanova and later as coach at Division I-AA Fordham and Richmond - and developed a reputation for turning losing programs into successful ones.

Clawson incorporated Farley's straightforward nature but tailored his approach based on a player's personality.

"He definitely told it like it was," says Kevin Eakin, a two-time All-Patriot League quarterback under Clawson at Fordham. "I wouldn't call him brutally honest. But he is very, very honest.

"He knows the exact buttons to push. He would always throw his SAT out in front of ours, as a joke, just to let us know who was smarter. He will yell, but that's not him. He's not a yeller. He pushes the right buttons to get a point across."

'Football and Family'

Turns out, Dave Clawson is a pretty boring guy away from the football field. For hobbies, he's got football, family and little else.

"I do two things: I coach and I spend time with my family," Clawson said.

Tennessee women's swimming coach Matt Kredich got to know Clawson when the two were at Richmond. Clawson occupied the office across the hall from Kredich, and the two became good friends in large part because of their families. They're close in age and coach much the same way.

"Instead of an old-school football coach, you look at him and talk to him and think he's a real student of the sport," says Kredich. "He's got a lot going on in his head. He was a real contrast. We just kind of connected."

When Kredich visited one of the Spiders' practices, he couldn't help but be impressed by Clawson's efficiency and demeanor.

"He didn't yell at them," Kredich says. "He just talked to them and got them really excited about the mental and strategic side of football. Not just the testosterone-laden, beat-your-opponent-into-submission side of it, but the value of excellent practice."

UT wide receivers coach Latrell Scott, who came with Clawson from Richmond, says practice and preparation is where Clawson shines. That, and Saturday afternoons running an offense.

"I expect Dave to call a big play at the right time," says Scott, who counts Clawson as one of his closest friends in coaching. "Dave's a master play-caller. When he gets into a rhythm, it's fun to watch. It's almost like he's on the headset with the defense."

But when he's not scheming for an upcoming opponent, adding a new wrinkle to his offense or on the road recruiting, he's spending what little time he has left with his wife, Catherine, and their two children.

"He has his job and he's got his family, and he pours whatever he can into both those things," Kredich says. "He's not somebody who has a lot of free time."

He does, however, have a pretty good sense of humor. And a little bit of clairvoyance.

When Kredich left Richmond three years ago to become coach of the Lady Vols, Clawson teased Kredich before he left for Knoxville.

"When I left, I swear he told me if Coach (Phillip) Fulmer ever needs an offensive coordinator to give me a call," Kredich said. "When (former UT offensive coordinator David) Cutcliffe left, I thought it would be really cool to have Dave here."

Finding a Fit

Soon enough, Dave Clawson was in Knoxville.

On the first Sunday in January, Clawson was in town to interview with Fulmer. But the recommendation that landed him on Tennessee's radar came from Boston College athletic director and former UT graduate assistant coach Gene DeFilippo, not Kredich.

Clawson was back in Richmond by Monday evening. He returned Saturday morning to be introduced as offensive coordinator, the first hire from outside Fulmer's staff in his 17 years as head coach.

"When Dave came in, I had a great feeling about him," Fulmer said. "Once he was here, I was even more impressed."

Richmond deputy athletic director David Walsh, was equally impressed during Clawson's four years at Richmond. He also knew the day would eventually come when a school like Tennessee would be impressed, too.

"It was just a matter of time," says Walsh, who oversees the day-to-day football and basketball operations at Richmond. "He's just a super bright person. Obviously he had success as a coach, but he's such a well-rounded person that you knew it wasn't going to be too long until something came along that was too good to pass up."

Before January, a few other BCS schools had approached Clawson about staff openings. But something felt right about Tennessee, even though he spent fewer than 24 hours on campus for his interview.

His wife quickly became an expert on Knoxville and decided it would be a good place to raise a family. Professionally, two factors swayed Clawson: the SEC and Fulmer.

"To be able to compete against national champions and coaches that have won national championships excited me," he said. "Number two, it was the opportunity to work for Coach Fulmer. Anybody in the business who worked for him just talked about his integrity and the type of person he was and the values he held. That stuff is really important to me because I'm not just a coach. I'm a husband and a father. You want to work for good people."

Since then, it's been nothing but work. First came recruiting, then installing his offense during spring practice and now refining it in preseason camp.

But in eight days, Clawson's Tennessee tenure begins in earnest.

When the curtain rises on Clawson's first season with the Vols in a nationally televised game at UCLA next Monday night, the small-town, small-school coach will make his big-time debut.

The game just so happens to be in the Rose Bowl, one of college football's sacred venues. That its 91,000 seats could hold the entire population of Clawson's hometown five times over doesn't seem to faze Clawson.

"I'm human," he said. "I mean, obviously it's going to be very exciting. There's going to be a ton of people watching, but factoring those things in in no way helps me do my job or helps our team get ready for what we need to do.

"The bottom line is this is a profession that you have to be productive. Once the games start, we need to win football games and we need to move the football and we need to be productive as an offense."

It's still about the short term. Big crowd or small, big school or small, Clawson remains focused on the little things.

Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.

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Comments » 54

Volnation writes:

Very Good Article Drew.

Silent_Fulmer writes:


vtvol#210290 writes:

Very nice background story about a man who's about to lead the Vols back to offensive dominance on the field. I'm glad he's ours! Go Vols!

FWBVol writes:

I think we are going to be in for a great run with Dave Clawson as OC.

It's not a stretch to believe a lot of us are hoping he helps us win big and sticks around long enough to replace Phillip Fulmer when Fulmer decides to hang it up.

volfan_brian writes:

Man...can anybody find anything negative to say about Clawson??? God I hope he is the diamond in the rough we are all hoping he is!

gohawks1 writes:

Nice article. This guy's the real deal, and the Vols will be better with him running the O.

cleVOLand writes:

I've been excited about the addition of Clawson since his hire. I really have a great feeling about the team this year. Thanks for the 'up close and personal.' I'll be watching CDC as he runs on the field in Pasedena.

FWBVol writes:

volfan_brian, I don't think this guy is a diamond in the rough at all. I think, like the guy at Florida was a few years ago, he's a coach that comes from a smaller school background that has proven himself to be a winner and is now getting a chance to do so.

iowavol writes:

You just get a good feeling about this guy. Similar feeling to Bruce when he was coming in. Hope the results are the same.

VOLS85 writes:

Looking forward to seeing the hard work over the last 5 months show up on the field, and I'll be in Pasadena to watch!

I got about half way through this article and thought that this had to be written by Drew. I scanned to the top and my suspicions were proven correct. This guy always puts a lot into his articles and one day in the not-too-distant future he will be editor somewhere. We can only hope it's at KNS.

VolPowers writes:

I think it's quite fascinating that the theme of this article was working in the short term. I travel a great deal for work, and I've just spent the last three weeks in Richmond. I had the opportunity to talk to many folks who follow the Richmond program, and even one who played for Richmond. I couldn't find anyone who could say a bad word about this guy. In fact, the words that stuck with me is that, in one fellow's opinion, this guy will be a Division I head coach in two years. Talk about the short term.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Have heard that Rick and Chow the UCLA head coaches have copies of University of Richmond's games last year...they have studied his traits..and all that..But I know clawson is well aware of this. GO VOLS.

txsvol#372416 writes:

Good article, Drew! Wonder if he'll compare his SAT scores with those of the critics on this site if/when we lose a game we shouldn't? Go Vols1 SAVol

txvolsfan writes:

He may be the coach of a Division I team in Knoxville in two years!!! You never know what is in the cards. There could be a Jimbo Fisher deal in place soon!!!

HotlantaVol writes:

The Rose Bowl is a tough place to play your debut. Best of luck to Dave and his boys. He seems to say all the right things. I hope his actions say them as well.

FWBVol writes:

It really doesn't matter if the UCLA staff has film of what Clawson did at Richmond, Fordham and any of the stops he had as an offensive coordinator since he designs his offense around the players.

He now has more play makers than he's ever had at the smaller schools. Hopefully that will keep defensive coordinators up late at night trying to figure out how to stop the Vols.

T0MMYJACK writes:

volfan_brian ... everyone's in love with coach Clawson now. But wait until he makes a move of which the fritter/KrispyKreme/"stay the course"/YouTube geniuses disapprove. That's when the fit hits the shan, if you get what I mean.

And it's kinda' funny, but predictable, that most of them haven't posted after this very positive article. What's up with that?

It's "The Claw" at present. But what will his nickname be after the Vols' offense fails to score 50 on every opponent ....... ?

nicksjuzunk#646117 writes:


I'll take a first stab and say we're running the Crawlfence. Or, we are Crawful!

Not that I think that will happen... but you heard it here first.

junder13 writes:

We'll have to wait and see if he turns out to be the real deal or not, but what I do know is that that was a h*ll of an article, Drew. Nice job!

Btw, I think Clawson will be great. I've been negative on UT football for some time but I'm starting to believe (or maybe just drink the kool-aid...)!

hueypilot writes:

Oh no. I surely hope the fritter/KrispyKreme element don't dis Clawson. I mean, they carry so much weight. What ever will we do Auntie Em? Do you really think anybody cares what idiot posters say here, TJ, outside of a few more idiots?

CoastGuardVol writes:

Eight days!!

GreerVol22 writes:

Goosebumps Drew! I don't know about the rest of you, but next Monday night is going to rock!

T0MMYJACK writes:

Great point, hueypilot. Glad to see you on here. Been away, or have I been less than observant in missing your posts?

Those are good, nick.

GerryOP writes:

Hopefully Clawson will bring new light and hope for our offense!

Speaking of QBs, did anyone else see Ainge's performance last night? From what I remember, it was 1) handoff for a small gain, 2) sack after skittering around the backfield for 3-4 seconds, 3) sliding to the ground in the backfield without a defender within 3 yards of him! Came in at the end of the game and took two snaps and a knee to end the game. Looked familiar.

Vols1998 writes:

Good things happen to good people. I like this guy, CPF did well. It was just a matter of time before DC would end up at a Div I school. He has the brains, and the football acumen to be successful.

Let's not beat him up if he loses a game of two. Building consistency is more important than these flash in the pan coaches like Saban

orangebloodgmc writes:

I liked this from the article:

"Clawson studied film for the nuances and embraced the X's and O's. His game of football lived in the small tells of an offense, from the way a receiver held his hands to the slight discrepancies in the way a fullback lined up."

Not disrespecting our returning coaches, but maybe Clawson can help us spot a fake punt or the other team poised to kick off to themselves.

TommyJack writes:

Potentially the best hire CPF ever made.

invisiblekid writes:

Suprised no one has cued up the "Richmond isn't the SEC" or "it'll take awhile for him to adjust to the speed of the SEC defenses" comments yet.

Personally, I think he'll do just fine. The man has the education and, coming from a small school backround, the pedigree of developing NFL caliber players, to earn my respect.

BTW, nice job by Mr. Edwards. He has turned into the backbone of the GVX.

invisiblekid writes:

Sounds like things are getting ugly real quick for Ainge GerryOP.

TommyJack writes:

Kid: Good point about the "speed of the SEC defenses". Would it not be logical to assume that the speed of the offense would offset that argument? It's not like Richmond's offense playing Florida's defense....

miamiVOL writes:

the buzz around athletic directors is we got to Clawson before anyone else could, excellent. IMO he will be just as "hot" of a Coordinator as Will Muschamps (LSU, AU, TX) Hopefully M.Hamiliton offers him a succession plan to Fulmer if all goes well.

Imagine what having an established all-around guy like A.Foster, an electric playmaker in G.Jones, and a sure handed WR L.Taylor is inspiring Clawsen to draft up...

Feared_Mustang_Package writes:

If he exceeds expectations Tennessee will have to work out a Bobby Bowden-Jimbo Fischer deal to keep the guy. If he does well this year, he could be gone after the Bowl game.

Volomatic writes:

does anyone know anything about our new 3* db commit yesterday D.J. Swearinger

longtimefan writes:

GENERAL: You are wrong in your post of 8:26 sir. many of Eric's passes in the stands were dropped and several were picked off. please get your facts straight. And GERRY: thats what he was taught! what more can you expect?

volfan_brian writes:

FWBvol- I agree with you. But what I am referring to is his absence from everybodys "hot list" of coaches. One thing for sure....if he sets the world on fire, we wont be keeping him around long.

cjraney writes:

Nice article Drew.

It's hard to argue against hiring intelligent people. I'm getting excited about watching this guy call a football game.

GerryOP writes:

i-kid, I was disappointed. Stayed up late, for me, to see if he would get in. The announcers were anxious to see "the arm" that they had heard about ... and ... all we got was a sack and a slide to avoid a sack. He really looked kinda lost out there.

jmbigorange#280428 writes:

feared_mustang...That's what i'm afraid of. If he's everything he's cracked up to be they'll be knocking on the door soon enough for him. Especially with Fulmer saying he plans on coaching another 7 yrs.

FeelVol writes:

We certainly won't be as predictable as in the past few years, looking forward to a freshness from this years offense. Go Vols!

LiveFaith writes:

Wow, that was a well written article. Informative and interesting. Also, I guess this is the last time that CDC gets a free pass (no pun intended). After Monday it's Armchair OC Time in Tennessee! Let the second guessing begin.

Now, here is am interesting (stupid) thot that comes from remembering the absolute slaughter house after the USC loss 2yrs back: Randy Sanders was a much more successful college QB than 3 pass Dave Clawson. Let's see now, if Spurrier's Heisman vs CRS mediocre career was such a key, then where does that leave poor CDC?

stroker writes:

First-rate, prime, Like a Norman Rockwell painting. Good job writing.

invisiblekid writes:

The Real TJ, good thinking at 11:50 IMO. I think most of those comments come from the interlopers who have just a hint of doubt that Clawson may turn out as well as advertised. Utah in the Mountain West wasn't the SEC either. And Clawson doesn't look to be the type to melt under the glare of the SEC, I think he'll thrive.

GerryOP, I think Ainge has been one of those guys who usually winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time on a consistent basis. If he had a full 4 years under Cutcliffe, results would have been different for him at UT and they still weren' that bad. Same thing with Favre going to the Jets. Behind Pennington(who can't stay healthy) and their other scrubs, he had a good chance of getting some attention and possibly seeing playing time. With Favre coming into the equation so late, I doubt the OC is spending much time with the 4th string QB.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

Good article. I know many are withholding judgement until they see the rubber meet the road. He appears to be the real deal.

The Sun-sentinel was picking Tenn behind SC during my sojourn to Gator land. We'll know soon.

Very soon.

SFOrange writes:

This guys a winner. UT/Fulmer made a great move in going outside the SEC/southern family. He brings a new perspective to this program that at times is too predictable. Now its time to enjoy what he can bring to the table. I'm one that believes we're gonna like what we see.
UT 38 UCLA 14

GreerVol22 writes:

If Clawson proves to be the right stuff, look for early retirement from Fulmer and Chief...

pdhuff#552644 writes:

Gen W -11:09 Duke football 2008, huh. That's what I call a fan.

Wish ol' Cut the best. Won't miss the dink and dunk.

TommyJack writes:

Doubt the Dookies are paying Cut all that scratch just for his kids to have fun.

jasonn1970 writes:

It looks like Clawson is going to be the real deal. We will know within the first 3 games.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

According to Los Angeles Times...Sure enough..UCLA staff has spent hours in a group study of Clawson at Richmond as far as Vol Offense goes. Vol fans seem to be overly confident. The Vols remember are playing their first game with an unproven QB..over half the coaching staff are new...we are not sure our defense is any better than last year..hope it is, but we just don't know. With our history of poor play in California...I, for one do not know what to expect on Labor day in the Rose bowl. I have a feeling that the game could turn into a donnybrook, a regular pier six brawl with the team that makes the fewest mistakes should win.

Vol13 writes:

Whew! The Kool-Aid is flowing here today. LOL!!! He hasn't even coached a game yet and people are on here annointing him the 2nd Coming. Too funny.

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