On Dabo Swinney's first day as interim head coach for Clemson University's football team, taking over mid-season in 2008, he hung a large wooden sign in the team meeting room. On it was a powerful one-word message: “BELIEVE.”

It was the kind of encouragement one might expect from a college coach. His team needed to believe in themselves, if they were to overcome a record of mediocrity. Clemson hadn't won a national championship title since 1981, hadn't won ten games in a season in 18 years, hadn't finished a season ranked higher than 20th in the Atlantic Coast Conference since the turn of the century. As Swinney himself says, “BELIEVE is a powerful thing.”

Swinney was successful in turning around his losing team, and was offered a contract as Clemson's head coach. In 2016, he signed a six-year, $30 million extension. And on Monday evening, January 9, Clemson's Fighting Tigers—who finished the 2016 season with 13 wins and one loss—will compete against Alabama's Crimson Tide for the College Football Playoff national championship.

The “BELIEVE” message has gotten through to Swinney's players.

But for Dabo Swinney, “BELIEVE” is not just an encouraging pep talk from a coach to his college athletes. It's also a way of life for the man who rose from poverty to achieve success on the football field. Swinney is a devout and outspoken Christian, and has brought his faith into the locker room—inviting his players to believe, organizing team devotionals, providing transportation for coaches and players to “Church days,” and even permitting players to be baptized in team facilities. He brought in former Clemson defensive back and track star James Trapp as team chaplain, and encouraged players to attend Trapp's Bible studies.

Although participation in Swinney's faith-based events was always optional, the anti-religious Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to the university's participation in events with a religious message. In April 2014 the FFRF faxed a letter to Clemson's general counsel demanding that Clemson, as a public university, require that Dabo Swinney “cease” his allegedly unconstitutional religious activities.” The FFRP further demanded that the university “train” the coaching staff and “monitor their conduct going forwards.”

“Christian worship,” the FFRF letter said, “seems interwoven into Clemson's football program.” According to the FFRF, even optional team religious events represented a violation of the Constitution.

But Dabo Swinney refused to budge; and to their credit, the administration at Clemson backed him. In a statement responding to the FFRF charges, Swinney laid out the three rules that every player must follow: “(1) Players must go to class, (2) they must give a good effort, and (3) they must be good citizens.”

David French, writing in National Review, reported on Swinney's response:

Next, he noted that he’s recruited players “of many faiths.” Then, he made the crucial point:

Recruiting is very personal. Recruits and their families want — and deserve — to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are. I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith.

In other words, Swinney is a Christian, and he’s not going to hide that fact from recruits, their families, or the public.

Contrary to the allegations in FFRF's “Pray to Play” report, participation in religious activities at Clemson is “purely voluntary.” Clemson administrators have defended Coach Swinney, reporting that there have been no complaints from athletes and adding that the FFRF had “misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.”