CLEMSON, S.C. — Early on a Monday morning in October 2007, after an especially painful loss at Wake Forest the previous Thursday, Clemson’s coaches began preparation for that week’s game with Georgia Tech.
The details are indelible. Dabo Swinney remembered exactly what he was wearing.
They hadn’t been together long when coach Tommy Bowden stepped into the room and told them he had resigned. Athletic director Terry Don Phillips followed with the words that changed Swinney’s life: “Dabo, you are now the head coach. You call the shots. See me in my office in five minutes.”
Corny, emotional, courageous, generous and sentimental describe Swinney, as do sincere, driven, meticulous, calculating and tough. There’s nothing phony about William Christopher Swinney.
What you see is what you get.
Swinney leads the team down a hill behind the east end zone and onto the field at each home game, chest-bumps his players and dances for them in the locker room after a win.
When Clemson rallied at home early last season to snap Auburn’s 17-game winning streak, Swinney’s postgame interview was a stream-of-consciousness geyser of emotion that has been compared to Howard Dean’s primal scream during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Insulted when he thought the program had been slammed by Steve Spurrier of rival South Carolina, Swinney prepared to return fire and days later launched a mortar — even though he knew the remark was by the Gamecocks’ play-by-play announcer, who had paraphrased the coach.
And after twice swapping barbs this season, Swinney tried to bury the hatchet — “people just need to back off the ledge” — saying he believed Spurrier liked him.
“Personally, I really think he was trying to pay me a compliment,” he said. “I know it was a roundabout way maybe of getting there. It would be like me telling my wife, ‘I think you should wear this dress. You don’t look near as fat in this dress.’ ”
Sportscaster Dan Patrick wasn’t being complimentary when he referred to him as a “cheerleader,” but Swinney doesn’t apologize for his unbridled enthusiasm or for defending his team. His only embarrassment has been a speeding ticket in September as he rushed to his radio show.
Blame Bowden for Swinney.
It was Bowden, his first receivers coach at Alabama, who recommended him to Phillips. Bowden brought him back to coaching in 2003 after a couple of years in real estate and land development because he needed Swinney’s energy, intelligence and ability to relate to young men.
When Swinney’s alma mater, Alabama, tried to lure him home in 2007, Bowden gave him a substantial raise and added associate head coach to his title as receivers coach.
While the decision to choose a man who had never been a coordinator, let alone head coach, to follow Bowden seemed peculiar — even on an interim basis — nobody was better prepared.
In a loose-leaf binder, easily three inches thick, Swinney had a plan. Along with the standard résumé, it included his philosophies of life, business and coaching. It had details for staff organization with job descriptions as well as the type of offensive and defensive schemes he preferred and the type of player he intended to recruit. Included were details about his family and personal life, which he shares generously as a motivational speaker.
Brother Tripp, 16 months older, called him “dat boy,” but it sounded like “Dabo,” so Swinney jokes he didn’t know his real name until role was called his first day of kindergarten in Pelham, Ala. In first grade, he met Kathleen, and she was there for him when life took a sharp turn.
His father was a drinker, and there were many weekends the police didn’t come to the Swinney home to quell the anger. Swinney would climb to the roof of the home to escape the noise, stare at the sky and ask God for help.
A good student and captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams in high school, Swinney found the courage to push through the trouble at home. His father lost the business and their home; his parents divorced when he was 16, and he spent many nights on a floor at a friend’s place. Kathleen usually would pick him up for school.
As a youngster, he became an unabashed fan of Alabama football, and he dreamed of playing for the Crimson Tide. Student loans and a Pell Grant afforded him the opportunity to enroll at Alabama. Occasionally he worked menial jobs, often driving 60 miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to clean gutters in upscale neighborhoods or umpire baseball games in Pelham.
Money was tight, and he worried about his mother. Kathleen, who wouldn’t join him for a year, believed he’d be fine if he made the football team. Swinney mustered the gumption to try out after watching a game with her during his freshman year.
“You have walk-ons. I was a ‘crawl-on,’ ” he said. “I was too stupid to know anything different.’’
‘I should be coaching’
Swinney was one of 48 to start offseason workouts and one of two to survive.
During his sophomore year, Swinney and a friend shared a two-bedroom apartment in Tuscaloosa. His mother moved in later and commuted to a job in Birmingham.
Swinney believes he inherited a toughness of character from her. As a child, she overcame polio and curvature of the spine to become majorette for the high school band.
Swinney and his mother shared a room and slept in the same bed those three years.
“I can’t tell you how many times we lay in that bed at night and dreamed,” he said. “I’d tell her all the things I would do.’’
He lettered three seasons, earned a scholarship as a senior and played on the 1992 national championship team under Gene Stallings. Swinney accepted a job as a graduate assistant on Stallings’ staff, earned an MBA and married Kathleen in 1994.
A full-time member of Stallings’ staff until he retired in 1997, Swinney was retained by Mike DuBose. When DuBose was fired in 2000, Swinney went, too. Offered a job in Birmingham by a former teammate, Swinney worked for two years, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“He’d come home and say, ‘What am I doing? I should be coaching,’ ” Kathleen recalled. “There was such a void there.’’
When Bowden called about a job as receivers coach, Swinney said, “I just knew this was where I was supposed to be.”
They built a home in Clemson identical to the one they left behind. Swinney prefers to cut his grass, blow the leaves out of the gutters and hang the lights at Christmas. One of the first decorations each holiday is a plastic snowman, a gift from his father when Swinney was 3.
Swinney doesn’t require a lot of sleep, which is why he can balance his career with his responsibility as husband and father. The Swinneys always look for ways to make time for one another. Their three boys have always been a presence at Clemson practice. Swinney has been known to cut off a post-practice interview to attend a youth football or baseball game.
“He’s blessed with a boundless energy,” Kathleen said. “I just think God gave him this because he knew he could handle it and knew he could make a difference in people’s lives.’’
He reached out to his family, helping one brother finish college and the other turn his life around. He bought a home for his father and stepmother, who lived in a trailer for 18 years.
“One of the reasons I’ve been so driven is because I at least wanted to make a difference in my family,” he said. “All these things I have are the gifts of life.”
Shortly after becoming Clemson’s 25th head coach, he and Kathleen established Dabo’s All In Team Foundation, which provides money and resources to assist battered and abused women and children, the mentally challenged, breast cancer treatment and research and drug and alcohol dependency — all chosen because they are issues that touched their lives.
“I am blown away by how quickly life can change,” Swinney said in discussing the road he has traveled since that October nightmare in 2008. “It’s been that way my whole life, as far as just trying to stay focused on the things you believe in and things that are important, trying to prepare yourself for opportunities even if they don’t ever come.
“You just never know. You never know when your opportunity will come or how it will come. You never know who is paying attention. We’ve come a long way.”
In four seasons under Swinney, Clemson has won or shared the ACC Atlantic Division title three times and won the program’s first ACC crown in 20 years. There have been highs like that win over Auburn and lows like last year’s Orange Bowl blowout against West Virginia and four straight losses to South Carolina, but Swinney perseveres because it’s what he has always done.
“I’m not afraid to fail. I’m not afraid to try, not afraid to stand up for what I believe in,” he said. “I always believed I could be the best. I don’t know where that comes from. I’ve had a lot of success along the way, but I’ve had a lot of tough lessons.
“I’m not afraid to make a mistake, not afraid to admit I made a mistake. I’m not perfect. I’ll make mistakes full speed, then I’ll correct it and move on.’’