PROFILE: Successful college football coach Swinney grateful for local roots

Published 4:40 pm Friday, March 10, 2017

Dabo Swinney has reached the mountaintop of college football, but he remembers well where his journey began.

The head coach for Clemson University’s football team, Swinney led the Tigers to their first national championship since 1981 with a 35-31 win over the University of Alabama on Monday, Jan. 9 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Swinney’s love for sports, passion for winning and care for people were formed during his early years in Pelham.

Before graduating from Pelham High School in 1988, Swinney played receiver and cornerback in football, point guard in basketball and shortstop and pitcher in baseball.

Swinney grew up a fan of the Crimson Tide and wanted to attend the University of Alabama and pursue a career as a walk-on, or non-scholarship player, but he was not sure which sport.

He approached the decision logically.

“They didn’t give full scholarships for baseball, and in basketball there are only five guys on the court at a time. I felt like I had the best path in football.”

Swinney was able to walk on for the UA football team. He remembers fondly the first game he had the opportunity to play in—against Southern Miss in 1989—but Swinney’s passion for the game and sports in general went beyond playing time.

“I loved the first day I got to be part of the team, the first team meeting, the first practice,” he said. “My whole life I had been a big Alabama fan. I took it and ran with it. The friendships and the relationships were special.”

But then it came to an end—or so it seemed.

After earning a degree from the university, Swinney was completing an internship in the spring of 1993 and had been offered a job in Birmingham in the health care management field.

But head coach Gene Stallings offered Swinney a position as a graduate assistant and later as a full-time assistant coach.

“I had never really thought about [coaching],” Swinney said. “That was the first time I hadn’t been part of a team, and coach [Gene] Stallings said, ‘You start in July.’

“It was easier for me to call and turn down the job I had been offered.

“Almost immediately, I knew. All of a sudden I had clarity. God gave me clarity. All of a sudden it made my entire life and my journey make sense.”

‘I make a point to make sure we have fun’

Swinney was dismissed from Alabama along with all of former head coach Mike DuBose’s staff in early 2001, but after holding a real estate job for a time, Swinney was hired to coach receivers at Clemson in 2003.

Swinney was named Clemson’s interim coach upon the firing of former coach Tommy Bowden in October 2008. After a strong finish to the season, including a win over rival South Carolina, the interim tag was removed in December 2008.

Under Swinney, Clemson has finished 9-5 in 2009, 6-7 in 2010, 10-3 in 2011, 11-2 in 2012, 11-2 in 2013, 10-3 in 2014, 14-1 in 2015 and 14-1 in 2016. The Tigers won Atlantic Coast Conference Championships in 2011, 2015 and 2016, and faced Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in January 2016 (a 45-40 loss) and January 2017.

William Christopher Swinney’s name “Dabo” was given to him by his older brother, in trying to refer to “that boy.”

But Swinney himself is the one who has become known for introducing colorful language to the college football lexicon. An example, delivered after an emotional 24-22 win over Notre Dame in 2015:

“It ain’t always perfect, but what I told them tonight was, ‘Listen, we give you scholarships, we give you stipends and meals and a place to live. We give you nice uniforms. I can’t give you guts, and I can’t give you heart.’ Tonight, it was B.Y.O.G.—bring your own guts. And they brought some guts and some heart, and they never quit until the last play.”

Perhaps no one was surprised when Swinney was caught on camera dancing in the locker room later.

“I make a point to make sure we have fun in our program,” Swinney said. “We’ve tried to create a culture that it’s OK to have some fun.”

‘Drive and ambition like no other’

Pelham resident and City Councilman Rick Hayes grew up with Swinney. Swinney’s father was Hayes’ first youth sports coach.

Swinney came back to Pelham to speak at a football banquet when Hayes’ father, Bobby, was leaving the mayor’s office after many years. Swinney calls Rick Hayes’ mother every Thursday before games on Saturday.

Hayes said he has lots of stories about Swinney, but many people do.

“He’s just that way,” Hayes said. “He has like 30 best friends because he’s just that way. No matter where he is or who he’s with or what he’s doing, he’s always going to be that ol’ boy from Pelham, Alabama.”

Helena Mayor Mark Hall said he had conflicting interests during the national championship game.

“I’m an Alabama graduate so obviously it was very hard for me to pull against the Crimson Tide, but with Dabo being the coach at Clemson, I’m as happy as if Alabama had won because I’m happy for him and for Tracy (Swinney’s brother) and for all the Swinney family,” said Hall, who has known Swinney and his family since 1981, dating back to Hall’s time with the Pelham Police Police Department, where he worked with Swinney’s brother Tracy.

Hall said Swinney is the same person today as he was when he was a freshman at Alabama and has not forgotten where he came from.

“He’s got a drive and ambition like no other person I’ve ever met and nothing could discourage him from his course of becoming a head coach in the college ranks,” Hall said. “He went through some hard times and left Alabama and I’m sure some people told him he needed to do something else, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He’s just that kind of guy.”

‘A great experience here at Clemson’

Swinney has found that there is much more to being the face of a major college football program than there was to that graduate assistant position Swinney first accepted.

“There has always been pressure (to succeed), but where we are now, it’s just unbelievable—the scrutiny, the amount of pressure, the things to deal with and the world the players are growing up in,” Swinney said.

Swinney said he has been successful in the face of such pressure and demands because of a measured approach.

“I’ve been able to surround myself with good people—great young men and making the right decisions about my staff,” he said. “Then you have to be able to articulate a vision for the program and get people to buy into that.

“I’ve had great support from the administration for how we want things to be, and we’ve just tried to create a culture one day at a time, one graduate at a time.”

Swinney said his primary goals are for players to graduate and leave the program equipped with the skills they need to succeed in life, and to win a championship.

Of the 135 seniors since Swinney has been coach at Clemson, 129 have graduated, he said.

“These kids are having a great experience here at Clemson, and they can’t wait to come back,” he said.

Swinney is having a great experience at Clemson, too, but those who grew up with him know he will always be an “ol’ boy from Pelham” at heart.

Staff Writer Graham Brooks contributed to this report.