Coaching Resource: Dabo Swinney

Brian Hamilton, Campus Rush (

William Christopher Swinney, known widely as Dabo, originally wanted be a doctor. He was a biology major at the University of Alabama, on a pre-med track. He was going to be a pediatrician just like Dr. Edward Goldblatt, the only physician he would see for the first 26 years of his life. Swinney loved him. Twenty-six years old and still going to the same pediatrician, mostly because Dr. Goldblatt just seemed so happy. “It was cool to me that he made people feel better,” Swinney says. “Whenever I saw Dr. Goldblatt, I usually didn’t feel good. But he always made me feel better. I just loved that. I wanted to do that.”

After two and a half years of pre-med classes, Swinney realized a couple things: His heart wasn’t in the medical field, and he didn’t want to go to school for 10 more years. It was only after he had won a national championship ring, after he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree, that he figured out what he truly wanted. He was about a week into working as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, for the Crimson Tide football team run by Gene Stallings, when it hit him. He was happy. This was what he was supposed to do.

To step back: Dabo was the youngest of three boys, born to a mother, Carol, who spent the first 10 years of her life in a children’s hospital, crippled by scoliosis and polio. His father, Ervil, who battled alcoholism, was estranged from the family. When things got bad Dabo became the rock of the household at a young age, playing three sports at Pelham High and cutting grass or cleaning gutters to bring in money. He lived with a friend his senior year because he and his mother had been evicted from their home. His life was effectively contained in a storage shed somewhere.

“You kind of have this façade of everything is all together, but your life is a complete disaster,” Swinney says. “I mean, you’re going home and sleeping on an egg crate on somebody’s else’s floor.”

His mom would go on to live with him from his sophomore to senior years at the University of Alabama, too, sharing a bed with her son because she was struggling on her own. It was there, in Tuscaloosa, where Dabo had lasted about three football games as a fan in 1989 before turning to Kathleen, his future wife whom he had known since first grade, and said, I can do this. He endured a walk-on weed-out program that involved 5:30 a.m. workouts in a heated gym for three days a week in January and February—”It was just a throw-up routine, bottom line,” he says—and became one of just two from the original group of 42 to earn a spot for spring practice in March. He earned a letter as a sophomore wide receiver and won a national title in ’92. Soon after he graduated, Stallings hired him as an assistant, and but for a brief detour into the private sector after he and the other Alabama coaches were let go in 2001, Swinney has been coaching since.

“Am I happy where the program is? You better believe it. Very, very happy. Am I satisfied? Not even close. I want to get to the top. I want to be the best. But I want to do it the right way and to enjoy the whole deal.”

Clemson has approached the top before. It was 8–0 in 2011 before it lost four of its last six games. Two years later the Tigers opened 6–0 before getting routed 51–14 by Florida State. Yet for all of the close calls that might have twisted his perspective, Swinney hasn’t been tempted to change much of anything.

His explanation for this is plain, though its simplicity belies its difficulty.

“I don’t know how to be anything other than me,” Swinney says.

The Swinney everyone sees dances after victories. He says he doesn’t really know what he did after a 20–17 win at Louisville on Sept. 17, calling it “a combination of the Whip and the Nae-Nae and the Stanky Leg and something called the Forks.” The Swinney everyone sees screams amid the downpour after beating Notre Dame, re-channeling his pregame speech in which he told his players he could give them food and scholarships and uniforms but not the will to win. Hence: B.Y.O.G. It instantly entered the pantheon of Swinney acronyms, which include P.A.W. (Passionate About Winning), A.L.L.I.N. (Attitude, Leadership, Legacy, Improvement, New Beginnings) and too many others to list. “Really, any word you can think of, he has made some type of acronym for it,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain says. “If I wrote them all down I could give you a book.”

It would seem silly if it wasn’t so purposeful and didn’t work like a charm. How many times can teenagers hear the same banal message, the drone of coachspeak, before it becomes white noise? During the week before the Tigers faced the Fighting Irish, Swinney saw a piece of grass growing amid cement steps at Memorial Stadium and fashioned a lecture around one of his favorite aphorisms: Bloom where you’re planted. Do your best given your circumstances, no matter how challenging they are.

When his oldest son, Will, earned a spot on the varsity football team at Daniel High, Swinney decided to call an audible. Now his meeting with the Clemson players occurs earlier on Fridays. Then the Tigers go see a movie and chapel takes place on Saturday. This allows Clemson’s head football coach to hustle out and be a dad in the stands. He tailors the job that pays him in excess of $3 million a year to the rhythm of his son’s high school games. “It’s what I do, it’s not who I am,” says Swinney, who also coaches his youngest son Clay’s travel baseball team over about 10 weekends between March and June. “That’s important. You can’t let this job define you.”

Seven years earlier, shortly after Clemson made him its permanent head coach, Swinney attended a banquet in Spartanburg, S.C. He and several other coaches were to give five-minute speeches at a lunch. When Swinney found his seat he couldn’t believe it: He was situated next to Bill Curry, his first coach at Alabama, who was then the coach at Georgia State. Swinney wasn’t sure if Curry would remember him. But Curry did, telling his former walk-on receiver how proud he was of the man he had become. Then, after some small talk, Curry cut to the chase.

Dabo, you haven’t asked for my advice, he said, but I’m going to tell you three things.

Caught off-guard, Swinney hastened to locate something to write on. He found a small piece of white paper and listened. Curry told him to find a good financial adviser, given the volatility of the profession. He told Swinney tonever sacrifice his family for the job; that, Curry said, was his biggest regret. The young head coach of the Clemson Tigers, seven games into his career, ages away from becoming the new king of college football in South Carolina, took note of every syllable.

But it was the very first piece of counsel that stuck with him. It’s right there on that piece of paper, which still sits near Swinney’s desk. Clemson’s coach walks around to retrieve the sheet for a visitor. He holds it up. The date is written in blue ink at the upper right corner: 12/19/08. To the left is the name “Bill Curry,” underlined. And the most important advice is at the top, two words scribbled next to a number one with a circle around it, the answer to everything then and now.

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