Aug. 28, 2008
The Hill is one of the most famous strips of real estate in Clemson, SC. The Quad is one the most recognized tracts of green space in Tuscaloosa, AL. Any Clemson fan making a trip to campus craving a cheeseburger always makes a stop at Mac’s Drive In. All Alabama fans who are connoisseurs of barbeque know the exact location of the original Dreamland.
The history, tradition and flavor (quite literally) mentioned above are just a few of the reasons that make this contest between Clemson and Alabama one of the toughest tickets of college football’s opening weekend. No one in the Georgia Dome may know more about the two schools and their storied place in college football history than Clemson Assistant Head Coach Dabo Swinney.
Swinney is now in his sixth year guiding the Clemson wide receivers, but before joining Tommy Bowden’s staff in 2003, the Birmingham-born and Pelham, AL native was all Crimson Tide from the time he can first remember. In fact, for 13 consecutive years he was a part of the Alabama program both as a player and a graduate assistant and full-time assistant coach.
“From the time I could drag a diaper I was saying Roll Tide,” recalled Swinney. “I think I knew how to say Roll Tide before I knew how to say my name.”
When Swinney recalls his youth he can tell you the first Alabama game he attended (Sugar Bowl vs. Arkansas following the 1979 season) to the first game he played in as a walk-on for the Crimson (Nov. 18, 1989 against Southern Mississippi) and the last game he was a part of the Alabama coaching staff (November of 2000 against Auburn). The first in his family to graduate from college, Swinney had always dreamed of playing football and graduating from Alabama. He did just that–and more.
“People say I was a walk-on when I got to Alabama, but I like to say I was a crawl-on,” laughed Swinney.
It was during his first year at Alabama that he began a long association with current Clemson Head Coach Tommy Bowden’s. Bowden spent three years as the wide receivers coach at Alabama and was Swinney’s first position coach in 1988.
“I give a great deal of credit to Coach (Bill) Curry and Coach Bowden,’ said Swinney. “They made you do it the hard way by going through the weight program. Coach Bowden taught me so much. He was my position coach and I learned a great deal from him that I still apply today.”
Tommy Bowden’s, now in his 10th season directing the Clemson program, believed Swinney’s work ethic would serve him well in the coaching profession. “I stayed in touch with Dabo after I coached him,” said Bowden. “He was a tough player and very responsible in everything that he did. He has carried that on into coaching.”
It was Bowden that first gave Swinney the opportunity to take the field for the first time. Swinney saw action against a Brett Farve led Southern Mississippi squad, and the Tide came out on top 37-14.
“At the time playing in a game as a freshman was a great goal and I accomplished that,” said Swinney. “There are so many boys who grow up in Alabama wanting to play football. To play at a place where Coach (Bear) Bryant had coached, I just did not think it could get any better than that.”
Following the 1989 season Alabama made a coaching change, with Bear Bryant and Tom Landry disciple Gene Stallings tabbed to lead the Crimson Tide. The high times of Alabama returned in a big way. During Stallings’ seven seasons at Alabama the Crimson Tide won a National Championship in 1992, one Southeastern Conference Title and four SEC Western Division Championships.
It was under Stallings that Swinney lettered for three seasons (1990-92). In addition to the 1992 National Championship and appearance in the 1993 Sugar Bowl his teams played in the 1990 Sugar Bowl, 1991 Fiesta Bowl and 1991 Blockbuster Bowl.
“There are not enough pages in this book to tell you how much I learned from Coach Stallings,” said Swinney. “He was a tough competitor that loved his family, his players and coaches. I’m so blessed to have had the chance to first play for and later coach for Coach Stallings.” Stallings, who retired from Alabama following the 1996 season with a 62-25 mark, 5-1 in bowl games, came to appreciate the effort displayed by Swinney.
“Dabo had an outstanding work ethic,” said Stallings. “He was a non-scholarship player who earned a scholarship. After he finished his playing days he became a graduate assistant for me and was then a full time coach.
“People talk about guys that are the first to come and the last to leave,” said Stallings. “I was never impressed by that. What has impressed me was getting the most from your abilities. Dabo Swinney did just that for me as a player and a coach.”
For Swinney all of Stallings’ accomplishments on the gridiron are extremely impressive and something to remember and admire, But there is another character trait that he values even more and continues to learn from to this day.
“Coach Stallings is the ultimate example of how to be a good husband and good father,” said Swinney. “He is an example that I try to emulate with my wife (Kathleen) and boys (Will-10, Drew-8 and Clay-5). I’m so blessed to have had him as an example of how to balance football with life.”
Swinney and the entire college football world were extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Coach Stallings’ son, John Mark. John Mark Stallings, who was diagnosed with downs syndrome at birth, passed away at the age of 46 on August 2.
“John Mark was an inspiration to us all, said Swinney. “The love between Coach Stallings and John Mark was a very special thing. He will be greatly missed and remembered by all that knew him.”
Following Alabama’s National Championship in 1992 Swinney earned his degree in commerce and business administration. He spent three years as a graduate assistant on Stallings’ staff while completing his master’s of business administration. It was then that, thanks to Stallings, Swinney continued his association with Alabama as a full time coach.
“The 1995 season had just finished and I had earned my MBA,” recalled Swinney. “I was 26-years-old and thought it was time to move on. Out of the blue Coach Stallings called me into his office and told me he wanted me to coach the ends (wide receivers and tight ends). He told me that Coach Bryant gave him a chance at an early age and in today’s coaching world there was not enough of that.
“Coach Stallings told me that I knew as much about football as he did when he was 29 years old and the head coach at Texas A&M. He could have hired anybody in the country but he gave me a chance.”
Following the 1996 season, a year that saw Alabama post a 10-3 record and Outback Bowl victory over Michigan, Stallings retired with a 62-25 mark, 5-1 in bowl games. Swinney remained on Mike Dubose’s coaching staff until the end of 2000 season.
Following two years out of coaching while in private business, Swinney received a call from his first position coach at Alabama–Clemson Head Coach Tommy Bowden’s.
“I had always stayed in touch with Coach Bowden,” said Swinney. “After he went to Kentucky and then to Auburn I would always speak to him before and after games. When he had this opening at Clemson it was something I was very interested in.”
Since Swinney has arrived at Clemson there has been no question about his positive impact. On the field Swinney has led his receivers to unprecedented heights. He has had a wide-out finish first or second in the ACC in receptions each of the last four years. In his first year, he had three of the top-10 receivers in the ACC, a first in Tiger history. He has coached a First-Team All-ACC wide-out each of the last four years (three different players) also an unprecedented accomplishment.
While Swinney’s on-field coaching has been stellar, his recruiting prowess may be even greater. In February of 2006, he was listed as the fifth-best recruiter in the nation by Rivals.com, his second consecutive year that Rivals.com had rated him as one of the Top-25 recruiters in the nation. Swinney has signed 38 players in his five recruiting seasons at Clemson and was a major reason Clemson’s 2008 recruiting class ranked second in the nation by ESPN.
Swinney’s secret to success on the recruiting trail is quite simple. “It is all about integrity,” said Swinney. “The key is developing relationships and being honest. If you are going to have success over the long haul you have to be who you are. When you are in a young man’s home on the in-home visit and are not honest those families will see right through it”
Swinney is quick to point out that Clemson is an easy product to sell to any potential Tiger. “Clemson is a great school. Coach Bowden has a tremendous record, but not only in wins and losses. The academic and personal success of our players and the facilities here make it easy to attract great talent. He has done a phenomenal job putting this staff together.”
Bowden is not surprised with the success Swinney has enjoyed on the recruiting trail.
“Dabo has great communication skills. That is very important in recruiting and advancement in the profession for that matter. He has a unique ability to develop relationships with recruits and their families.”
Since Swinney arrived at Clemson he could not help but notice the similarities between tonight’s two teams taking to the turf at the Georgia Dome. He lived his first 33 years of his life in Alabama, but has quickly noticed the similarities between the two schools and states.
“It is amazing how similar Clemson and Alabama are,” said Swinney. “Both are schools in a state that doesn’t have a huge population with no professional sports. Both have in-state rivals. Both have passionate fan bases that live and die with us each week. As a coach you want to be at a place where people care and that is certainly the case at Clemson and Alabama.”
For Swinney, the opportunity to be part of a championship at Clemson is never far from his mind. “I’m very driven to be a part of a championship at Clemson,” said Swinney. “Clemson is a very unique place. That is one of the reasons I have stayed here. We have passionate fans. I know they feel they have been wandering in the desert for a long time and want to get to the Promised Land. Our coaches and players want the exact same thing.”
While success on the field and in the classroom is important to Swinney, raising a family in this college town is yet another draw. “I had never lived anywhere but Alabama for the first 33 years of my life,” said Swinney. “But it did not take long for my family and I to fall in love with this place. Clemson is a just wonderful college town. I know that it has been written that there is something in these hills and that is definitely true. There is something here that really takes hold of you. Our family has been blessed to be here.”
During late July, Swinney returned home to Alabama and took the opportunity to attend his high school reunion at Pelham High School. It was there that his Auburn friends wished him luck and the Alabama faithful gave him a little grief, including a rendition of the song “Sweet Home Alabama”. Those comments, both in word and song, had Swinney thinking about August 30 in Atlanta
“I have never coached against my alma mater,” said Swinney I didn’t miss a game for 13 years. The last time Alabama played in the Georgia Dome I was a coach in the SEC Championship game against Florida. I have never been to an Alabama game without pulling for them. There are so many people there to this day that I respect so much.”
While the convergence of the two schools playing is an interesting situation for Swinney, there is no doubt where his loyalties lie this evening.
“I will always love the University of Alabama, but August 30 will be the first time in my life that I pull against the Tide.
“In this business we all work so hard, both the coaches and the players. My only focus is to help Clemson win. When it kicks off we might as well be playing Alaska instead of Alabama. I just want to win for this game for our program and our fans.”
Swinney’s message to his high school classmates in late July should make it very clear where his loyalties lie this evening.
“I have told everyone who is getting a ticket from me that they better be dressed in Orange and Purple. I want to hear a lot of Roll Tigers!”
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