Note: The following appears in the December issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
Despite being a man prone to fascination with numerology and the significance of numbers in his career and life, the number 166 hadn’t really held much meaning for Dabo Swinney.
The significance and meaning of that number found Swinney on its own in early November when Swinney earned his 166th career victory to become Clemson’s all-time winningest coach. Swinney’s Tigers earned an emotional 31-23 win against No. 12 Notre Dame to set the record in front of a sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Swinney mentioned several goals he actively pursued and envisioned. Among them: graduating his players at an uncommon rate, equipping the young men in his program with tools for life, winning ACC Championships and winning national championships. Becoming Clemson’s all-time wins leader was not on that list.
“It’s not anything I ever dreamed about,” Swinney said. “It’s never been a goal or anything like that. It’s just, ‘Here we are.’ You put your head down and go to work.”
Swinney set the record by passing College Football Hall of Famer Frank Howard, who compiled a 165-118-12 record in 30 seasons at Clemson from 1940-69. While Swinney and Clemson faithful had hoped for the record to be set sooner amid a tough 2023 season for the Tigers, Swinney joked he could feel the influence of “The Bashful Baron of Barlow Bend.”
“Frank Howard has probably gotten in pretty good with God up there, and knowing Coach Howard, he’s probably got his ear. I can hear him right now, ‘We’re going to make this hard on this ol’ boy,’” Swinney said postgame. “I think Coach Howard wanted to remind everybody that it ain’t easy to win.”
Though Swinney neither sought the moment nor seemed prepared to linger in it, the day and evening packed an emotional punch.
After the game, Swinney revealed that the head coach known for wearing his heart on his sleeve also carried his father’s thumbprint in his pocket that day. In August 2015, his father, Ervil, passed away following a battle with cancer. Amid his fight, Ervil reiterated to his son that he was going to make it to Clemson’s much-anticipated home game that season against Notre Dame, a team for whom Ervil held significant distaste.
“It was the only game he wanted to come to, and at that time Clemson hadn’t played Notre Dame since the ‘70s,” Dabo said.
Though Ervil did not make it to Clemson’s memorable “Bring Your Own Guts” win against the Irish in 2015, his memory did. The day before that contest, Dabo’s wife, Kathleen, received a small trinket from the funeral home – an impression of Ervil’s thumbprint.
As Swinney prepared again for the Irish in 2023, that thumbprint made its way into Swinney’s pocket and onto Memorial Stadium’s sidelines.
“That’s the first time I’ve brought my dad with me, if you will,” Swinney said.
Swinney closed his postgame press conference by recounting that story of his father and then departed to tape segments for his syndicated television show, “Inside Clemson Football with Dabo Swinney.” After taping segments in which he watched and commented on the game’s highlights, producers for the program told him they had one more video for him to review.
Swinney then watched a three-minute compilation video of congratulations and well-wishes submitted by coaches, former players, current players, family members and others impacted by him. Swinney’s smile grew larger and larger as each face appeared on the screen.
Former defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. Linebacker James Skalski, and many others.
One by one, each expressed their congratulations and admiration.
“Not bad for a D+ hire, if you ask me,” joked defensive end K.J. Henry, eliciting a laugh from Swinney, whose hire in 2008 famously received that grade from ESPN.com.
Congratulations came from his three sons, Will, Drew and Clay. But Swinney eyes began to mist and he became noticeably touched upon seeing the faces and hearing the words of a couple of his primary mentors in the business.
“[Becoming Clemson’s winningest coach] is a big compliment to you, your players and the staff,” said Woody McCorvey, Swinney’s chief of staff who was Swinney’s position coach during his playing days at Alabama.
Perhaps none hit harder though than seeing well wishes from Gene Stallings, the College Football Hall of Fame head coach at Alabama for whom Swinney played and under whom Swinney got his start in coaching.
“Dabo, what a pleasure it is to congratulate you on being the winningest coach at Clemson in a short period of time,” Stallings said. “You are an outstanding example for all of us that are in the coaching profession. Your win-loss record speaks for itself, but the way you handle yourself is extremely impressive and important.”
Late in the video, it was Venables that perhaps best described Swinney’s grander contributions to college football beyond his win-loss ledger.
“There is a saying that a good coach can win a game but a great coach can change a life, and I am in a long line of former players and coaches that you’ve genuinely enriched and changed our lives,” added Venables.
Swinney estimated he spent about three hours on Saturday night into the wee hours of Sunday morning returning congratulatory text messages. He joked that he needed to answer them before going to bed, because when he woke up Sunday, it would be time to start all over again.
“I’m thankful, and now I just want to get to 167,” Swinney said.