You Don't Know Dabo: The colorful, charismatic Dabo Swinney is the new king of football in South Carolina
PIEDMONT, S.C.—There's a hurricane churning off the coast a few hundred miles away, and storms taking shape that will soon bring historic flooding to this state. Still, a few hundred people migrate to the Wren High football stadium on this Thursday evening, driving right over the words HURRICANE WARNING stenciled in faded yellow paint on the road. Everyone is here for a junior varsity showdown between Wren and Daniel High under slate gray skies in early October. Five dollars gets you in the door. Then pick a side and cheer.
Midway through the second quarter, right around 6:30 p.m., the father of Daniel's starting slot receiver climbs the stairs on the visitors' side. He has come directly from his job, calling his wife for an update as he made the half-hour drive to the stadium. He is wearing his work clothes, plus a baseball cap emblazoned with a blue Daniel 'D'. A familiar face catches his eye as he nears his destination in the stands.
"Boy, Phillips," Dabo Swinney says, "you made it all the way up these stairs?"
Jim Phillips was Swinney's high school trainer in Pelham, Ala., and is now a regular around these parts. He laughs as Dabo smooches his wife, Kathleen, and settles in. He didn't think there was any way they'd play this game. It was pouring in Clemson, he says. That's where Dabo, the father of Drew Swinney, coaches a college football team that will play one of its biggest home games ever in about 48 hours, a night that will go a long way toward determining its national championship fate. "So, Drew had a nice play?" Dabo asks his wife, who confirms that their 15-year-old middle son recorded a long reception up the sideline. Nevertheless, the Daniel High jayvee team is losing, by a couple of touchdowns, as a kickoff lands in Drew's hands.
Hit it, his father says, nearly to himself. Then the ball pops out. A Wren player falls on it. Dabo drops his head in his hands, feeling something only the dad of a kid who just fumbled can feel. "Oh my gosh, Drew," he says. "Aw, he's going to be sick."
Two nights later, in an unremitting cascade of rain, the Clemson Tigers will beat Notre Dame 24–22 in one of the most thrilling games of the young 2015 season. The team that has won 42 times over four previous years, while losing just enough to linger outside the national title picture, will establish itself as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Afterward, the Tigers' sopping wet coach will scream about his team on camera and add another colorful phrase to his ever-swelling archive. The game was B.Y.O.G., Swinney will yell. Bring Your Own Guts. It will be joyful madness, every bit of it.
On this Thursday, though, Clemson's coach has made the drive to this sleepy country town to watch his son play football. Swinney is sad about the fumble, but has turned his attention to a last-second field goal attempt before the half. Drew is the holder. The kick sails through the uprights to cut Daniel's deficit to 11.
"Well, how about it!" Dabo says. "Nice!"
The rain never comes. Swinney will stay here until the end, paying little mind to the deluge ahead. Really, who is this guy?
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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.
More than 22 years later, Swinney sits in an office festooned with autographed footballs and life-sized cutouts of former players, reminders that his instincts were correct. He is the head coach of the nation's third-ranked team, Clemson, which is 8–0 entering Saturday's matchup with No. 17 Florida State and stands a decent chance of staying unbeaten through early December. Should that produce a playoff berth, it would represent the breakthrough craved by everyone involved, including the man who has always believed the best will come despite plenty of personal evidence suggesting it won't.
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.
He took over as Clemson's interim coach after Tommy Bowden resigned in October 2008, and landed the full-time job that December. Now he emphatically recites how far his program has come: At that time of his hire, Clemson had recorded zero 10-win seasons since 1990, zero ACC titles since '91 and was a 50-50 bet to come out on top in games at Memorial Stadium. Clemson is 50–11 since '11, and only one player on the current roster, fifth-year senior receiver Charone Peake, has lost to a team that didn't finish in the top 10 in the country. When Florida State visits this weekend, it will encounter a team featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate on one side of the ball (sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has 24 total touchdowns) and the nation's fifth-ranked total defense on the other.
It is no small thing to say that Clemson is the program to reckon with within state borders at the moment. Nor is it a small thing to say that its colorful, charismatic, acronym-conjuring, parable-weaving, Nae Nae-prone coach is the king of that domain—and might have been even before the recent resignation of the visor-wearing gentleman down the road in Columbia. Now there is only that next thing, thus far out of reach, which is the subject of ceaseless aspiration in Death Valley. "We're going to have one of those special seasons," Swinney says. "It's gonna happen. Maybe the ball bounces off the guy's head or whatever and lands in our arms and we run for a touchdown. We're going to have that year.
"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.
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In the lobby on the west side of Memorial Stadium, a mural chronicling Swinney's tenure at Clemson features nine pictures of him. He is smiling in every one. There is no Pensive Dabo, or Intense Dabo. Just various degrees of glee.
Upstairs, on the fourth floor, the actual Dabo is popping his cheek for a little girl who stares at him blankly.
It is Wednesday, which means it is Family Night at Clemson, which means strollers move through the lobby and into the elevators around 7 p.m. Kids wrestle on the floor and high-five Tigers players as they arrive to find a massive spread including fettuccini alfredo, chicken cordon bleu and crab cakes with remoulade. The football team's training table meal is usually held in a cafeteria at ground level. On Wednesdays, however, Swinney legislates family time in a profession in which coaches too often become strangers to their spouses and children during the grind of a season. For at least one night, everyone comes to the fourth floor and catches up while the stadium scoreboard glows in the background.
Here, on an early October evening, it is difficult to tell who is happier: The people seeing Swinney, or Swinney seeing these people. He glides from spot to spot, kisses an 8-week-old held by his wife, then points to a camera and tells the baby "Smile!" Just before walking out, he spots the aforementioned toddler and makes at least three different efforts at physical comedy, including the cheek-pop, to elicit a reaction. (He does not get one.) In between, he tells the story of his trip to Chicago for last May's NFL draft, and the dinner at Giordano's he attended with his wife and eight others, including Stanford coach David Shaw, one of Swinney's good friends.
None of them had been to Giordano's, a local chain famous for its deep-dish pizza. Kathleen was left to order as everyone else hobnobbed. She knew her husband to occasionally finish a Papa John's pie by himself, so she calculated accordingly. When the servers delivered the food, it was clear her calculation was off: They had ordered seven pizzas—four of the stomach-distending deep-dish variety—for 10 people.
They did not finish their meal.
"We were staying at the Hilton Chicago," Dabo says, "so we fed the homeless on the way back."
"We sat the pizzas right in front of them," Kathleen says.
Imagine, if you will, any coach at a Power Five program telling that story, wearing its absurdity so proudly. But this is Dabo Swinney. It cannot be an act, because acts have an end. "The coach Swinney y'all see is the coach Swinney we see," redshirt sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman says, "pretty much all the time."
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.
"Sometimes we make fun or pick at him for the things he does, but we wouldn't have it any other way," Mac Lain says. "We could be walking around on campus and we see someone pick up some trash, and we'll impersonate a coach Swinney speech in front of the team, and everyone just dies laughing. It's funny, but at the end of the day, this guy can motivate anybody to get ready to play football."
At times, the passion spikes. A reporter merely mentioning the phrase "Clemsoning" following the Tigers' 43–24 win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 10—in a question aimed at debunking the idea that the Tigers regularly lose games to inferior opponents—prompted a screed in which Swinney insisted the word be flushed from anyone's vocabulary. (Watching elsewhere in the football complex, Mac Lain heard the query and cringed. "I was like, aw, what poor soul said that to him?") Swinney kept his players on the field at halftime of a 58–0 win at Miami on Oct. 24, calling the set-up that forced both teams to head to their locker rooms through the same tunnel "bush league." And Swinney's part in comedian John Oliver's epic anti-NCAA segment on Last Week Tonight in March remains memorable; Oliver highlighted Swinney's comments that players should not be paid for their efforts and then derisively noted the coach's name is an anagram for "Soybean Wind." It was funny, but also a bit of a free shot that mischaracterized Swinney's personality, if not his beliefs.
Swinney says he hasn't seen the bit. He doesn't have HBO.
"You have to be at peace with who you are," he says. "I'm not above reproach, at all. I screw up. I'm not perfect. I don't claim to be perfect. So, when people point out I'm imperfect, so what? That's just who I am. If that bothers somebody, I can't worry about that. I don't try to judge people. I just try to be who I am."
The point is, he has been through worse. He would rather do the Whip, or spin a yarn about a weed growing where it shouldn't.
"Shoot, I have fun," Swinney says. "I think it's important that you have fun along the way. There's a lot of coaches in this business that just look miserable to me, even when they win. Even when they win, they just look curmudgeonly, and that's a shame. Gol-lee. If it ever gets to where I'm not even having fun when I win, I'm doing something else."
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Late on Sundays, every Sunday, Swinney would pull out of the Clemson football offices and call his dad. What you doing? he would ask.
Oh, I ain't doing nothing, Ervil Swinney would reply. What you doing?
Aw, just riding home, checkin' on you, Dabo would say.
And every Sunday night, Ervil would give his son an opinion on Clemson football, or Dabo would ask about the last game or the next opponent. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer for the second time, Ervil moved in for eight weeks of radiation and chemotherapy last summer. And that cancer, Dabo explains, was a blessing. If it wasn't for the disease, then father and son would have never had time to sit around in their pajamas and just chat all night, or ride around town in the truck, or go see the boys play ball. After all the demons Ervil had fought, and after those demons helped turn his son's life upside down, he had never been happier. He'd remarried. He'd quit drinking. He'd quit smoking eight years ago, after the lung cancer first appeared. He had taken charge of a life that was out of control for too long.
After all this time, even as he endured the treatments to fight the disease, Ervil was at peace. Dabo knows this, because his dad told him exactly that.
The good Lord can take me right now, Ervil said. I'm at peace with everything.
The treatments completed, he was back at M&M Hardware near Pelham, the store from which he ran a washer and dryer repair business. Ervil, sitting behind the counter and presiding. All the world's problems solved right there, as his son puts it. Then, on Aug. 8, Ervil died at 70 years old. "Just quit breathing," Dabo says. His dad had just seen the heart doctor and talked all the time about how good he felt. Then he was gone, just like that, leaving a great big hole where the happiness had been.
"Still got two or three voicemails I can't let go of," Dabo says. "I miss him. When you lose a parent, it's a strange feeling. It's a hard thing to get used to. I got all these pictures and voicemails from my dad, and it's like he's speaking to me from the grave. But I had great peace at his funeral because I know where he is. I know he is very happy. He was a fighter. He fought. I was just so proud of him."
Dabo lost his father in August. He lost a sister-in-law, Lisa Lamb, to breast cancer in April of 2014. And now Kathleen's father travels back and forth to Greenville, S.C., to undergo treatment for pancreatic cancer.
How, it makes you wonder. Just as Swinney and his family begin to breathe again, the universe suffocates them with another loss. So how does a man manage to stay upright and do all of this? How does he lead a team pursuing a playoff bid and kiss babies and tell stories about pizza and enjoy the minutes of the day? How does he smile and laugh under the shroud?
Through all of it, my goodness, how does he dance?
"Well," Swinney says, as he digs into his pocket, pulling out a small silver crucifix. "You better have an anchor in life. It doesn't matter if you're a Division I head football coach or Joe Schmo from Okemoh. Bad things happen. If you're not anchored, you're going to be washed away."
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From his perch near the top of Wren High's stadium, Swinney laments the space between him and a snack. The only open concession stand is across the field, a longer walk than he'd prefer. Yet he is famished, having driven up straight from Thursday practice. He is a God-fearing man, but not without vices. "Popcorn, pickle, get me a Slim Jim, a Diet Coke," he coos. "I love it."
He loves all of this, really, especially the balance. For years Swinney followed the same game week routine with his team. On Friday nights, he took Clemson through game prep and then travel to the hotel. There, the Tigers had chapel and ate dinner. The last voice the players heard before going to bed was Swinney's, as he closed a Friday night meeting and sent them to their rooms.
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."
At the moment, his job is to watch jayvee football and hope for a comeback. As the second half of Daniel's game against Wren nears, Kathleen takes a seat next to her husband.
"Did you see Drew fumble that ball?" Dabo asks.
"Did I ever," Kathleen replies. "Thankfully they didn't score after it."
"That's right," Dabo says, sounding relieved at the reminder. "They did not."
The couple will go on to gasp at a mishandled punt—Kathleen calls it a "B.I.J.," which Dabo explains is shorthand for "Ball In Jeopardy"—but momentum soon swells in Daniel's favor. A 55-yard touchdown from freshman Camron Jones sends a jolt through the visiting sideline. "There we go!" Swinney yells. "Bada boom, bada bing!" Daniel will score again to recapture the lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, it begins a march to bury Wren for good.
With a little less than nine minutes to play and the ball at Wren's 25-yard line, a pass arcs high toward receiver Drew Swinney, who is striding up the near sideline.
Dabo's eyes track the ball and his boy. "Go get it!" he says. "Go get it!"
The pass lands in Drew's hands and he crosses into the end zone. It's 30–21, Daniel. It is a dagger touchdown, effectively obliterating the confidence that Wren built early on, and darned if the kid torn up by a first-half fumble didn't score it.
"Boom!" Dabo yells, as he stands up and permits himself to punch the air in front of him. "Hot dog! A little out-and-up! Nice throw!"
As a 15-point Daniel win winds down, Swinney's mind wanders back to Notre Dame's impending visit. "Got a late night, honey," he says, and Kathleen rubs his shoulders. He makes his way down the steps with 19.5 seconds left, stopping on his way out to throw a couple tight spirals to grade-school boys playing catch. Then Clemson's coach is off to find ways to move his nascent title contender forward, to continue toward the end he always believed was there no matter how hard it was to see.
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 to never 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.