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How a timely Discover card envelope changed Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's path

By Andy Staples
January 05, 2016


CLEMSON, S.C. — Dabo Swinney called his mother from Tuscaloosa, Ala., in August 1989 and delivered the bad news. He owed his landlord, Mr. Cotton, $400 in back rent for Unit 81 at the Fontainebleau apartment complex. He owed the University of Alabama about $550 for half of his tuition for the fall semester, and if he didn't pay it by the next day, his enrollment in classes would be canceled.

Swinney, who was trying to become the first in his family to graduate from college, had hit a wall. His Pell Grant and financial aid money hadn't yet arrived. His mother, Carol, didn't have the money. His father was struggling with alcoholism. The walk-on receiver for the Crimson Tide needed almost $1,000 to continue his redshirt freshman year, but he couldn't make the money appear from thin air. "I had no answers," Swinney recalled. "A thousand dollars. At that time, it might as well have been a million for me."

During the call with Carol, Swinney ran down his (lack of) options. "We just cried on the phone," he said. "I told her, 'I'll just come home. I'll work this semester. Maybe I can come back in January.' I was devastated."

Swinney told this story Tuesday as the sun streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows in an end zone club at Memorial Stadium. The Clemson head football coach is a millionaire now. The university pays a handsome sum to the guy who has gone from an interim coach (in 2008) to the architect of a Tigers program that will play on Monday night for its first national championship since 1981. To reach the sport's zenith, Swinney must beat his alma mater. And with the Crimson Tide looming on the schedule, the stories from Swinney's time in Tuscaloosa have come flooding forth. This is one of his favorites. When Swinney visits a church and gives his testimony, he always tells the congregation about what happened on that day in 1989. If he hadn't checked the mail, his life might have gone in a different direction.

With all hope lost, Swinney got on his knees and prayed. He didn't expect a miracle. He expected he would return to Pelham, Ala., the map dot between Birmingham and Montgomery where he was raised. He would work. He would scrape together the money. Then he would return to Tuscaloosa and continue. Would his spot on Alabama's football roster still be there? He didn't know. But he was at peace with his choice—probably because he didn't have one.

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Later, Swinney walked past the basketball court and laundromat to the mail area at the Fontainebleau. He found a stack waiting for him. Tucked between all the pizza coupons was an envelope from Discover. Swinney opened it and read the enclosed letter. He didn't completely understand what it offered, but he recognized what he saw below the letter. "There were two checks attached to it with perforated edges," Swinney said. "Two checks. It makes me have chills to even think about it right now."

The concept of credit card companies sending blank checks to their customers was relatively new at this juncture. Swinney had no credit card that he knew of, and he had little experience with checks. "I didn't have a checking account," Swinney said. "I operated in cash only because, at that time, we had some problems in my family with checks being written. I was scared of a checkbook."

Swinney wasn't sure about the checks in his hand, either. "I thought it was a scam," Swinney said. "I didn't know what it was." Anyone who has been mired in credit card debt would argue it is sort of a scam, but if you've read this far, you already know this is a story financial author Dave Ramsey will hate. Out of options, Swinney decided to check into the checks. "It said, 'If you have any questions, call 1-800-DISCOVER.' So I called 1-800-DISCOVER," Swinney said. "Some lady answered the phone."

The woman on the other end of the line told Swinney that a cardholder could indeed use those checks to purchase anything he wanted—up to his credit limit, of course. There was only one problem Swinney could identify. "I don't have a Discover card," he told her. The woman asked Swinney for his information. After inputting Swinney's info, she declared that he had been issued a card through a special student program. The problem, she said, was the card had been sent to the wrong address and returned to the company. This sent Swinney's head spinning. Had someone gotten hold of his card and tossed him into a debt he couldn't repay? No, the woman assured Swinney. He had a zero balance. Then he asked another question.

"What's my credit limit?" Swinney asked.

"A thousand dollars," she replied, according to Swinney.

This touched off a celebration at the Fontainebleau that probably wasn't topped until Swinney's Alabama team won the national title in the Sugar Bowl following the 1992 college football season. "I went nuts," Swinney said. "This lady is probably telling this story somewhere in America right now. I went crazy."

Swinney recounted his end of that conversation. "Now wait a minute … You mean … What do I do again?"

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After the woman thoroughly explained the process to Swinney, he hung up. Then he called his mom. "We're both crying on the phone," he said. "I got on my knees, just thanking God."

Swinney went to Coleman Coliseum and wrote a check for half of his tuition. Then he went to his landlord and wrote a check for $450. Two checks. One path forever altered. "I'm a thousand dollars in debt," Swinney remembered thinking, "but I'm good to go."

When Swinney's Clemson team faced Ohio State in the Discover-sponsored Orange Bowl after the 2013 campaign, Swinney thanked every Discover executive he met. He also filmed a video for the company's employees explaining how the helpful woman on the other end of that phone call had changed his life. Swinney laughed Tuesday when asked how he squares this story with the be-wary-of-credit-cards speech he—like any parent—must give his own children. "That," he said, "was a specific prayer answered." A few weeks after he wrote those checks, Swinney received his Pell Grant and financial aid money. He paid off the debt, and he budgeted to make sure he never found himself in that type of situation again.

Swinney may tell this story often, but he doesn't think about what might have happened had he returned to Pelham instead of finding a way to remain in Tuscaloosa. His life could have been set on an entirely different course had he not sifted through all those pizza coupons. To Swinney, everything happened exactly as it should have. "Obviously, it was part of God's plan for me," he said. "That's just how I look at it."

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