SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA >> Before coming to Clemson 13 years ago, all Dabo Swinney ever knew was Alabama.
The Tigers coach grew up in near Birmingham, and like so many boys his age, dreamed of playing football for the University of Alabama and coach Bear Bryant. He fulfilled part of that dream.
Swinney graduated from Alabama, married a girl he met in first grade, and worked as a Crimson Tide assistant coach in Tuscaloosa. When he was away from coaching, he worked in commercial real estate for a former Crimson Tide football star. One of the shopping centers Swinney helped create during his other life is still thriving in Hoover.
Now Swinney stands at the pinnacle of his career, facing his past. The top-ranked Tigers (14-0) face No. 2 Alabama (13-1) on Monday night in the College Football Playoff, seeking a national title.
"I think God has got a sense of humor," Swinney said. "I really do. I think it's great."
Swinney's love of Alabama football came from his father, Ervil Swinney. William Christopher became Dabo when he was just a baby and his older brother called him "that boy," and it sounded like Dabo.
Swinney grew up watching the Tide dominate on Saturdays and Coach Bryant talk about the previous day's game on his Sunday television show. Bryant retired after the 1982 season and died only a few months later. Swinney cried that day.
His high school years were hard. His father became violent when he drank and his parents split when he was in high school. Swinney eventually reconciled with Ervil, who died last year at 70 after a lengthy illness.
Just finding a place to live was tough for Carol Swinney, now McIntosh, and her sons. When Dabo Swinney was at Alabama, his mom moved in with him and his roommate. Dabo and his mom shared a bedroom and a bed.
"It was a special time," Swinney said. "A little small. But we lived in apartment 81. That was my high school number, and I lived in apartment 81, lived there for five years, and my mom lived there with me for three years, my redshirt sophomore, junior, senior year."
In his first year as a graduate assistant coach, "we got fancy," he said. "We rented a little house over toward City in Coventry was what it was called. We rented a little house, and we each had our own room. That was big-time."
Both apartment 81 and that place on Coventry were destroyed by the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa in 2011, and the thought of losing a bit of his past still seems to sadden Swinney.
Swinney was a scrawny wide receiver at Pelham High School. When he went to the University of Alabama it was not with a football scholarship. He sat in the stands at Bryant-Denney Stadium as a freshman and watched games with that girl he met in first grade, Kathleen Bassett. Swinney saw receivers dropping passes and thought he could do better. So he went out for the team and made it as a walk-on. Bill Curry was the coach at the time, but when he left Gene Stallings took over in 1990. Stalling had played for and coached under Bryant.
"We felt like we get the next best thing in coach Stallings," former Crimson Tide quarterback Jay Barker, who was a couple years behind Swinney at Alabama.
Swinney was never a great player. He caught seven passes in his career at Alabama and played on special teams.
"He tried real hard and he needed a scholarship and I gave him one," Stallings said.
Swinney's final game for the Crimson Tide was the 1993 Sugar Bowl against Miami. The Tide upset the Hurricanes to win its first national title since Bryant had stepped down. It was also the last one until Nick Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa in 2007.
When Swinney was done playing, he became a graduate assistant under Stallings and eventually Stallings gave him his first full-time job in coaching.
"I'm going to pay you $38,000 and that's more than you're worth but I know you'll do me a good job," Swinney said, doing a spot on impression of Stallings' low, gravelly voice.
Swinney stayed at Alabama even after Stallings was gone, but when coach Mike Dubose was fired after the 2000 season, Swinney was let go, too.
It was then he stepped away from coaching and took a job leasing commercial real estate for Rich Wingo, a former Alabama linebacker who was also Swinney's strength and conditioning coach with the Tide.
"I would see Dabo periodically at church," Wingo said. "I always thought the world of him. He was a skinny, wiry, but tough kid."
Swinney did well in his new job, and visitors to the Patton Creek Shopping Center in Hoover can see the fruits of his work still thriving. Dabo and Kathleen built their dream house in Tuscaloosa and he was standing in the driveway with the builders when then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden called to offer him a job as Tigers wide receivers coach.
"I'm the golden son-in-law because I got all three boys living in Alabama. All of our family's there," he said. "I became a goat real quick. I'm going to move all these grandbabies to Clemson, South Carolina."
At Clemson, Swinney went from wide receivers coach to head coach to one of the top coaches in college football. He is 75-26 in eight seasons leading the Tigers.
For many Alabama fans, he has become their second-favorite coach behind Saban.
"There really is a soft spot for him," said Barker, who hosts a talk show in Birmingham. "He's got something that coach Saban will never have. He played at Alabama. He's got that Bryant influence. Coach Bryant and Coach Stallings influenced how he approaches life and the way he approaches the game. It's really how they perceived building men more than winning games."
In some ways, Alabama fans look at Swinney as their coach in-waiting, the obvious replacement for the 64-year-old Saban, whenever he does leave the Tide. For now though, Swinney knows at least a few Tide fans are conflicted.
"I've kind of found out where I stand with some of them, but it's a great match-up, and the two best teams," Swinney said. "That's just the way it's worked out, and I think it's special."