Fearlessly, Swinney has exceeded expectations at Clemson
CLEMSON, S.C. — An unexpected call from a scary man changed Dabo Swinney's life.
On the other end of the phone was Rich Wingo, the former Alabama linebacker who was the Crimson Tide's drill-sergeant of a strength coach when Swinney played at the school. Wingo had a job offer for the former walk-on receiver. Not in football, but in real estate.
Swinney was an out-of-work assistant coach at the time — a long way from being the coach of No. 1 Clemson — with no experience in real estate. But the money sounded good. So for two years, Swinney leased space in shopping centers.
"I became a much better coach after those two years out," Swinney said. "I was very successful. I figured it out pretty quick. I had a bright future if I wanted to stay that path, but I had a confidence because I was successful doing something else. Sometimes coaches, that's all they've ever done and there is this fear. I have never felt that."
Fearlessly, the 46-year-old Swinney has embraced challenges and exceeded expectations throughout much of his life. Those who have had the foresight to invest in Swinney have reaped huge rewards.
Just ask any Clemson fans. Seven years after Swinney made the huge jump from wide receivers coach to head coach of the Tigers, they are a victory away from a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"He's done a very good job of being the CEO of the program," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said. "He's real. He's grounded. He creates a great environment for his coaches and his players."
Clemson plays No. 8 North Carolina on Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Swinney's career as a college player started in the stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium, watching the Crimson Tide play when he was a freshman at Alabama. He decided to try to walk-on to the team, figuring he could do better than the receivers who were on the field.
Swinney eventually earned a scholarship. After his playing days, he became a graduate assistant at Alabama while working on an MBA.
Tide coach Gene Stallings gave him his first big break, hiring him as wide receivers coach.
"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 his best impersonation of Stalling's deep and gravely grumble.
Swinney had a difficult upbringing. His father drank too much and was abusive when he did. His parents split when he was in high school. Swinney became a devout Christian while in high school and that helped get him through the hard times.
"The change in me was I had this peace and this hope and this confidence in a better future than I ever had (before)," he said.
As an assistant at Alabama, life was good for him and his wife, Kathleen.
But upheaval is always one bad season away for a coach. Alabama went 3-8 in 2000, head coach Mike Dubose was fired and Swinney was let go, too.
Swinney didn't immediately hook on with another school, and since he was getting paid until August, he decided to take a season off, fully intent on getting back into the business the next year.
Then he got that phone call from Wingo.
"I hated Rich Wingo," Swinney said. "I was scared to death of him."
Wingo did not feel the same about Swinney.
"Dabo, when he came to Alabama, he was a skinny, wiry, but tough kid," said Wingo, who is now the senior developer at Blackwater Resources in Birmingham, Alabama. "I just saw such character in this guy. A lot of it because of the tough times, and the fire that he's been through. I can't teach people how to work late, how to get up early. Dabo had that. Of course, Dabo's never lacked confidence either."
The way Swinney caught Wingo's attention at Alabama, he did the same at Clemson with Terry Don Phillips, who was the Tigers athletic director from 2002-12.
Swinney was lured back to coaching in 2003 by Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who hired him to coach receivers.
"I didn't know Dabo from Adam's house cat," Phillips said.
But every time the old defensive lineman would watch practice, he was drawn to Swinney.
"It didn't make any difference if the player was on the first rung or on the last rung, he's going to coach them the same. If you didn't do it right, you were going to keep doing it until you got it right," Phillips said.
Swinney was also an ace recruiter and players flocked to him. Phillips would constantly see them hanging out in Swinney's office.
"He's always had the enthusiasm. He's always had that energy about him," former Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly said. "If you're around him it kind of helps you be the same way."
In the middle of the 2008 season, with Clemson struggling, Bowden resigned and Phillips made the bold step of handing the program to Swinney.
"I knew there was going to be criticism and second-guessing," Phillips said. "There wasn't a doubt in my mind that he could be successful."
Clemson is 73-26 under Swinney and three victories away from its first national championship since 1981.
Swinney tells his players to be the best they can be at whatever it is they are doing, on the field and off.
"You never know," he tells the Tigers, "who's watching you."
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