Swinney Style: Dabo leads top-ranked Clemson with a smile
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Tony Elliott wasn't sure what to expect when he found out his new receivers coach was a guy named Dabo.
Elliott, a senior when Dabo Swinney was hired by Clemson in 2003 and the top-ranked Tigers' co-offensive coordinator now, knew of the comical sayings and uncommon manner and wondered how well this might translate to football performance.
"He's was something else," Elliott recalled with a smile.
That's the essence of Swinney, Clemson's 46-year-old coach who leads his 14-0 team into the national championship game against buttoned up, blue blood Alabama on Monday night.
Swinney often says the fun of football is in the winning — and he hasn't let the unbridled joy take a back seat to anything this season.
He holds Dabo Dance Parties in the locker room after each victory and shows off a herky, jerky style — think Elaine Benes from Seinfield — that has his players both laughing hysterically and covering their eyes in horror.
"He's getting better," defensive end Shaq Lawson said. "It's still not good."
Who cares? Certainly not Dabo, who has enjoyed the ride almost from the time he took over as Clemson's interim coach in the middle of 2008. Asked then about what he kept in mind regarding his chances of earning the fulltime job (Spoiler alert, Swinney got it following the season), he referenced Lloyd Christmas' huge underdog line as he tried to get the girl in Dumb and Dumber: "You're telling me there's a chance."
Not all of Swinney's words land with a laugh.
He drew strong criticism when he went on a rant for the ages eviscerating Clemson's chief rival South Carolina in 2011 (after the Gamecocks won their third straight game in the series), which seemed the musings of a petulant young coach taken to school by the master, Steve Spurrier.
Still, the message worked and the Tigers rallied from the Gamecocks loss to win the ACC title over Virginia Tech a week later.
He sometimes says more than he should, like when the promise of a Death Valley pizza party followed a routine question about whether he and the Tigers would celebrate if they made the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
After some planning and coordination, though, about 30,000 people came to the football stadium on a chilly December morning to eat a slice of pizza and celebrate Clemson's top seed.
"He keeps things fun," Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said.
Even this week, Swinney chuckled about Alabama's championship pedigree.
"We've got a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case," Swinney quipped of Clemson's cherished 1981 national title. "They've got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa."
Swinney speaks in slogans. This year's battle cry came at midfield following Clemson's thrilling 24-22 win over Notre Dame in early October.
"Tonight it was BYOG, bring your own guts," Swinney said to a national audience. "They brought some guts and some heart and they never quit until the last play."
BYOG, trademarked by Swinney's promotional company, Katbo LLC, quickly showed up on orange T-shirts and car magnets.
"It was just one of those things that kind of took off. He thought it was a good idea, and I said, 'OK,"' Swinney said.
Swinney's company has also registered the names "Dabo" and "Dabo Swinney."
Swinney said he doesn't test out phrases or word play, just speaks from the heart. He thinks the attention coming now is simply a product of success.
"I guess we've got a good team, so it's like E.F. Hutton, when you say something, all of a sudden it's a bigger deal. I had a lot of good things in 2010, and nobody would listen. Y'all missed some good stuff in 2010," said Swinney, recalling Clemson's last losing season, when it went 6-7.
Swinney said acroynms, like BYOG, crystalize his thinking into something catchy, memorable and easy to digest.
"I'll define it for the team, sometimes like an acronym," he said.
Swinney was quiet as a walk-on receiver at Alabama, said his position coach there, Woody McCorvey. "That's what shocks me when I hear him now," said McCorvey, now Swinney's chief of staff with the Tigers.
Elliott believes people who paint Swinney as a goofball miss his genius for organization and leadership. Swinney has an ability to make you want to sign on with him, be it a high school prospect or a coach like Elliott who was an engineer for tire giant Michelin before returning to football.
"He's as passionate and competitive as anybody else in the country and it's a shame that he gets that reputation because he's enjoying what he does," Elliott said.
Swinney does not ever want to coach a team where winning doesn't bring out a happy, no-holds-barred celebration. If the Tigers defeat Alabama on Monday night, the party might not stop until next fall.
"You work too dang hard," Swinney says, "not to feel good about a win."