PELHAM, Ala. — The dream first stirred in the boy when he was four years old.
Sitting in the living room of his family’s two-story house on the corner lot at 1000 Ryecroft Road, his face pressed close to the glow of the television screen, William Swinney would be hypnotized by the action unfolding 60 miles away at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The child they called Dabo—his older brother referred to him as “that boy,” which sounded like “Dabo”—was hooked on Alabama football before he even entered grade school. One day, he told his parents, he would play for the Crimson Tide.
Autumn Sunday mornings were just as special to the boy. With several of his good friends by his side and nibbling on his mom’s chocolate muffins, Dabo would watch The Bear Bryant Show as the Alabama legend reviewed the previous day’s game in his base-thumping growl. The strategies of football fired the boy’s imagination; the making of a coach was underway.
The boy’s father, Ervil Swinney, was an Alabama fan to the marrow of his bones, and he passed down his love of the Tide to Dabo like genetic code. Ervil owned a washing machine repair shop, and he took Dabo to as many Crimson Tide games as he could afford. In 1980, the father loaded his entire family into a car—wife Carol and sons Tracy, Tripp and Dabo—and drove to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Young Dabo was in a state of ecstasy as he watched his beloved Crimson Tide demolish Arkansas, 24-9.
Alabama football became the air he breathed, the sun in his universe. So is it really any surprise that now, more than three decades later, 46-year-old Dabo Swinney has molded his Clemson program in the image of Alabama, the team Swinney will face Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, in the national championship game?
“Dabo has recruited NFL size onto his team the way Bear Bryant did and the way Saban has,” said one longtime NFL scout. “Clemson has perimeter speed on offense like Alabama, and their interior guys on defense will outmuscle you just like the Alabama front.”
Indeed, Swinney has built his defense based on Nick Saban’s philosophy that the key players are the defensive linemen. Saban loves big, athletic interior linemen (one of his pet phrases is, “Heavyweights knock out middleweights”), and Swinney has used the Saban template to construct a unit that finished the season ranked sixth in the country in total defense.
“We’ve built this team in the trenches, and most great teams, that’s where it starts,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage and have some type of running game and stopping the run, and certainly that’s been what Alabama has been for a long time. We’ve tried to do that here.”
There’s another potential Alabama connection to keep in mind tonight when watching Swinney pace up and down the sideline facing the team he grew up worshiping: It’s taken as an article of faith inside the Crimson Tide athletic department that, whenever Saban retires or leaves Tuscaloosa for another job, the first call that Alabama athletic director Bill Battle will make will be to the cellphone of Swinney.
“Dabo would be the perfect guy to hand the program to once Coach Saban moves on,” said an Alabama employee who is close to Battle. “Dabo knows what Alabama football is all about as well as anyone, knows the culture, knows the expectations. And he’s proven himself at Clemson. A lot of people around here believe he’ll be the next in line whenever Nick decides to walk away.”
It would make sense. After all, during Swinney’s head coaching tenure at Clemson, which began in 2008, hordes of his coaches and key support staff members have had experience playing, coaching or working in Tuscaloosa. The current list of past Alabama football figures is deep at Clemson: Woody McCorvey (the associate athletic director for football administration), Danny Pearman (the special teams and tight ends coach), Thad Turnipseed (the director of football recruiting and external affairs), Paul Hogan (the strength and conditioning coach) and Lemanski Hall (a defensive analyst).
What have some of the staffers, behind closed doors, jokingly called the Tigers during the Swinney era? According to multiple sources, a three-word nickname has been uttered: The Clemson Tide.
In high school, the future Tigers coach was a classic overachiever—a characteristic of most successful coaches. At Pelham High, Swinney was a standout receiver. Football became even more important to him in his sophomore year when his home life started to disintegrate. His father’s business was floundering, and Ervil began to lose himself in the bottom of a bottle. Ervil fell deeply in debt.
On nights his dad drank, a terrified young Dabo would hide on the roof of the house or sleep in the car in the garage. Eventually, the family couldn’t make its mortgage payment. The Swinneys lost their house. Ervil and Carol divorced.
Sometimes, Dabo, his mom and his brothers stayed in cheap motels. Other nights, Dabo slept in his mother’s car parked in the woods, or he’d crash on the floor at a friend’s place. But the one thing he always had was the dream of playing for the Crimson Tide.
“We never missed an Alabama game growing up,” said Norm Saia, one of Dabo’s closest childhood friends who still lives in Birmingham. “And the thing with Dabo was, he never got down. Even when his home life was a nightmare, he was positive about life. Heck, he even made me do my homework before we could go out and play basketball or throw around the football.”
But Alabama coaches weren’t interested in Swinney, who enrolled in Tuscaloosa as a student in 1988. He watched the first three home football games that fall sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. He eventually turned to his girlfriend, Kathleen Bassett, whom he met in second grade and began dating in middle school, and—never one to lack confidence—told her that he was better than any of the receivers on the field.
That spring, Swinney was one of 45 players to attend a tryout for walk-ons. The thing that stuck out about Swinney to the coaches was his toughness—at 6'1", 175 pounds, he routinely blocked players who weighed 100 more pounds than him—and the fact that he carried himself like an All-American. After a grueling six weeks of tryouts that were filled with 5:30 a.m. running sessions and trashcans full of vomit, he was one of two walk-ons to make the team.
He began as a scout-team player but played in four games in 1990 and caught one pass for 18 yards. Coach Gene Stallings, realizing Swinney’s financial woes, awarded him a scholarship. He became an ace on special teams. And always, he took his camera with him to every game, snapping photos to document his dream come true.
“Dabo was an athletic, possession type of receiver,” said Jay Barker, Alabama’s starting quarterback from 1992 to '94. “He’s been an underdog his entire life. But he worked at it as hard as anyone, both on the field and off the field. He had a coach’s mind even back then. And in a lot of ways, football was his escape.”
In his sophomore year, Swinney’s mother, Carol, unable to afford housing costs for her son and herself, moved into Unit 81 of the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa with Dabo. The two even shared a bed. But instead of being embarrassed that he took his mom to college, Swinney reveled in it, inviting teammates over to enjoy his mom’s chicken and dumplings.
“We all loved Dabo’s mom because we got home-cooked meals in college,” said Saia, who attended Alabama and walked onto the team with his buddy. “And Dabo just enjoyed having his mom there. He loved her as much as a son could.”
Dabo cleaned gutters to make extra money. And six days a week, his mother was out the door by 6 a.m. to drive 50 miles to Birmingham for her $8-an-hour job at a department store. Carol’s work ethic inspired her son.
Midway through his college career, Saia was involved in a serious car accident. He broke his pelvis and couldn’t walk for months. He moved back to Pelham. One of the few friends to frequently come see him was Swinney, who would drive him around Birmingham to see old friends and coaches.
“Here Dabo was in the middle of his college life, with football a huge priority, and he knew I was going stir crazy. So he’d come and say, ‘Hey man, let’s go for a ride,’” said Saia. “I wouldn’t even get out of the car, but just his positive attitude impacted me.”
In Swinney’s final collegiate season, 1992, he played in all 12 games (he caught four passes for 48 yards) on Alabama’s national championship-winning team. He later became the first person in his family to graduate from college, eventually earning a master’s degree in business administration.
Gene Stallings hired him as a graduate assistant in 1993. Swinney made $489 a month and typically feasted on SpaghettiOs for dinner.
That August, on a warm summer night, he grabbed the hand of Kathleen Bassett, and the two went on a walk around the Quad, the large grassy area in the center of campus. They strolled to the Denny Chimes, a bell tower where at the base the handprints and footprints of all the Alabama team captains since the 1940s are pressed into concrete.
At 10 p.m., the chimes sounded. Dabo dropped to a knee and asked Kathleen to marry him. She melted into a puddle of tears as she said yes. For an Alabama boy, it was the perfect spot to ask the most important question of his life.
In 1996, Dabo became a full-time coach for the Crimson Tide. But, four years later, he was fired along with head coach Mike Dubose and the rest of his staff. Not knowing what he should do, he landed a job in Birmingham in commercial real estate, believing the rest of his life was about to begin. But he grew restless and called his old quarterback.
“I think I need to get back into football,” Swinney told Barker. “I need to see what I can do.”
Tommy Bowden hired him at Clemson in 2003. When Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips surprisingly tapped Swinney, the wide receivers coach who had never even been a coordinator, to be the interim head coach.
Swinney had a well-earned reputation as a top-notch recruiter—his silver tongue was responsible for landing running back C.J. Spiller, the top-ranked running back in the class of ’06, according to Rivals.com—and he responded by guiding the Tigers to a 4-3 record to finish out the ’08 season. The interim tag was removed from his title.
And now, as he prepares to play his home-state team for the national title, Swinney already has pulled off perhaps his most remarkable upset: Tonight dozens of former Crimson Tide players will be wearing the Clemson colors and rooting for the ultimate underdog.
“I’ll be in the stands in my Clemson gear just like a ton of past Alabama players,” said Saia. “If you knew what Dabo has been through to reach this moment, then you’d cheer for him, too. And hey, maybe one day Dabo will be back where he belongs—at Alabama.”