CLEMSON, S.C. — Back then, Dabo Swinney was another assistant coach waiting to be fired. The idea that he would bring a national championship to Clemson with the chance for many more was a vision that only he held. The thought that he would one day lead this program to 53 wins in 57 games a pipe dream.
"October 13, 2008," Clemson's head coach says from his lounge chair in a cavernous office that could house his whole football team. Unlike most coaches who carefully choose their words, Swinney is an open book and a master storyteller. This particular story, how all this was made possible, is one he recalls with vivid detail.
After the Tigers lose to Wake Forest the Thursday before, Swinney spends that Friday night recruiting a wideout in North Carolina. He walks into the Clemson facility that Monday morning wearing gray sweatpants and a T-shirt. It's his turn to lead the weekly devotional at 7 a.m., which he does with the rest of the coaches. Just another Monday.
At 10:30, his world is turned upside down when Tommy Bowden announces he has been fired. Athletic director Terry Don Phillips then tells the coaches that Swinney, the Clemson wide receiver coach, is the interim head coach. Not the offensive coordinator or the defensive coordinator, but Swinney.
Notebooks are slammed. Pens thrown. Words exchanged. The assistants, knowing their employment status is in doubt, call their wives to deliver the news.
"Babe, we're fired," Swinney tells his wife Kathleen as she begins to cry. "Oh, and it gets worse. I'm the interim."
Swinney grabs a notebook and pen and heads toward the athletic director's office to discuss next steps. On the walk, he thinks about his new life as a lame-duck head coach. He regrets turning down an opportunity months prior to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, his alma mater.
He meets with Phillips, and suddenly his emotions shift. The athletic director, he realizes, is giving him a chance. A long shot, certainly, but an opportunity.
"I'd love to see you get this job," Phillips tells him. "I'm going to do a national search, and I'm going to interview, and I'm going to hire the best coach for Clemson."
"But in my heart, I believe you might be that best coach," he says, turning to leave before adding: "Now, it would help to win a few ballgames."
Swinney floats out the room. With a sudden burst of adrenaline, he finds a vacant closet down the hallway, shuts the door and begins filling his notepad with ideas. Ways to change the offense. How he wants to alter practice. How he could connect with fans in new ways, even if it was all for nothing.
Years earlier, Clemson's longtime sports information director Tim Bourret prepares a press release to announce Swinney's hiring as the team's wide receivers coach. While he pieces together Swinney's coaching history for the release, he notices the last few years of his resume are noticeably absent.
Bourret knows that Swinney began his coaching career at Alabama as a graduate assistant in the early '90s before becoming the tight ends and wide receivers coach. But he's not quite sure where he's been since he was fired in 2001.
When he asks Swinney to help fill in the blanks, Bourret says, "He tells me that he wasn't coaching during those past few years, that he was selling real estate." Momentarily taken aback, Bourret remembers exclaiming, "Oh my God."
In all his years in sports information, Bourret says, "I haven't had a whole lot of guys come in straight from that profession."
One of Swinney's first tasks as an assistant coach is to land a coveted wideout out of Jacksonville, Florida—a territory dominated by Florida and Florida State in the early 2000s.
Up until a few days before national signing day, Swinney is confident the player's verbal pledge will hold. But at the last second, the wideout signs with Florida.
"He was heartbroken," Bowden recalls. "At the time, he was shocked that a guy would lie to him and flip right there at the last second."
But in the recruiting cycles and years that follow, Swinney proves his worth to his head coach. In that time, more programs come calling. When Saban tries to lure him away, Bowden knows he can't match the salary being offered. But he offers up the title of associate head coach, a title he keeps in his back pocket for instances like this one. It is a title that Alabama is unable to match.
"Don't ask me what an associate head coach actually is," Bowden says. "But it's a title."
Tajh Boyd is one of the most coveted quarterbacks in the country. After decommitting from West Virginia and Tennessee after Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer retires, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel and Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly are after one of the top QBs in the 2009 class.
Boyd isn't considering Clemson. Under Bowden, the team didn't recruit him. But when Swinney takes over, he lands an in-home visit. He walks in shortly after Tressel departs.
Unlike Tressel, Swinney can't sell Boyd on his reputation or offer realistic expectations of instantly winning national championships. Instead, Swinney delivers a message that is totally authentic.
"He told me that his mom lived with him in college," Boyd says. "He told me that his dad was an alcoholic. For him to be that transparent really said a lot. I mean, he didn't sell me on anything. He was vulnerable. He told me exactly who he is and where he comes from. And that's most impressive of all."
Boyd commits to Clemson, giving Swinney his first 5-star recruit as a head coach.
C.J. Spiller is exhausted. After finishing up track, he goes right to football practice, even though his legs feel like jelly.
The running back returns to Clemson in 2009 rather than declare for the NFL draft largely because Swinney is the head coach. He has been promised a heavy workload, which he embraces. But at the moment, he's exhausted, so he walks rather than jogs the final five yards off the field after a practice drill.
This is one of Swinney's pet peeves. So rather than cut his star running back some slack by allowing him to walk those last few steps, Swinney chastises him in front of the entire team, making him jog back to midfield and then jog to the sideline.
"He was trying to send a message that he didn't care who you are," Spiller says. "It set the tone for everybody else, because when they saw that, the whole team went, 'Oh, s--t.' If he can yell at C.J., he can yell at anybody.' My respect level [for him] went to an entirely different level that day."
In the moments that follow Clemson's 29-7 loss to South Carolina in 2010, a humiliating defeat in a six-win season during Swinney's second full year on the job, the head coach finishes his postgame press conference before greeting his wife.
She tells him the athletic director is in Swinney's office and wants to speak with him. He kisses her and wonders if the negativity surrounding the program has become too much to bear. He's not convinced he's going to be fired, but he doesn't exactly feel safe as he nears his office.
When Swinney enters, Phillips is sitting on his couch. The lights are off. "Terry, I'm sorry," Swinney tells him. "We're going to get better. I know we're on the right track."
It turns out Phillips isn't there to fire him. He tells Swinney he has his back, no matter the criticism that is sure to come. He expresses his satisfaction with the progress being made, and he believes the victories are coming next.
"And if it doesn't work like I think it's going to work, here's what we can do," Phillips tells him. "You can come over and help me pack. Then I'll come over and help you pack."
Phillips smiles, gets up from his seat and walks out.
Days after learning he wasn't going to be fired, Swinney meets with the media for the first time. "I know you're all disappointed," he tells them. "But in 2020, this will be the best decade in Clemson history."
Months after he is drafted in 2014, Boyd is cut by the New York Jets. The moment sends him into a downward spiral for a couple of weeks. "I was in a dark, dark place," Boyd says.
He doesn't answer his phone. He removes himself from the grid entirely. His mother grows so concerned that she phones Swinney, asking if he could help. Shortly after, Boyd breaks down in his coach's office. He feels as though he has let the program and the university down. In his mind, he has failed. Swinney quickly dismisses the notion.
"He told me about the countless people I had touched and reminded me that no matter what happened in the NFL that this would never change," Boyd says. "If we never would have had that conversation, I honestly don't know how things would have turned out."
Around Christmas, the Swinneys open their home to the Clemson community, serving hot chocolate while greeting the many families who stop by.
A Santa Claus is perched on the roof wearing an earpiece. Swinney, wearing a microphone tucked under his jacket, asks children what they want for Christmas when they arrive and then relays the message to Santa, who is magically able to tell them what they want before they can tell him.
"His house is like the Griswolds' in Christmas Vacation," former Clemson offensive coordinator and current Arkansas head coach Chad Morris says. "I mean, there's not enough electricity in Clemson because he's pulling the surge for all of the Christmas lights there. But that's who he is."
When Frank Beamer retires from coaching in 2015—having spent nearly three decades at Virginia Tech—he receives a package in the mail from Swinney shortly after the announcement is made.
Inside is a note and a personalized football that features a rundown of his impressive coaching accomplishments at Virginia Tech: his 238 wins, his five ACC Coastal and four ACC titles. Beamer is pleasantly surprised. He never expects a fellow ACC coach to do anything more than perhaps a phone call.
"He didn't have to do it," Beamer says. "But he did. We competed against each other, but we had a lot of respect for each other. And I think something he and I both shared is that we wanted to be the same people during and after football games. And I have always appreciated that [about him]."
Getting the entire roster and coaching staff in the appropriate places is no small task, although that is precisely what Bourret is attempting to do. It's January 8, 2017, the day before Clemson faces Alabama in the national championship game. The Tigers are preparing to take a team photo.
Having done his job, Bourret steps aside. But before the photographer can take the photo, Swinney demands that Bourret, who has worked with the football team since 1978, join them. The players and coaches cheer the request.
"I run up there and do as I'm told," Bourret says. "With all the pressure of a national championship game the next day, for him to think of that, I just find that incredible."
Bourret retires from his post as sports information director after nearly 40 years a year later. At his retirement party, Swinney is introduced to say a few words. However, he is nowhere to be found.
At that moment, Swinney appears from behind a building, driving a golf cart and honking the horn.
On the golf cart are two logos: Clemson and Notre Dame—for Bourret's second home and his alma mater. It's not until Swinney is right beside him that Bourret realizes the golf cart, a retirement gift from Swinney, is his.
"This thing goes three speeds, and it's got all the bells and whistles. I mean, it's the nicest damn golf cart I've ever seen," Bourret says. "My only regret is I don't have video of him going to this golf-cart place and asking for a Notre Dame logo."
Each month, Clemson wideout Hunter Renfrow writes a check to Swinney for $425. Beyond being a walk-on receiver just like his head coach, Swinney and Renfrow share another bond.
"He's my landlord," Renfrow says through laughter. "Usually coaches pay players, right? That's what people say? Well, I'm paying the coaches."
Renfrow is roommates and close friends with Will Swinney, Dabo's son. They live together off campus, so he pays rent to his head coach—something that has been cleared by the NCAA. As a result of that friendship, Renfrow and his coach have spent time together away from the football field. They've gone on vacations together. They play basketball.
"He's crafty with the ball," Renfrow says. "He plays hard, that's one thing. And for [almost] 50 years old, he is really, really good."
On the football field, Renfrow and Swinney are an effective tandem as well. Down three points with six seconds remaining in the 2017 national championship game, Renfrow caught a touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to lift Clemson to a 35-31 victory.
The play itself is not what Renfrow remembers most about that night. Instead, it was a halftime speech that seemed to resonate after Clemson scored only seven points in the first half.
"We were sitting in there," Renfrow says. "And we really hadn't played that well, but he stood in front of the team and said, 'Look, we're going to win this game. I'm not really sure how, but I believe we're going to win.'"
The national championship is won in Tampa, Florida—the city where Swinney coached his team during his first ACC championship game. The coincidence is not lost on him. Neither is the fact that he has 88 wins going into the game—the jersey number he wore at Alabama, his opponent that night.
The moment Renfrow catches that pass from Waston, everything changes. "It's spiritual," Swinney says. "That's the best word I can give you. It's emotional. I mean, just pure, pure joy."
With a win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on December 29, Clemson will get another crack at a national championship and perhaps its fourth game in as many years against Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Now, such a moment is anticipated if not expected. But a decade ago, it was merely a hope.
Sitting in his same chair in his same spacious office, Swinney quickly and casually recites the programs that have endured coaching changes since he started at Clemson.
Three for Michigan. Three for Florida State. Three for Miami. "A couple for Georgia," he says before touching on Ohio State and the numerous schools that have made coaching changes in the past decade.
"I am in my 16th season here, and I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Swinney says.
But as his achievements have grown, so has his ambition.
"Everyone wants to win championships, and so do we," Swinney says. "But I want us to be one of the most consistent programs in college football history. That's really what I want."