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Sport Dabo Swinney turns 50: A look at Clemson's coach through the decades

18:35  20 november  2019
18:35  20 november  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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CLEMSON, S.C. – Even in T-ball, Dabo Swinney was finding ways to win.

“The parents are all out on the field, shifting kids around, and Dabo’s set up to hit down the third-base line, so everybody shifts to that side of the field,” said longtime friend Alex Morton. “Then Dabo jumps around to the front of the box and busts it out past second base. He’s always been messing with people and figuring things out before anyone else does.”

Fast forward 40-plus years and Swinney is on the cusp of his 50th birthday.

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And still messing with people.

Showing up for team meetings wearing a pink sports coat.

Channeling his inner Justin Timberlake while executing post-victory dances in the locker room.

Pranking fellow coaches with exploding golf balls.

Winning games by an average margin of 35 points in what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year, at least defensively.

Dabo Swinney wearing a football uniform: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talks on the sideline during his team's game against Wofford at Clemson Memorial Stadium. © Adam Hagy, USA TODAY Sports Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talks on the sideline during his team's game against Wofford at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Swinney is in his 11th full season as Clemson’s head football coach and already has no equals. He has won 127 games and lost only 30, guided the Tigers to a school-record nine straight seasons of 10 or more victories and won two national titles.

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Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence defended Swinney over his “Football Matters” shirt and said the entire program would Clemson basketball player Aamir Simms said it was “sad” people were looking to bring down Swinney . Swinney , 50 , has been the head coach at Clemson since 2009.

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Players love him.

Fans adore him.

He’s the highest-paid coach in the nation and perhaps more importantly is worth every penny in the eyes of Clemson fans.

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Swinney will celebrate his 50th birthday on Wednesday, although “celebrate” is a relative term. He’ll pause to enjoy a slice of his favorite cake – sour cream with cream cheese frosting and pecans – at the team’s weekly supper, but he won’t tarry long.

“It’s crazy this time of year,” says Swinney’s wife, Kathleen. “We really can’t celebrate because he’s got to work. I think in the offseason he and I will celebrate."

Dabo and Kathleen have been married for 25 years, and this is how most of her husband’s birthdays have unfolded – put on hold until there’s an escape clause for a week or so after spring practice.

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The days and weeks and years and birthdays have rolled by in a relentless procession.

“It’s just amazing,” Kathleen says. “I can’t believe how time has clicked by, but I'm so proud of my husband and the amazing program he has built.”

Dabo at 10

Dabo Swinney first caught Kathleen Bassett’s eye at Valley Elementary School in Pelham, Alabama.

He was in second grade, she was in first, but the attraction was there from the get-go.

“We were always just really great friends, from 7 years old on,” Kathleen said.

The friendship flourished, then was upgraded a few years later when both served on the school’s safety patrol and student council.

a person wearing a wedding dress: Dabo Swinney (seventh grade) and Kathleen Bassett (sixth) as childhood friends at a middle school dance in Alabama. © Courtesy photo Dabo Swinney (seventh grade) and Kathleen Bassett (sixth) as childhood friends at a middle school dance in Alabama.

“We had a dance and he asked me to go to that,” Kathleen said. “So I guess it was our first official date. I was nervous, but really excited.”

And what does she remember about Dabo’s dancing skills?

“It was just little slow dances,” Kathleen said. “Nothing quite like the scene it is today with him dancing in the locker room.”

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Dabo and Kathleen maintained their friendship at Riverchase Middle School and eventually Pelham High, where Dabo was a multi-sport athlete for the Panthers.

For the junior-senior powderpuff football game, Dabo led a group of seniors who dressed up as the coaching staff, with Dabo playing the role of legendary Pelham head coach Billy Tohill.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Dabo Swinney rebounds a basketball during a Pelham High School game in Alabama. © Courtesy photo Dabo Swinney rebounds a basketball during a Pelham High School game in Alabama.

“It was really funny,” Morton said. “And looking back it was kind of prophetic that he took on that role.”

Another childhood friend, Norman Saia, said he was reminded time and again that Swinney was cut from a different cloth.

“Even as a young kid, he was always the leader,” Saia said. “I was a year older than him and I never studied, but before we’d go to the gym and play he’d make me sit there and study. Even back then he was coaching and teaching.”

Dabo’s roaring 20s

By his 20th birthday, Dabo was a walk-on football player at the University of Alabama.

His birthday fell two days after the Crimson Tide defeated Southern Miss and a gunslinging quarterback named Brett Favre 37-14 to improve to 10-0 in their third and final season under Bill Curry.

His position coach? A young assistant named Tommy Bowden.

Saia, who started his career at Jacksonville State, got a call from Swinney, who told him of his plan to walk on at Alabama.

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“He said he didn’t want to do it alone,” Saia said. “So we walked on together.”

Saia was hit by a drunk driver after his sophomore season, breaking his pelvis and effectively ending his football career. But Swinney didn’t allow their friendship to end.

“The winter after football season he would drive to Birmingham, come and get me and put me in his car and take me back to Pelham where we grew up and see whoever we could see,” Saia said. “He always had a great heart.”

At Alabama, Gene Stallings replaced Curry after the 1989 season and Stallings quickly developed an affinity for the hard-working Swinney.

“He was just an average player,” Stallings said. “But he wanted to be a good player, and that was important to me.”

a man standing on a baseball field: Dabo Swinney, left, with teammate Chris Donnelly at the 1992 picture day for Alabama football. © Courtesy photo Dabo Swinney, left, with teammate Chris Donnelly at the 1992 picture day for Alabama football.

Stallings eventually put Swinney on scholarship and Dabo was a wide receiver on the Crimson Tide’s national championship team in 1992.

After graduating in 1993, Swinney joined Stallings’ staff as a graduate assistant, starting in the weight room and finally landing a gig as wide receivers coach in 1995.

“Everything that he got he had to work for,” said Woody McCorvey, who was on Stallings’ staff at the time and today serves as Clemson’s associate athletic director for football administration. “It wasn’t like anything was given to him. Coach Stallings gave him an opportunity and he capitalized on it.”

One of the first things McCorvey noticed about Swinney was his meticulous note keeping.

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“He was copious about taking notes – same way he is today,” McCorvey said. “I mean, every time you see him he’s writing something down, and it has served him well.”

Dabo at 30-something

Swinney ushered in his decade of the 30s in memorable fashion.

He was in his second season as wide receivers coach at Alabama when the Crimson Tide rolled into Auburn and defeated their archrival 28-17 on Swinney’s 30th birthday.

Alabama would go on to pound Florida 34-7 in SEC championship game before losing to Michigan 35-34 in the Orange Bowl to cap a 10-3 season.

But Swinney’s days at Alabama came to an unceremonious end the following year when Mike DuBose, who had succeeded Stallings, was let go after a 3-8 season. Swinney left football for a while – not by choice, of course – and worked two years in real estate as a shopping center developer.

He was successful but unhappy, so when Bowden called to offer him a job coaching wide receivers at Clemson in 2003, Dabo jumped at the opportunity.

It would turn out to be the most fateful decision of his life.

Clemson was a successful program, and Swinney quickly became a popular figure among the players – even those players who played other positions, as then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips noticed on numerous occasions.

When Bowden was relieved of his head coaching duties following a loss to Wake Forest midway through the 2008 season, Phillips tabbed Swinney to be the interim coach.

Dabo Swinney holding a child: Clemson's interim head coach Dabo Swinney hugs Tyler Grisham (13) and athletics director Terry Don Phillips after the Tigers beat Boston College on Nov. 1, 2008. © BART BOATWRIGHT/Staff, Greenville News Clemson's interim head coach Dabo Swinney hugs Tyler Grisham (13) and athletics director Terry Don Phillips after the Tigers beat Boston College on Nov. 1, 2008.

“That didn’t surprise me at all,” said Chris Donnelly, a former teammate of Swinney’s at Alabama. “I knew that everybody loved him because of his personality and I knew that they needed someone who could hold the ship together for seven weeks. He was the right guy.”

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Swinney hit the ground running and the Tigers won four of their final six games, including a 31-14 decision against South Carolina that helped convince Phillips to remove the interim tag.

Swinney was named Clemson’s head coach 11 days after his 39th birthday.

“God put Dabo in this situation because he can handle it,” Kathleen said at the time.

Dabo’s fabulous 40s

The next year, on his 40th birthday, Swinney was busy preparing his 7-3 Clemson team to play Virginia the next day at Memorial Stadium. Clemson won 34-21, its sixth victory in a row en route to a 9-5 season. Five weeks later to the day, Swinney got his first bowl win as a head coach when Clemson beat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, 21-13.

Dabo and Kathleen and their three sons celebrated Christmas with a tiny tree on a bedside stand in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Tigers slipped to 6-7 the next season, after which Swinney boldy declared that the next decade would be the best in Clemson history.

Turns out, he was right.

Dabo Swinney standing in front of a crowd: Clemson interim head coach Dabo Swinney reacts after quarterback Cullen Harper (10) scored on a 3 yard run during the 1st quarter against Boston College Saturday, Nov. 1st, 2008 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. © BART BOATWRIGHT/Staff, Greenville News Clemson interim head coach Dabo Swinney reacts after quarterback Cullen Harper (10) scored on a 3 yard run during the 1st quarter against Boston College Saturday, Nov. 1st, 2008 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Clemson went 10-4 the next season and won the program’s first ACC title since 1991, launching a series of successes that show no signs of wavering.

The Tigers have not won less than 10 games in any season since.

Swinney’s unparalleled success at Clemson has created quite a quandary for some of his former Alabama teammates, many of whom visit Swinney regularly and attend Clemson games.

“I’m not gonna lie – I’m crimson in the blood,” Donnelly said. “I love Alabama, but I root for people.”

That goes a long way toward explaining why Donnelly’s son, Carson, is a walk-on safety for the Tigers and roommates with the Swinney’s middle son, Drew, who’s a wide receiver on the team.

“The first two times Alabama and Clemson played, I looked at it like I couldn’t lose,” Donnelly said. “But last year, with my son on the team, I was decked out in orange.”

Dabo at 50

As Swinney turns 50, he’s likely too busy to pause and reflect for long.

He’s on the cusp of yet another ACC Championship, his team hasn’t lost since the final game of the 2017 season and is ranked No. 3 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.

He celebrates every victory like it’s the first of his career.

His players are happy because they all get to play.

He lets offensive linemen score touchdowns and linebackers attempt PATs.

Yes, Swinney at 50 is much like Swinney at 10 – energized, happy-go-lucky and wearing a permanent grin.

a close up of Dabo Swinney: Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney and former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden before the game at Memorial Stadium with Boston College in Clemson, South Carolina Saturday, October 26, 2019. © Ken Ruinard / staff Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney and former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden before the game at Memorial Stadium with Boston College in Clemson, South Carolina Saturday, October 26, 2019.

“Dabo has never changed,” Donnelly said. “One of the most astonishing things I remember about Dabo is he was always happy, always smiling, always upbeat – even at practice.

“We’re in the middle of two-a-days at Alabama and we’re running and it’s 110 degrees and he’s smiling. I’m like, ‘What world do you live in? Can I live in your world for a little bit?’ ”

Indeed, one gets the sense that it’s Dabo’s world and the Clemson fan base is just living in it.

The good thing is Swinney wants everybody to come along for the ride.  

“He’s always been the epitome of the glass is half full,” Donnelly said. “I always knew he’d be successful. If he decided to go into the military, he’d be five-star general. If he went into the business world, he’d be a CEO. If he chose politics, he’d be president.

“But I knew he’d be a head coach one day. He’d been preparing for it his whole life.”

This article originally appeared on The Greenville News: Dabo Swinney turns 50: A look at Clemson's coach through the decades

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