CLEMSON, S.C. — Last Thursday night, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had an immediate reaction when it became clear his team would face Alabama for college football’s national championship.
“I think it’s kind of neat,” Swinney said. “I think God has a sense of humor. I really do.”
Swinney, who grew up in the Birmingham suburb of Pelham, played on Alabama's 1992 national championship team and holds two degrees from the university.
"You're looking at a guy who grew up in the state of Alabama," Swinney said. "My dream was to play there, to go to school there. I was the first in my family to get a college degree. And to get it from the University of Alabama was a dream come true for me and my family."
Swinney went to Alabama at age 18, earned his two degrees, went to work as a graduate assistant and then as a full-time assistant. He didn't leave Tuscaloosa until he was 31.
For three of those years as a student, his mother, Carol, lived with Swinney and his roommate in Unit 81 of the Fountainbleau Apartments. That's because when Swinney was in high school, his father, Ervil, left the family after battling alcoholism. Swinney and his mother lived off his Pell Grant money. They slept in the same room for three years.
"You do what you have to do," Swinney said of those days. "I loved having my mom there. When you're in the middle of situations in your life, you make the best of it. That is what the happiest people in the world do."
So understand that Dabo Swinney's love and respect for Alabama is much more than a man's normal affection for his alma mater. Alabama is where Swinney's personal drive was forged. And that drive has led him to the top of his profession and brought him unimagined material wealth. Last January, Swinney signed an eight-year deal with Clemson that paid him $3.15 million this season and is worth over $27 million over the life of the deal. This season, he already has earned $800,000 in performance bonuses. That total will exceed $1 million with a win Monday night.
Swinney's mother has remarried and attended last week's Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Ervil Swinney turned his life around and reconciled with his son; they spent some meaningful time together before the father passed away in August at age 70. Ervil, a lifelong Alabama fan, would have loved the run-up to this game, his son said.
"To be in my first national championship game against Alabama ... I just have to smile for me personally and for my dad," Swinney said. " 'Big Erv' goes home to be with the Lord. I just have to believe he's having a lot of fun up there. At his little (hardware) shop down there in Alabaster, it would be a scene right now with people coming up to talk to him. Alabama and Clemson -- that's his two teams."
Swinney is the first to admit that his personal rags-to-riches story would not have been possible without the opportunities Alabama gave him. So it is only fitting, he said, that his first national championship game come against the Crimson Tide.
"This is the way it ought to be," Swinney said. "If you're gonna play for the national championship and you have a chance to play against the team that has been (college football's) standard-bearer ... you have to be excited about that. We embrace that and we look forward to competing against them."
In taking Clemson to the national championship game against Alabama, Swinney continues a long-standing relationship between the schools. Clemson's only national championship came in 1981 with Danny Ford as coach. Ford played at Alabama (1967-69) for Bear Bryant. He won 96 games in 12 seasons as Clemson's coach and lives on a farm just outside Clemson.
Frank Howard was Clemson's coach for 30 seasons (1940-69). He played at Alabama (1928-30) for Wallace Wade. He came to Clemson as a line coach in 1931 and never left. He won 165 games.
In Clemson's football history, there have been 25 coaches. Five of those (Swinney, Ford, Howard, Charley Pell and Hootie Ingram) were graduates of Alabama. Those five men have 366 of the school's 703 wins (52 percent).
"There are a lot of closet Clemson fans in Alabama. They just don't want to admit it," Swinney said. "I think we've become a team that (Alabama) people pull for. Our brand has definitely grown down there."
Swinney worked at Alabama until Mike DuBose and the entire Tide staff was let go after a 3-8 season in 2000. Swinney could not find another job in coaching, so he worked as a leasing agent in commercial real estate for two years.
In 2003, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden hired Swinney as his wide receivers coach. When Bowden resigned midway through the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips named Swinney Clemson's interim coach. Swinney just completed his seventh full season and has had five consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.
This is his 13th season overall at Clemson and on three occasions he had opportunities to go back to Alabama. Swinney talked about it last week in an interview with Paul Finebaum of the SEC network.
* In January 2003, new Alabama coach Mike Price, who replaced Dennis Franchione, offered Swinney a job. Price withdrew the offer three weeks later because he wanted more veteran coaches on his staff. Price never coached a game at Alabama after being dismissed for personal transgressions.
* In 2006, Rich Rodriguez accepted the coaching job at Alabama and was set to hire Swinney. Rodriguez changed his mind and stayed at West Virginia.
* When Nick Saban took the Alabama job in January 2007, he offered Swinney a job. But Swinney told Saban it was too close to National Signing Day. Now he is facing Saban for the national championship. Saban is going for his fifth title. Swinney his first.
"They (Alabama ) represent the best, and there is no way you can argue with that," Swinney said. "This is their fourth national championship appearance in seven years. They've won 15 already. We've got one lonely trophy sitting down there in that trophy case.
"I have a lot of friends in Alabama. I have a few of them who are conflicted. We just want to beat the best. So let's go play the best and see if we can get it done. Let's measure up and see if we're good enough. And if we're not, then we'll go back to work. It's exactly the way I would have wanted it to be."
And there is one last thing that William Christopher Swinney wants you to know before he coaches the most important game of his life on Monday night.
"We're going to win a national championship. Hopefully it will be Monday," Swinney said. "But if we don't, we're not going away. ... We're not."
THE ALABAMA CONNECTION
Five of Clemson's 25 coaches have been Alabama alums. Those five have accounted for 366 of the school's 703 wins.
Frank Howard (1940-69), 165 wins
Danny Ford (1978-89), 96 wins
Dabo Swinney (2008-present), 74 wins
Charley Pell (1977-78), 18 wins
Hootie Ingram (1970-72), 12 wins
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
(Feature photo by KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS)
© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.
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