Though there had been brief spurts of success throughout the school’s history, the Clemson football team was never a sustained powerhouse until coach William “Dabo” Swinney came along. Before his arrival, the Tigers had just one national championship. Then-coach Danny Ford had led the team to much success, but had a falling out with the administration and left following the 1989 season. For years afterward, though, Clemson football was in purgatory.
Following Ford was Ken Hatfield, who had the same problem with the administration and left the school in 1993. Tommy West then stepped in, but his teams got progressively worse each year. Tommy Bowden became Clemson’s mainstay from 1999 until 2008. Bowden resigned in the middle of the season, with Swinney taking over as the interim head coach.
Clemson didn’t have quite the prestige of a Notre Dame or Ohio State type of school at the time, but many were still surprised that a relatively unknown position coach was given the keys to the Clemson program when he was named the permanent head coach. For Clemson, it made sense as Swinney was considered one of the best recruiters in the nation. In college football, that can be more valuable than drawing up a good game plan.
What did Swinney’s road to becoming the Clemson coach look like? A lot of his history is tied to another college football program that Swinney has gone head-to-head with many times as a coach: the University of Alabama. Swinney was born in Alabama and remained in the state for the entirety of his young life. He walked on to the Crimson Tide team as a wide receiver, playing for three seasons mainly as a backup.
Swinney chose to attend graduate school at his alma mater while also taking on an assistant job on the Alabama coaching staff. Following three seasons, Swinney was given a more prominent role. From 1996 to 2000, Swinney served as both a wide receivers coach and tight ends coach. In his final season, though, Alabama struggled mightily, finishing 3-8 and unranked after starting the year ranked #3 in the country.
With that, Swinney’s coaching career almost ended entirely. He instead went to work in the real estate industry with a friend and former Alabama assistant coach. It wasn’t until Tommy Bowden took the job at Clemson that Swinney got back on the sidelines. Bowden was the wide receivers coach at Alabama during Swinney’s playing days, meaning that Clemson’s hiring of Bowden opened up a door that they never would’ve expected.
It was a shaky first couple of years for Swinney, including one season with a losing record. However, Swinney would right the ship and became one of the most prominent figures in the rich history of Clemson Tigers football. Swinney became the second Clemson coach to win a national championship for the program, and the first coach to win multiple titles.
Interestingly enough, Swinney had no interest in becoming a coach once his playing days were over. It was by chance that he went to watch an Alabama practice while he was in grad school, but his former coach spotted him. “Next thing I know, coach (Gene) Stallings, he’s like, ‘Hey, you need to get a master’s degree, I’m gonna pay for it, and I need a graduate assistant coach, and you start in July,’” Swinney said. “I had never even thought about coaching a day in my life.”
Afraid to say no to Stallings, Swinney wound up taking the job. Within the first couple of days, Swinney knew that he made the right call. Sometimes all it takes is a little push in the right direction to find your calling, and that’s what happened to Swinney on that spring day in Tuscaloosa.