Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports
CLEMSON, SC (USA TODAY) - Years before he got the multimillion-dollar contract or hugged a sideline reporter on national television or started convincing some of the best players in the country to play for Clemson, Dabo Swinney wanted to build his dream house.
The plans had been drawn. Construction had started. Then, just a year after winning the SEC championship as an assistant at his alma mater, Alabama, everybody got fired and the house got built for somebody else. Swinney took a break from coaching, unsure what path his career - inside or outside of football - would take.
It wasn't long before Tommy Bowden called, offering a chance to get back in. And when Swinney arrived at Clemson as the wide receivers coach, he brought the blueprints with him and built the same house all over again.
Those kinds of parables run through the life of William Christopher Swinney, who still lives in that house a decade later.
He's the son of an alcoholic father who lived in public housing as a teenager, walked on at Alabama and eventually earned a scholarship on a national championship team. He was the virtually unknown career assistant who got thrust into the head coaching job midway through the 2008 season, then earned the gig permanently against all conventional wisdom. And when he got the job, with an entire fan base begging him to clean house, Swinney was the head coach who instead got his assistants more money and two-year contracts because he didn't want them out in the cold.
The next year, Clemson made the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game for the first time in its existence.
"He's a compassionate dude," assistant head coach Danny Pearman said. "He's compassionate toward not only his family but my family, our families as a collective group and he'd be compassionate to your family if they were sitting here. I think that's probably his best gift."
In the world of big-time college football, that is not the image most coaches would choose as the model for their programs or personas. At Alabama, they focus 365 days a year on a process. Oregon was built by a shoe company. The button-downed haughtiness of Ohio State has carried over seamlessly from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer.
But the man at the center of Clemson's orbit is not afraid to emote, not shy about placing value in people over systems and refuses to become the corporate robot that has emerged as a prototype for national powers. Swinney's unique story and style has attracted recruits and fans, but in some ways, it also has made him an easy target at a program with a history of brushing up against greatness and then going soft when the stakes get too high.
And now, with a stacked roster and a favorable schedule, another moment of truth arrives Saturday for No. 8-ranked Clemson when No. 5 Georgia visits Memorial Stadium: Does Dabo have the goods to win it all?
"I've just never really gotten caught up in what people think about me, because I can't control that," Swinney said. "I know who I am. I know the price I've paid to be where I am. We've built a foundation that can sustain some success. That's really all I'm after. And you know what? If we can consistently compete, we'll have that special year."
It was nearing midnight last New Year's Eve, and Clemson was just about done. The Tigers had fought hard against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, far surpassing the 70-33 humiliation West Virginia laid on them in the previous season's Orange Bowl. But facing fourth and 16 with just 82 seconds left and needing a long drive to get in winning field goal range, it appeared the effort would go unrewarded.
For everything Swinney had to done to advance the program, collapsing in big moments had become a nagging issue. The Tigers couldn't hold a two-touchdown lead against Florida State last season and fell just short again against South Carolina, feeding the common perception that Clemson under Swinney has been far more style than substance.
No matter how well Clemson had played against LSU, a 10-3 record with a bowl loss to an SEC power wasn't going to be a program-changer. But in a timeout before fourth and 16, tight end Brandon Ford urged offensive coordinator Chad Morris to run a play they call "Florida Switch," betting that LSU's safety would track him to the perimeter like he had on the previous snap and allow receiver DeAndre Hopkins a chance to make a play down the field.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd delivered the perfect pass, the Tigers worked their way into the red zone, and Clemson sprinted into the offseason with a 25-24 victory, a moment punctuated by Swinney picking up ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards and lifting her into the air. Of course the ensuing teary-eyed interview went viral on YouTube because, well, it was just Dabo being Dabo.
But for a program whose collective toughness had been questioned against elite teams, this felt like a breakthrough, even more than winning the ACC in 2011 for the first time in 20 years.
"You knew it was a moment in a program's history where, I don't want to say turned a corner, but you hit a landmark," Morris said. "You just beat a team that for the last 10 years had won more games than anybody in college football. And from a confidence standpoint, it's kind of like, 'OK, now we achieved that. This is who we are.' "
Now the country will tune in Saturday to see whether Clemson has built off that, whether it can once again stand up to a top-10 team from the SEC and be considered a national championship contender, not a finesse team whose gadget offense implodes when the physicality goes up.
"I mean, we watch TV. I've got cable," Boyd said. "You hear all these things, and people say you should ignore it, but you can't. It's everywhere. But this program has a lot of pride, and Coach Swinney has made this program into a power. One of the things we don't want anyone to ever question is our toughness as a program."
Different coaching mold
The recent dominance of detail-obsessed, terminally serious figures such as Saban and Meyer has made it too easy to stereotype those such as Swinney, who was never a coordinator, made his reputation as a recruiter and was derided as an uninspired hire for a program that had perhaps rested on its laurels a bit too much in the 1990s and didn't improve the infrastructure as much as it should have to keep up with Florida State, Virginia and later Virginia Tech in the ACC.
But Swinney possessed qualities that perhaps even Clemson's administration didn't know were there. He wasn't going to just settle for being a first-time head coach, he was going to push for new facilities and funding, which has put the program on par with basically any in the country. He committed to hiring an elite staff, accepting less money for himself so that he could pay Morris $1.3 million and lure Brent Venables from Oklahoma last season to fix the defense. And underneath his nice-guy image, he has not been soft on discipline, as evidenced by his decision to suspend star receiver Sammy Watkins for the first two games last season over a minor drug violation.
Until now, Swinney has been easy to underestimate. But a win against Georgia, on top of what Clemson did against LSU, and all that changes.
"He's done a great job of seizing the moment, being in the right place at the right time and capitalizing on the work ethic he's had," said Sean Frazier, the athletics director at Northern Illinois and a former Alabama teammate. "He's passionate, and what you see is what you get. But I'm telling you, he can straight-up coach."
In many ways, the LSU win elevated Clemson and Swinney to a place neither had been. In other ways, there are still questions; Georgia, for instance, will go into Death Valley as a slight betting favorite. But no matter what, the vibe around Clemson won't change. Swinney will keep rolling in the recruits and piling up the wins, and he'll go home every night to that dream house he started 10 years ago.
"I've had people say things to me like, 'Don't change.' I don't know how to be anything other than myself," Swinney said. "I can't do it this guy's way or that guy's way. The thing I enjoy the most about being the head coach is that I get to create the climate. I get to control the environment everybody comes to work in every day, and I'm very in tune to the chemistry, the morale of my staff, my support staff, my secretaries, the guy cleaning the building, the players, the walk-ons. It really matters to me that they all have a good experience, and that starts with me."