CLEMSON, S.C. – Each morning Dabo Swinney rises early and attacks the task of pushing Clemson's football program among the national elite, a place – that based on potential alone – the Tigers should've reached years and decades ago. Through moments of challenge, crisis and inevitable celebration, Swinney's thoughts are never far from his mother, Carol.
He thinks of the little Alabama girl stricken with polio at 18 months old, her body so mangled her head touched the side of her foot. He thinks of the iron lung she needed to breathe. He thinks of her being sent to the Birmingham Crippled Children's Hospital for the next 11 years of her life, growing up isolated from her own mother, who could only visit when she had money for the train in on weekends, and her father, who bailed on the family for most of her life.
He thinks of the neck-to-knee body cast she endured for 14 months, and how she was able to wave only her arms. He thinks of the battler, just 5-foot, 100 pounds, who never gave up her dream of normalcy, and who eventually grew healthy, attended a regular high school and even became a pretty majorette.
"That's how tough she was," Dabo says of his mom, still healthy and living near Birmingham.
And he thinks about the days and nights and years when it was just he and she, the rest of their immediate family seemingly lost. His dad was an alcoholic whose business failed. His older brothers found themselves in occasional trouble, too, seemingly following the path of their father.
He thinks about how they wound up essentially homeless his senior year at Pelham (Ala.) High School. Dad was out. Money was scarce. The house in the suburbs was gone. First, they hit up cheap motels. Then they set up in a townhouse only to be evicted within three months. Mostly, they slept on the floor of a family friend until the stretch of time Dabo lived in his grandmother's government-subsidized apartment, smaller, he notes, than his current office at Clemson.
"I was humiliated," he said of the time. "I was prideful. I didn't want people to know we weren't this perfect family. But you reach a point where you just don't care anymore."
And it was that point, that moment, when the relentless spirit of self-determination that continues to drive him was cemented.
There are no obstacles in Dabo Swinney's mind, just opportunities. There are no excuses. There is little sympathy. Faced with wallowing in perceived reality or driving forward to a path in which he controlled his future, there was never a bit of hesitation.
There still isn't.
So what if he was the poor son of a drunk, a statistic waiting to slip through the cracks of society? He studied so hard he got into the University of Alabama and walked onto the vaunted football program as a wide receiver. The roster said he was 6-foot, 175 pounds.
"When I looked in the mirror I thought I was 6-4, 210 pounds and ran a 4.4," he said. "I thought I was as good as anybody there."
He wound up with a scholarship and a starting spot in the 1992 national title game.
Prior to that, however, he first rented a little apartment with another 'Bama student that cost him $130 a month for his share. Because that was all he and his mother could afford – even later when tuition was free – Carol became a roommate too. Mother and son even shared a bed each night. Then she was out the door at 6 a.m., six days a week, off to an $8-an-hour job back in Birmingham, only to return exhausted each evening.
Yes, Dabo Swinney, Alabama wide receiver, took his mom with him to college.
"I'd feel bad for the other guy, 'I've got a roommate … and his mom,' " Swinney laughs now. "I often joke about it. I mean, talk about cramping your style. It's a wonder I ever got married."
Actually, Swinney's wife Kathleen, whom he met in first grade and dated since sixth, was undeterred. Not by mom. Not by the lack of money. Not by anything.
Dabo's first name is really William, but his older brother Tripp, then just a toddler, kept referring to him as "that boy." It sounded something like "Dabo." The name stuck. That boy's ability to cheerily step through challenges and sweep people up along the way with a preacher's passion is unchanged and perhaps unmatched.
Swinney wasn't embarrassed about having his mom share his small room in Unit 81 of the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa, surrounded by all the other college kids and the general behavior such a place fosters. Instead, he invited everyone over when she'd make a big pot of chicken and dumplings or chili.
This was his fate. This was his family. He wasn't hiding it. He was using it to push toward the promise of a better day he knew was coming because, well, because Dabo Swinney, instilled with toughness from his mom, full of the lessons of failure from his dad, wasn't going to allow it to be any other way.
Not then. Not now.
Which is why, in all of the outrageous moments, all the against-the-odds moves and all of the audacious dreams of Dabo Swinney and his mother's collective lives, his latest dream really isn't much.
"I want to win the national championship here at Clemson."
The 10th-ranked Tigers travel to No. 4 Florida State on Saturday in a game that could go a long way to determining whether Clemson gets the chance to play for the title this year. This is a knockout game in the ACC's Atlantic Division, and even though Clemson arrives a bit ahead of schedule – the young roster has just 22 juniors and seniors – Dabo isn't turning down the opportunity.
Besides, he knows the perception of Clemson is that this kind of success – and a place on the national stage – should be the norm. Here is this passion-rich program with the famous stadium (Death Valley, Howard's Rock) right in the middle of so much Southeast talent that no one can figure why it's been flailing about all these years.
But it has. Clemson finished atop the polls in 1981. It won the ACC in 1991. Since then, there's not been much. Until Dabo, in his first full season as head coach, delivered an ACC division title in 2009, Clemson endured a 17-year stretch where it won no championships of any kind and averaged a 7-5 record.
Last season, the Tigers claimed their first outright league championship and 10-win season in two decades despite having 42 freshmen or redshirt freshman.
"Over the last three years we've probably overachieved," Dabo said.
He knows almost no one else sees it that way, but he also knows almost no one else knows how it was here, how Clemson had fallen into an accepting mindset, with non-existent facilities, non-competitive salaries to keep talented assistant coaches, and a generally defeatist attitude about its spot in the football pecking order. The place seemed somewhat satisfied to just have a big orange party every Saturday and watch the guys touch the rock and run down the hill.
"For whatever reason, I think Clemson lost their way, lost their swag if you will," Swinney said. "And really kind of lost their commitment. This place was not committed facility-wise. And I don't personally think they were committed resource-wise on a national level.
"People always want to talk about this conference. I'm not really interested in this conference. I'm interested in being the best. I'm interested in competing with everyone out there. I've got to beat those people. I've got to beat them in recruiting and I've got to beat them in the field. That's my mentality."
The Dabo sensation has not gone unnoticed within the program. Longtime staffers speak of his unapologetic sense of drive. Coaches marvel at his endless positivity; "he's a glass-half-full guy," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who was lured from Oklahoma. And the players say the place thinks like a champion now, which makes the players realize everything is possible.
"I think it's a certain mindset, a certain attitude, that for awhile wasn't here," said quarterback Tajh Boyd. "But I think this program, the type of players we are recruiting here, the kind of coaches that we have here, are changing that culture."
Dabo said it had to occur from the inside out, and it had to include bricks and mortar.
"Our facilities were terrible," he said. "And it's still not finished. We're still building an indoor facility. We just got a training table. It just opened in August. We were way, way behind."
Then there was the general disarray of the end of the Tommy Bowden era, where it seemed like Clemson just stopped pushing like the others. That, more than anything, drove Dabo, then a hard-driving assistant, crazy.
"I was told you can't go recruit C.J. Spiller," Swinney said of the 2006 five-star, top-10 national recruit out of Florida who was heavily pursued by Alabama, Southern California, Florida State, Florida and Miami. "[I was told], 'You're wasting your time recruiting that guy. He ain't coming to Clemson.'
"That was the mentality here. I don't get that. I'm like, ‘What do you mean I can't recruit him? He takes my call every week. He likes me. He says he wants to visit.' "
Spiller, of course, signed with the Tigers, became an All American and delivered 199 all-purpose yards in a 31-14 victory over South Carolina in 2008 that essentially turned Dabo from interim head coach to the future of Clemson football.
The Tigers will never, ever back down from recruiting the best again. Dabo has amassed consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, turning heads across the country. He has the potential for another this year and boasts a verbal commitment from the nation's No. 1 player, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, Ga., part of his pointed effort to mine the greater Atlanta area, most of which sits within a two-hour radius of campus.
When it comes to taking on Alabama or LSU or anyone else, he sees no reason he can't win.
"I've never seen myself as a second-class citizen," he said.
"This is a special place. And we can recruit. We have a great staff. We have completely overhauled our recruiting resources. We don't back down from anybody. We're not going to get them all, but if we do it right we'll sign a great class every year and once you do that, you can compete."
Still, Swinney knows the expectations. And he knows the doubts remain. He's still anonymous to many. Just 42 years old, with a face that looks younger, and that funny name. Clemson had a losing record in 2010, when he says the rebuilding was in effect. They were blown out in the Orange Bowl last year, giving up 70 to West Virginia. Saturday's game in Tallahassee, even with Clemson as a two-touchdown underdog, has the eyes of everyone on this young coach upsetting things on the recruiting trail.
As is his wont, he refuses to listen to the negativity, the you-can't-do-this. He points to the positives.
"About the only thing people can ding us on is we haven't won the national championship and we haven't beaten South Carolina," he said. "Those are the only two things, from a program standpoint, we haven't gotten done the last three years.
"National championships are hard to win and South Carolina has been a really good team."
Not that he doesn't think Clemson will eventually do it.
Swinney received a lot of national praise this season when he suspended his star sophomore receiver, Sammy Watkins, for the first two games of the year after an offseason drug arrest. That included the highly anticipated opener against Auburn.
Plenty were surprised Swinney didn't follow the national trend of sitting him against weaker opponents or simply forgiving him completely.
They shouldn't have been. He isn't exactly the softest-heart guy out there.
"Listen, I come from the most screwed-up dysfunctional situation," he said. "You've got violence. Police at your house. Your dad's gone. Nowhere to live. I want people to know, if I can make it, anybody can make it.
"That's why I don't have much sympathy for people. I'm not a sympathetic guy when I see people throwing their lives away and using their life's obstacles as excuses to fail. I just don't buy into that."
If you think suspending a guy for two games proves it, consider when Swinney sat back and watched one of his own brothers wind up so far into the depths of alcoholism he was living in the streets of Atlanta.
"He became an alcoholic and for 20-something years just threw his life away," Swinney said. "It used to just infuriate me. And he used to say, ‘you this and you that.' No. It's about the decisions we make in life. No, we don't control who our parents are. We don't control what color we are. We don't control what home we are born into. But we control our attitude, we control our work ethic, we control our drive and our commitment.
"He finally hit rock bottom, was homeless in Atlanta and he finally reached out. I had said, ‘When you're serious, call me.'
"He finally did and I said, 'OK. Well, it's on my terms, here's the rehab center you're going, and I'll pay for it and you're going to finish it, and if you don't, you're on your own. You're either going to jail or die and that's your choice. But I'm not going to enable you.'
"At some point, enough is enough."
The rehab took. Dabo now enjoys having both his brothers in his life, as well as his father, who sobered up himself and mended fences. Carol, his mom, has been a constant presence, of course.
Upon becoming Clemson's head coach, with a rich contract and a major platform, Dabo and Kathleen set up a charity. It supports a number of causes, from fighting breast cancer, which has stricken Kathleen, to promoting education in South Carolina schools. It also promotes the "The Family Effect," a local organization "working to reduce addiction as the leading cause of family collapse and harm to children." It makes a significant impact on lives.
So, too, Dabo knows, is simply sharing his story. There are untold kids in screwed-up situations who can be inspired just hearing that it's possible to find a way out, that an individual's course is not necessarily determined by the failure of others, even their parents.
"I grew up in a world where I was told, ‘you can't, you can't, you can't, you can't," Swinney said. "And I had every reason not to believe that I could be successful.
"And that's what happens in this world," he continues. "They buy the lie. They buy the lie that the devil's trying to sell them. And I don't buy that lie. And I never have and never will."
Not for him. Not for his mom. Not for Clemson.
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