CLEMSON, S.C. – Precisely five years ago this week, Dabo Swinney sat in a hotel room and broke into a cold sweat of panic.
It was the eve of his first game as interim coach of the Clemson Tigers. Yet he wasn't overly worried about leading the Tigers, even if succeeding the suddenly fired Tommy Bowden and trying to rally a 3-3 team in a matter of days was both emotional and exhausting.
No, this was simply about leading Clemson onto the field.
Swinney had planned for everything: offense, defense, pregame speech. There on a Friday night at the team hotel over in Anderson, however, he realized he hadn't prepped for the Tigers' pregame tradition of touching Howard's Rock and running down the steep, grassy hill in the east end zone of their massive home stadium, his players charging behind him. The assistants don't run it. They walk onto the field from a different entrance. It's an honor bestowed on the head coach.
"I just sat there and thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to have to run down that hill tomorrow in front of 85,000 people and a bunch of people with TV cameras.'"
At that point, he was no one. Just an anonymous assistant with a funny name – growing up in Alabama, William Swinney's older brother referred to him as "that boy", which sounded like "Da-bo", which sticks to this day.
Clemson was mired in mediocrity. The fan base was divided. He was just the placeholder until they hired someone good at the end of the year.
Everyone expected him to fall, figuratively, on his face doing this job. Now he wondered if he'd do it literally before the opening kick.
"Most people's reaction when they come here and see the hill for the first time is, 'Dang, I didn't know it was that steep,'" Swinney said Thursday morning. "And it's grass. The players have cleats. I just have tennis shoes. And there's a hump. About halfway down, there's the hump. So that throws off your stride."
So here was a man whose life is defined by faith – faith in his religion, faith in himself (he dared to walk on as an undersized receiver at Alabama), faith in his ability to overcome obstacles (he grew up in a chaotic family, full of alcohol abuse and even a stretch of homelessness in high school), even faith in what he could turn Clemson into if he just got the chance.
Namely, he saw this program as it is now, five years later, the No. 3 team in the country, hosting No. 5 Florida State on Saturday. It's another huge night, center stage nationally with another visit by ESPN's GameDay, with recruits lining up, fans aligned, and the power of the orange in full effect.
"Five years ago, I could see us being here," Swinney said. "You have to have vision for that. You have to dream about that. But you can't just get from there to here."
At least, not until he got down that hill without wiping out.
There is plenty around here that makes the 43-year-old Swinney proud: the consecutive double-digit win seasons, the 2011 ACC championship, the victories over SEC teams, the new state-of-the-art facilities, the sellout crowds even for lesser games on the schedule, the success of his former players, the momentum in recruiting. He treasures it all.
He now runs a nationally relevant, national championship-contending program that shows no signs of slowing down.
"This is where Clemson should be," he said.
Yet maybe most of all, he is proud of Clemson, the school, the city and the community that stretches across this state and this region of the country. He's proud of what the word means to those who hold it dear. He's proud that orange and purple are cool to wear.
He's proud that students and alums and fans can brag with just about anyone again.
He's proud that this school tucked off in the upstate hills, surrounded by SEC powers, is where the action is. He's proud, he says, "of the paw."
Swinney loves the pageantry of college football. He is not just some soulless CEO, oblivious to anything but the X's and O's on the field. He lives and loves all the other stuff: the tailgates, the colors, the fight songs, the flags.
On game days when he was just an assistant here, he would walk from where the program hosted recruits right through a couple parking lots of fans grilling and drinking and carrying on. He wondered if he had the greatest job in the world.
"This is college football, man," he says.
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So of all the things that needed to be changed on the fly when he took over a downtrodden team on Oct. 13, 2008, he thought an infusion of that attitude, of that pride, of that appreciation of how precious this opportunity is, might be most important.
That first game he immediately set up a "Tiger Walk." The pregame buses no longer dropped the players off at the door of the locker room, where they just shuffled in. Instead they stopped a few hundred yards away, making them walk through a line of screaming fans. And sweat suits and headphones were out. Coats, ties and interaction with the people were in.
"I want these players to know how big a deal this is," Swinney said. "If you can go through that Tiger Walk and you're not ready to play, something is wrong.
"It's a reminder, every week, that 'man, people care.' It's just a game, but it matters. It's important how we play and how we represent this university. People drive five hours to watch you play and then drive five hours back. They spend their money on this. A lot of these guys aren't wealthy. We have a blue-collar fan base.
"We may not win all our games but how we compete, how we play, the pride that we take in playing the game a certain way, should be important."
He even rerouted the way the bus travels to the stadium. It used to avoid traffic by circling through rural roads and sneaking up on the stadium. No longer. Swinney told the administration the buses needed to wheel right through the heart of campus, right through the middle of it all.
There was some pushback. Traffic. Troopers. Logistics.
"I said, 'Y'all are not listening to me. You want to win the game? We are not going that way.' So we got the troopers into my office and we worked it all out. I got a map out and said, 'Here's what we're going to do.'
"I need these guys to see the whole pageantry of Clemson."
Can a bus route really matter? Swinney says it's not even open for debate. Clemson couldn't be Clemson unless the passion of those inside the program matched the passion of those outside the program. He believes in everyone with a hand on the rope.
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Clemson is 30-5 at home under Swinney, including winning 17 of its last 18. And this is no longer a good but rarely great team that seemed to be clinging to a bygone era when it was truly nationally relevant. It's 27-6 over the past two-plus seasons.
The Tigers are 6-0 overall this season and have everything still in front of them. The Florida State game is for control of one side of the ACC. Considering they already beat then-No. 5 Georgia to start the season, Swinney lays out the idea that the Tigers, if they win Saturday, would deserve to be ranked No. 1 in the country, essentially leaping Oregon and Alabama.
"In my mind, if we win this game, there won't be anyone in the country who will have done what we have done," he said. "[In the whole country] there will be three victories over teams ranked in the top five [at kickoff].
"And Clemson will have two of them."
Dreaming big? What else do you expect? In the interim, he's soaking up every bit of this.
Across campus, ESPN is building its stage for the second time this season. The buzz around town is palpable. RVs were already rolling in on Thursday morning.
And Swinney isn't hiding in his bunker, grinding game footage. He had a pickup basketball game on campus scheduled for noon Thursday and was heading out to his oldest son's junior varsity football game later. It's the usual routine. He regularly grabs lunch at Subway. He's a prolific Little League coach for all three of his sons – "I stink as a baseball coach, but I have a lot of fun." He has a foundation and is active at his church.
He wants to live this, to experience this, to enjoy this, being the head coach of a big program. What's better than that?
He turns the discussion to the season opener against Georgia, to the impact football can have. ABC didn't just broadcast the game, it spent more than six minutes of live television – much of it brilliantly shot from the blimp high above – showing the Tigers boarding buses outside their locker room, rolling around the gorgeous stadium before lining up to touch Howard's Rock and roll down that hill as fireworks shot into the air.
It was mesmerizing television, the big-time in a small-town.
"It was a six-minute infomercial, narrated by Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger," Swinney said.
Dabo is so giddy at the thought, he breaks into a Musburger imitation.
"Here we go folks," says Swinney, channeling Brent's deep, deliberate tone, "the Clemson Tigers are coming around … one of the great traditions in college football …"
As the Tigers ran down the hill that night, Georgia's players, in Swinney's description, tried to charge them in an intimidation effort. "Just being jerks," Swinney said. They were held back at the end, so there was no harm, no fights. Whatever. That's college football, too.
Swinney laughs that it didn't work and at Musburger's description of the congregation of Bulldogs watching the Tigers race by.
"Even Georgia," he mimics, "had to take a peak …"
"Man," Swinney said, switching back in his own voice, marveling at the publicity. "We couldn't write a check that big. … It was awesome."
He begins to talk quickly.
"That's what this is all about," he said. "Our guys getting a chance to play in big games. In a big environment. Our school. Clemson. That's what we get to do again on Saturday Night against Florida State. Right here in Death Valley. Right out there. That's why you want to come to Clemson, to do this kind of stuff ..."
He's just getting started. Clearly.
So back to the cold sweats and the panic attack and the top of the hill and Howard's Rock for the first time. Back to five years ago.
It's all easy to laugh about now, when it's all worked out so well, but Swinney had no idea what was coming then.
A no name/funny name interim coach with seemingly no chance leading a going-nowhere team. Swinney said he got off the bus and just eyed the slope of the hill and tried not to get psyched out. And this is from an athlete who played on Alabama's 1992 national title team.
Everyone around him was yelling, he recalls. Fans shouting, players shouting and Dabo staring, thinking about how if you go too slow, you get run over, you go too fast and you crash. He focused on his feet.
"I'm thinking, 'Pick them up and put them down, just pick them up and put them down.' And then when I get to the bottom of the hill, just keep going. Get to the 50-yard line and high-five everyone."
As he waited for the moment to run, he approached Howard's Rock and in a release of all the tension of the week and in appreciation of the opportunity in front of him, he surprised himself by kissing it.
Kiss the rock? Do you know how many unwashed hands have rubbed that thing?
"My mom wasn't happy with that," he laughed. "It was just an instinctive thing. It was, 'Man, this is happening.'"
Finally the cannon shot off, signaling it was time to run. Off went Dabo, down the hill and into his future, into a glorious Clemson future perhaps only he saw coming, one where the games just seem to get bigger and bigger and better and better and then bigger and better again.
"Running that hill," he says, "it's amazing. It's humbling. It's intense. It's exhilarating."
He finally pauses for a breath.
"It's just something that never, ever gets old. Never."
It's Clemson Football, man.