This story appears in FCA Magazine’s September/October 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
Luke 6:45 (NKJV) says, “For out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks.”
What came out of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s mouth following his team’s epic 35-31 win over Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 9 was revealing. With 74,512 fans crammed into Raymond James Stadium and some 26 million more watching on TV, Swinney told ESPN’s Rece Davis, “Only God can do this.”
Months later, Swinney’s memories of that night are still vivid: Quarterback Deshaun Watson’s famous “Let’s be legendary” exhortation in the huddle with 2:07 left and Clemson trailing, 31-28; the two-yard “Orange Crush” pass from Watson to Hunter Renfrow (poetically, a former walk-on, just like Swinney) with one second left for the win; the Gatorade shower; arriving at the team hotel at 3 a.m., and then staying up celebrating with friends and family until 8.
It’s all there, recorded on his mind’s game film.
“Most of all,” he says, “I remember the quietness in the locker room after the game. We could finally breathe and love on each other. It was really special. The trophy and all that was great, but that was special—young people saying they love each other.”
The next day, nearly 6,000 fans filled the parking lot at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium to hail the victors as if they were conquering Roman legions. The enthusiastic masses poured adoration on Swinney because, after all, he was a champion. They loved him because he had returned the Tigers to the football preeminence that somehow feels like annual birthright in Death Valley. Yet perhaps some of the celebratory gusto stemmed from an unconscious, deep-seated appreciation for the extraordinary—and often excruciating—path Swinney has taken to the summit.
“As great as that moment was in Tampa,” he says, “it pales in comparison to the journey it took to get there. It’s always how you get there.”
So, how did the kid with a heart-wrenching backstory get here? How did he ascend to all of this?
How did Dabo Swinney become the football coach who doubles as CEO, pastor, traveling salesman, evangelist, motivational speaker and stand-up comedian—all mashed into one kinetic tour de force? He’s a passionate, outspoken man who hurls himself into everything he does. He’s Mr. Quotable, a walking one-liner, a master of effortless acronyms, metaphors and pithy quotes to charge up his troops, whether they are players, coaches, recruits or potential donors.
The answer is the same as it was on that unforgettable night in Tampa.
“Only God can do this,” Swinney says. “If anybody thinks anything different, they’re really missing it. This is nothing that I’ve done. Truly, only God can write a script like this.”
* * *
These days, as he runs past Howard’s Rock on postcard-perfect autumn Saturdays and descends into a boisterous sea of orange and purple-clad devotion, it’s easy to forget that much of Swinney’s adolescence was a nightmare—the fallout of a broken home and a difficult relationship with his father.
William Christopher Swinney was the youngest of Ervil and Carol’s three sons in Pelham, Alabama. (He was almost instantly nicknamed “Dabo” because of the sound his 17-month-old brother made when referring to him as “that boy.”) During Dabo’s teenage years, Ervil’s appliance repair business ran into financial trouble. Ervil fell into debt and turned to alcohol.
Like a sandcastle at high tide, life collapsed around Dabo.
He quickly learned survival skills that no child should ever have to. When his dad came home drunk—on the nights he actually did come home—Dabo found refuge in the backyard, the family car, at friends’ houses and even hidden on his roof. Anywhere to avoid Ervil’s alcohol-fueled rage.
Ervil and Carol divorced when Dabo was in 11th grade, and the bank foreclosed on their home. With his older brothers already out of the house, Dabo and his mom did the best they could to get by. Carol worked at a department store making $8 an hour, while Dabo would cut grass, clean gutters, and umpire baseball games.
After getting evicted from a townhome for failure to pay rent, they moved in with friends. Dabo would sleep on the floor of the room he and his mother shared. Eventually, he moved into his grandmother’s apartment, “away from my mom, away from my family, just trying to survive,” he recalls.
As life’s tempests were roiling around him, Swinney found peace in Christ. He began attending an FCA Huddle at Pelham High. On Feb. 3, 1986, he trusted in the Lord after attending an FCA meeting that featured former Crimson Tide wide receiver Joey Jones as the main speaker.
But Swinney’s immediate circumstances didn’t change.
“In fact, they got worse,” he says. “But I had this peace and this hope for a better future that I never had. My spirit changed, my attitude changed, the way I perceived things changed. I was certainly a long way from perfect, but I knew there was a purpose for my life because I met the Creator of my life.”
Strengthened by his newfound faith, Swinney showed remarkable perseverance and resilience during that time. In 1988, he enrolled at Alabama, made the football team as a long-shot walk-on wide receiver and special teams contributor, earned a scholarship, and even helped the Crimson Tide win the 1992 national championship as a reserve.
“He was not going to let his dad define him or who he was going to be,” says Steve Busky, a longtime friend of Swinney who played tight end at Alabama and roomed with Swinney during the 1992 season. “That’s how he looked at it.”
With Christ’s example of forgiveness in mind, Swinney eventually softened his heart toward his father while in college. He even initiated reconciliation with Ervil—a poignant testament to the power of God’s transforming grace.
“I finally stopped trying to change him and gave that to the Lord and prayed for him and said, ‘I’m going to love him anyway’ and forgave him,” Swinney says. “That’s what Christ did for me and Christ taught me, so I just forgave him and let it go and loved him anyway, no matter what.”
Ervil remarried and even gave his life to the Lord. Remarkably, in Ervil’s later years, he and Carol and each of their new spouses would all convene at Dabo and his wife Kathleen’s house for Clemson home games, birthdays and holidays.
Ervil died at his appliance store in Alabaster, Alabama, on Aug. 8, 2015, one day before he was scheduled to travel to Clemson to visit Dabo during two-a-day practices.
“The last 15 years of his life, I’ve never seen my dad happier,” Swinney says. “He was just such an encouragement to me. He really became a best friend for me.”
* * *
Undersized, overachieving college walk-ons with seven career receptions don’t project highly on NFL draft boards. So when Swinney’s playing career ended in 1992, he immediately entered Alabama’s MBA program and became a graduate assistant on coach Gene Stallings’ staff.
The grunt work energized Swinney. He relished the idea of molding young men. The possibility of paying forward valuable life lessons to others—and he’d already learned plenty by his early 20s—was exhilarating to him.
“When I got into coaching, all of a sudden, all that I had ever dealt with made sense,” he says. “It was like, ‘All right, God, got it. The reason I needed to experience certain things is that you were preparing me for this journey,’ because we’re all on a journey. I just had a peace come over me like, ‘Wow, this is what my purpose is. This is what I was called to do. I’m going to put all I’ve got into being the best I can possibly be.’”
"... this is what my purpose is. This is what I was called to do."
-Dabo SwinneyBy 2008, Swinney was a 38-year-old receivers coach at Clemson who had never been a college coordinator and had been selling commercial real estate only five years earlier during a two-year stint out of the game. Nevertheless, former Tigers athletic director Terry Don Phillips promoted Swinney to interim head coach in the wake of Tommy Bowden’s resignation midway through the season and then removed Swinney’s interim tag after the season. Fans didn’t exactly spill out onto Tiger Boulevard to celebrate.
But now look at Swinney. In eight full seasons at the helm, he’s led the Tigers to eight straight bowl games, two straight College Football Playoffs and National Championship Games, and the school’s first title since 1981. His overall record since taking over in 2008: 89-28, good for a .761 winning percentage. It’s very heady stuff.
Actually, Swinney would say it’s divine.
“I think God has honored the way we’ve done things,” he says. “I believe that with all my heart. That’s why I said what I said: ‘Only God can do this.’ We serve a big God—big, powerful—and He’s real, and I know that. To experience what I’ve experienced is surreal, but it’s comforting because I know that He is. I know He loves us. We’re imperfect people, but I know God has a plan, and I just try to live my life in a way that can hopefully be an encouragement to others.”
How Swinney does that is as unique as the man himself.
* * *
Turn off Interstate 85 onto Route 28/76 West and you’re immediately struck by—well, nothing really. This stretch of rural highway in South Carolina features nothing noteworthy, except one thing: the ubiquitous orange paw prints or other blatant references to native rooting interests.
You notice them on produce markets, car dealerships and places called Tiger Financial Center, Tiger Paw Storage and Tiger Pawn Shop. At one local Kia dealer, the flag displaying the large Clemson paw is only slightly smaller than Old Glory flapping above it. Even the rich, reddish-orange hue of dirt tilled at roadside construction sites reveals itself to be a strikingly close relative of Clemson colors, as if the earth itself is bleeding its allegiance.
This is the empire that Swinney presides over, a college town in every sense of the phrase. Its heartbeat is Memorial Stadium—the aging but beloved colossus made of steel, concrete and the full-throated cheers of 81,500 fans every home game. But the nerve center is Swinney’s brainchild, the dazzling new Allen N. Reeves Football Complex.
They like to boast about “Dabo’s World” down here, and with good reason. The 140,000-square-foot facility, which opened on Feb. 1, is the Taj Mahal of college football, a gleaming temple of functionality, perks and fun built to provide current players and staff the best of everything, attract recruits and—most of all, according to Swinney—create a big family atmosphere.
In the main lobby, there’s a staircase attached to a replica of “The Hill,” both built to the exact angles and contours of Memorial Stadium’s famed slope that the football team runs down before every home game—a 75-year-old tradition that longtime sportscaster Brent Musburger once called, “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.” The facility also features a players’ lounge complete with a barbershop, arcade, bowling alley, golf simulator and, yes, even a nap room.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Only God
Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney survived extreme difficulties as an adolescent. Through it all, though, Christ kept a tight grip on his life... Read more
Others might look at it as too much, the latest example of just how powerful the college football ecosystem has become.
But for Swinney, it all comes back to people. All of it.
His favorite aspect of the new football center is the “Outdoor Village”—which features a mini-golf course, basketball courts, Wiffle ball field and cookout area—because it fosters relationships.
“I love that the building is set up so that team morale can be developed every day,” he says.
Swinney’s endlessly upbeat, fun-loving demeanor might not have passed muster 50 years ago. But it’s 2017, and who’s to question the tactics of a leader who has led his team to so much success?
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Brandon Streeter, Clemson’s quarterbacks coach. “He truly has a gift from God. He’s blessed with the gift of positive energy. There are so many times throughout the day when you see him where he’s got a smile on his face or he’s laughing. He’s joking and cracking on players and having fun with them and developing relationships with them. He’s like a kid in a candy store. He’s always high-energy and positive.”
But to categorize Swinney’s positivity simply as a personality trait would be wrong. His optimism and encouraging nature are more than just that; they are part of the overall ethos he wants to spread as he builds a program on genuine community, brotherhood and love.
Take last season’s national championship game, for instance. At halftime, Clemson trailed Alabama, 14-7, and looked disjointed on offense.
Recalls Streeter, “He flat-out told our players [in the locker room], ‘Guys, I don’t know how we’re going to win this game, but we’re going to win. You guys have so much love and pride and unity for each other. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I know it’s going to happen.’
“He provides kids a lot of confidence in the midst of battle.”
Paw Journey, Clemson’s player relations program, is another manifestation of Swinney’s commitment to his players. He started the program to assist players in life skills for their post-football careers. It’s no accident that Paw Journey’s two-story office area is prominently displayed just inside the new football center’s front doors.
He is also fully committed to Reggie Pleasant, the Clemson FCA football life coach, and helping that ministry thrive on campus.
"We take a holistic approach in our program,” Swinney says. “We can’t do what we do without Paw Journey and FCA.”
“You can win, win, win, but if you’re not equipping young men to be great husbands and fathers, you lose.” -Dabo Swinney
Swinney constantly talks to his players about not being defined by trophies. He preaches to his assistant coaches, “You can win, win, win, but if you’re not equipping young men to be great husbands and fathers, you lose.” He starts staff meetings at an hour where his assistants can still drop off their kids at school. And each Wednesday night during the season is “Family Night” where coaches, their wives, their kids and Clemson players eat dinner together.
Personally, Swinney goes to great lengths to make sure he takes care of his own family. He coaches one of his three sons’ travel baseball teams in the spring. During football season, when Clemson hits the road, he attends his son’s Friday night high school football game and then uses the school jet to fly to the Tigers’ destination after the team has already arrived.
“He is a perfect example of putting family first,” Streeter says.
* * *
The most challenging yet oftentimes most forgiving aspect of sports is that every team stands on equal ground at the start of each new season. Last season is forgotten. Records, statistics and rankings from the past are erased. The slate is wiped clean.
So, despite how fresh the euphoria from the 2016-17 season might be to the Clemson faithful, their head coach has already turned his attention to the next season.
Swinney says part of Clemson’s extraordinary success in recent years is thanks to the program’s “windshield mentality.” It’s another Dabo metaphor—to help his players look forward, not back.
“For us, it’s always about what’s next,” he says.
So he preaches the journey more than the destination. He urges his players to learn from the good and bad in life and apply it in the future. He tells them that their future roles as family men will define their lives far more than wins and losses.
All his wisdom stems from a Christian faith that was forged in great trials and strengthened over the years by redemptive grace.
“He truly loves his players,” Streeter says. “It shows by how he interacts with them and how he responds to them in a positive way. It’s that component of love and serving their heart and not their talent. That’s a saying we have. No matter how good they are, make sure we’re helping them in all areas of life.”
For the first time in 35 years, the Tigers enter a season as defending national champions. “Only God can do this” was 2016. What comes next?
“God tells us to dream big,” Swinney says. “Without vision, the people perish. I can’t wait to embrace this new challenge.”
View and download the FCA Magazine digital wallpaper featuring Dabo Swinney here.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Only God
By Sarah Rennicke
“What you say flows from what is in your heart.” – Luke 6:45b
Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney survived extreme difficulties as an adolescent. Through it all, though, Christ kept a tight grip on his life and instilled an exuberant spirit that drives his relationship-centric leadership at the helm of a national championship program.
His beginnings were beset with family pain, divorce and financial chokeholds. But, despite the brokenness surrounding him, Swinney began to hope. He hung on to the character of God and allowed Him to transform not only his reactions to circumstances, but the inner workings of his heart. Circumstances didn’t necessarily change, but he was sustained by a deeper purpose and vision.
“I had this peace and this hope for a better future that I never had,” he said. “My spirit changed, my attitude changed, the way I perceived things changed.”
His faithful endurance flowed from his heart as he discovered his calling: coaching. Swinney saw ways to build God’s truth into the young men in his keep, and all his life events had seemingly led to here.
“All that I had ever dealt with made sense,” he said. “I just had a peace come over me like, ‘Wow, this is what my purpose is. This is what I was called to do. I’m going to put all I’ve got into being the best I can possibly be.’”
Strengthened by grace and armed with an upbeat outlook, Swinney’s journey has brought him from the depths of discomfort to places and moments unimaginable, where now all he can do is sit back and say, “Only God can do this.”
Sometimes life’s tempests surge us straight to God. When we can’t see through the assailing storm, the light of His faithfulness steers us and instills a strength we didn’t know we could possess. God’s peace can calm the waves within that roll without explanation. When we falter, He holds us steady, and as the skies clear above us, we again muster the strength to dare to dream again.
Whatever may have transpired before today, don’t let your past dictate your worth. Your identity is forged in the Father’s love through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And He has set you apart to be a beacon of hope for those around you, bringing beauty from the ashes and joy from the tears.
Your spirit can rest in the still point of Christ while gazing with wonder at how “only God can do this.”
• How have you seen God at work in a difficult athletic or personal situation?
• How are you praying for an “Only God can do this” moment?
• Is there someone you know who needs encouragement today? What can you do for them?
Father, life is hard. It is only by Your grace that I can pass through the storms with hope in my heart. Continue to grow in me a spirit of encouragement and thankfulness, that I may build up my teammates, family and friends, and look for situations where it could only be You at work. Amen.
Photos courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications