By Will Vandervort
October 13, 2008 was not a typical Monday in the Swinney household.
Kathleen Swinney started the morning by discovering her youngest son, Clay, was feeling under the weather. But before she could totally take care of her five-year old child, she first had to take care of her two oldest boys, Will, who was 10, and Drew, who was eight. She had to feed them breakfast and run them off to school before spending the next couple of hours at the doctor’s office with Clay.
When she got home, just before lunch, her hectic morning seemed to be coming to an end. The doctors prescribed a few medicines that allowed Clay to get some rest and she had a few more hours before she had to two pick up Will and Drew from school.
So she marched into the kitchen and started to make lunch. It was Dabo’s favorite, her homemade chili. Everything seemed about as normal as it could be, and then with one phone call it all changed.
“Dabo called and he asked me what I was doing,” she said. “I told him, ‘I’m making your chili.’ That’s his favorite thing to eat. Clay was sick on the couch. I had no idea what he was about to say because I had not been near the radio or been on the internet, so I had no idea. All I knew was that the baby was crying and I was cooking dinner. It sounds like a country song.”
And like most country songs, it was about to make Kathleen cry.
“He said, ‘Kat, Tommy (Bowden) is gone and I’m the head coach.’ I said, ‘What!?’ and I just burst into tears,” she said. “First and foremost, it was for the Bowdens. We were sad. It was a stressful moment for Dabo, but he did not have time to be sad. It was like, ‘You are the head coach. Make the decisions.’
“I tried to start asking him all these questions and then I burst into tears and he said, ‘Baby, please pray for me because I have to make a lot of tough decisions right now.’”
Kathleen hung up the phone and cried. She really did not know what her husband had to do, but she knew if it was enough for him to call and ask her to pray, it had to be tough.
The Dabo and Kathleen Swinney story is a romantic one of sorts, you might say. Like many of us, it is a story of when boy meets girl and then he asks her out and the rest is history…sort of. But in this day in age, when love is treated like a carnival ride, where people try to get off as fast as they get on and throw a little bit along the way, it’s great to hear about a love story that has stood the test of time for 36 years.
Dabo and Kathleen first met when he was in second grade and she was in first back home in Pelham, AL. They instantly became close friends. Dabo already had a school-boy crush on the young Ms. Bassett, but at that age he really did not know how to show it.
But he soon found a way when Kathleen wanted to be on the safety patrol team when she was in the fourth grade. To get on the safety patrol team, one could not just do it, but instead had to be voted on. To no surprise, Dabo was one of the more popular kids in school and seemed to know just about everyone. To score some brownie points with Ms. Bassett, he urged all his friends to vote for her, and she was elected to join the safety patrol team.
In a way, it was the first sign in which Dabo proved how influential he could be.
“He always tells me to this day, I got you elected to the safety patrol,” she said, smiling.
A year later, both Dabo and Kathleen were elected to the student council. They were in middle school and Dabo’s school-boy crush had grown and Kathleen had taken notice, too. Dabo, a man who has proven he wastes no opportunity, finally struck up the nerve to ask Kathleen if she would accompany him to the middle school dance.
“We liked each other or went together, whatever that meant,” she said. “It was a check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ kind of thing. The rest is history. We really started dating more seriously in high school.”
Sticking through the tough times
High school life was not easy for Dabo. He did not have a normal teenage life. Alcoholism found its way into his family and because of it, his mother and father eventually divorced.
His father’s drinking habits eventually led to the loss of the family business and their home. Ultimately, when Dabo was 16, his mom left his father and moved the family into a small townhome.
“I was very angry at this point,” Dabo said. “I loved my dad. I didn’t want to leave him.”
But Dabo knew he had to. He remembers those days as embarrassing times for him, especially when he had to get coaches and friends help he and his mother move out.
“It was very embarrassing because I hid things from my friends. I was dating Kathleen. She came from a very functional, normal family and mine was the exact opposite,” he said. “Her family is very educated and functional, mine was very dysfunctional and uneducated, but she did not care. But when you are young, you worry about things like that.”
Kathleen never once wavered in her commitment to Dabo. She stayed beside him even when he was bouncing around from house-to-house and living with coaches and friends.
“He has been my best friend since I can remember,” Kathleen said. “I can’t remember my life without him. I really can’t. I don’t know what life is like without him in it.
“I guess a lot of people meet their spouse in college or out of college or maybe even high school, but I don’t know anything but him being in my life. I’m really blessed.”
Dabo was blessed, too. Despite all the distractions at home, he remained an ‘A’ student and was a member of the National Honor Society at Pelham High School. He was also a star athlete, lettering in three sports, including the one he loved more than any other – football.
The Alabama years
Dabo had played football, basketball or baseball since he was old enough to remember. For more than 12 years, he was playing one of the three before he went to college. Though he earned offers to play at a few of the smaller schools, Dabo always wanted to go to the University of Alabama.
He was Crimson Tide through and true. But Alabama had no interest in him as a player, so for the first time in his life, he was not playing a sport. During his freshman year, Kathleen, a senior at Pelham at the time, went to Tuscaloosa to watch a football game with him.
Right away she noticed something different.
“We were sitting in the stands and he was miserable,” she said. “He was thinking, ‘I can do this. I need to be down there.’ I told him, ‘Yes you do.’ He needed to be a part of that. He needed sports in his life. That’s what he wanted.”
This part of the story is well known. Dabo walked on – twice. First for Bill Curry, when a guy name Tommy Bowden was his position coach, and then again when Gene Stallings took over a year later.
“That day in the stands, you could really tell he was not satisfied,” Kathleen said. “He wanted to walk-on and I encouraged him.”
Dabo first earned playing time and ultimately a scholarship, eventually becoming a starter on the 1992 National Championship team. Though he was happy doing what every small town boy in Alabama dreamed of doing — playing for the Crimson Tide — Dabo was far from satisfied.
It was at that point Dabo knew he wanted to be a coach. He loved the game of football. He was passionate about it. He did not want to leave it. Stallings gave him that opportunity to stay. And of course, he talked to the one person whose opinion mattered most – Kathleen.
“Those were grueling days for him and for us because being a graduate assistant takes away a lot of your time, but I was so happy for him,” she said. “I hope I’m considered a low maintenance person. He has told me that’s what he likes about me.
“I was not one of those girls that was like, ‘Call me’ or do this and do that. That’s not really me. And to this day, he tells the boys to pick a low maintenance wife. I’m not somebody who is really needy. He is my best friend and everything, but, you know what I mean.”
After his role as a graduate assistant was done, Stallings retained Dabo as a member of his staff and made him the wide receivers coach. When Stallings retired, new coach Mike DuBose retained him as well. From the time he started college in 1988, he knew nothing but Alabama football.
But after the Crimson Tide had a subpar year in 2000, DuBose and his whole staff, including Dabo, was fired. Now, at 31 years old, Alabama football was not there anymore.
Dabo, again with the support of Kathleen, took the next two years off from football. He worked in commercial real estate, where — to no one’s surprise — he was very successful. But something was missing. He did not feel satisfied or complete. He knew it, but more importantly, so did his wife.
“I knew he wanted to get back in coaching, but we did not want to go just anywhere,” she said. “In the meantime we said we would build our house and live in Birmingham until something comes open. That’s how we looked at it.”
Then one day, Dabo received a phone call from somebody in his past. His old position coach, his first coach at Alabama, Tommy Bowden, called and asked if he would be interested in discussing an opening on his staff at Clemson.
“When he came in and told me Tommy had called him about the receivers’ position coming open, my heart just started beating fast,” Kathleen said. “I just knew this was it. He asked me what I thought, and I told him to go do it. Even though he had a great job, we were building a house and I was pregnant, this was what we had been praying for.”
The next week, Dabo was off to Clemson and instantly fell in love with it. He called Kathleen later that night and told her how much she was going to love it, and how much she would love Coach Bowden.
A few days later, Dabo picked up Kathleen and flew back to Clemson. That night, he accepted the job.
“We just knew,” she said. “We just left everything and came up here. I loved Clemson. It was kind of overwhelming because what we prayed for was finally happening. We didn’t know anyone, but we were on the same page. We knew this is where we needed to be and where we wanted to come.”
The crazy part about the Swinneys coming to Clemson was the fact they had never left Alabama before. Both of their families were in Alabama. Their whole lives were there, yet, Clemson felt like home to them and Kathleen especially knew this is where her husband was called to be.
“We were very excited,” she said. “Yes, we had a four-year old and a three-year old and another one on the way. We knew the tradition at Clemson. We knew this is where we needed to come.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a little overwhelming when you have a four and three-year old, you’re pregnant and you don’t know anybody and you have to grab a rental house in Seneca. You don’t know anything, but yet we both had 100 percent peace about it.
“I was so happy for him because this is what he wanted. He was going to get back in coaching. I could see him excited again. I thought, ‘This is good.’”
The Alabama game
Things were good for much of the next four years. Bowden survived a dismal performance at Wake Forest in 2003 and saved his job when he guided the Tigers to wins over then No. 3 Florida State, Duke, South Carolina (63-17 game) and a Peach Bowl victory over No. 6 Tennessee.
And though Clemson struggled to a 6-5 mark in 2004, it bounced back to win eight games in 2005, eight in 2006 and nine in 2007. The Tigers seemed primed for a major breakout year when the 2008 season started.
Clemson was loaded at the skill positions, as it returned the ACC’s top quarterback in Cullen Harper, top running backs in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and the top wide receivers in Aaron Kelly and Jacoby Ford. The pieces seemed to be in place as the Tigers held a preseason No. 9 ranking and were the odds-on favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The only problem was, nobody told Alabama that. The Crimson Tide welcomed themselves back to college football as Nick Saban’s squad ran through the Tigers on their way to a 34-10 victory. It was a win the pundits now say was the stepping stone for an Alabama dynasty, as the Tide have won three national championships in the last four years.
For Clemson, however, it was a step back.
“We wanted nothing more than for our Clemson boys to demolish Alabama,” Kathleen said. “I did not care that my diploma came from there. Alabama is a great school and we have a lot of good memories there, but our heart is now in Clemson.
“We didn’t know any of their players. Our kids were Tyler Grisham, Aaron Kelly and Jacoby Ford. Those were our kids. But it didn’t happen. They beat us.”
Kathleen walked out of the stadium that night in Atlanta with Linda Bowden, Tommy’s wife.
“My heart was breaking for her,” Kathleen said. “She was sad. She was sad for her husband. I know what it feels like. My husband was just an assistant and all of us were sad, but having been the wife of a head coach now, I know the sadness more because her husband was ultimately held responsible. It was sad.”
Swinney named head coach
Six weeks later, Kathleen found herself sitting on the couch in her living room with a sick five-year old and crying. Dabo had just informed her that Coach Bowden stepped away from the head coaching position after a conversation that morning with Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips.
She knew her husband was going to have to make some very tough decisions that afternoon and in the weeks to come. More than likely, he would have to look for a new job in December. She had been around the coaching business long enough to know that there are no guarantees.
But as sad as she felt and all the things that were going through her mind, she could only think about one person – Linda Bowden. What was she going through? How was she handling it? What were they going to do? Kathleen decided to give her a call.
“It was such an overwhelming day,” Kathleen remembers. “But as I sat there on the couch crying, I knew I needed to compose myself and call Linda. When you have been friends with someone for so many years, you just can’t ignore them. They were having a painful day and I wanted to be there for them.
“I figured I would call her. If she doesn’t want to talk, then she will not answer. But I called her to try and make her feel better, by encouraging her and letting her know we loved her. But she ended up making me feel better. I was crying and telling her how sorry I was, and she told me it was in some way a big relief.
“People had said some mean things about Tommy, and I know it made her sad. I can understand that now because I have heard some of the mean things people have said about Dabo when I have been sad. I can’t imagine how mean they were to Tommy. But she said, ‘We are okay. And I’m so happy for y’all. Dabo is going to do a great job and we are fine.’
“I hung up the phone feeling good, because she made me feel better.”
Kathleen described the next six weeks that followed as a blur. All she remembers is how hard her husband worked to try and get the team through the rest of the season and make what was a negative a positive. Though he did not know if he would even get an opportunity to win the job, Dabo — with Kathleen standing alongside — made a team that had lost all belief in itself believers again.
After winning three games in the four weeks leading up to South Carolina matchup, Dabo put the Tigers in position to do something that had never been done before – they were on the verge of going to a bowl game after he took over midway through the season as an interim head coach.
But to the Swinneys, the game had more at stake than just bowl eligibility. If Clemson could beat its archrival on that rainy day in Death Valley, then Dabo had a very good chance at landing the head coaching job permanently.
“Dabo! Dabo! Dabo!”
“I could not believe it,” Kathleen said as Clemson fans chanted her husband’s name after a 31-14 victory over the Gamecocks. “I just stood in the rain with the other wives and cried. It was his birthday and we killed South Carolina, and we knew that if we could win that he had a really good shot at being named the head coach.
“I just could not stop crying. They were tears of joy.”
Clemson players, led by offensive guard Thomas Austin, carried Dabo off the field after the game in what is considered one of the great moments in the history of Memorial Stadium. Two days later, Phillips stood at the podium inside the WestZone and named Dabo as the new head football coach at Clemson University.
“I could not have been more proud of him,” Kathleen said. “I knew how hard he worked. Neither one of us had slept those six weeks. I remember that first week against Georgia Tech, we sat up on the couch every night until three o’clock in the morning just talking about everything.
“He tried to think of all the things he could do to bring the team back together. He had been preparing to be a head coach and he knew what he wanted to do, but to implement all the things you want to do takes time, and he had to do it in the middle of the season with only six weeks to prove he could.”
Dabo and Kathleen made it through. Since the permanent hire, Dabo has led Clemson to the ACC Atlantic Division title three times, twice has played for the ACC Championship and guided the school to its first conference title in 20 years in 2011.
The Tigers have won 21 games over the last two seasons, one of only six schools that can make that claim. With all the hard work he has put into it, Dabo has put Clemson back on the map in college football.
But he isn’t satisfied. He knows he still has work to do as he tries to bring Clemson back to the top of the mountain.
And surely, as he gets Clemson there, there will be a familiar face standing alongside him, like she has ever since the day he influenced his friends to vote her onto the safety patrol team at the elementary school in Pelham.
Behind every good man is a good woman, and few women can challenge the loyalty, commitment and love Kathleen Swinney has given to her husband over the last 36 years.
“You just have to let them talk it out,” Kathleen said. “Being the wife of a coach takes a lot of listening. I mean, a LOT of listening. They need to bounce things off of you. They just need someone to listen to them, to support them and let them know that they are going to make the right decision.
“I can rest easy because Dabo is a man of character. And though it may not be easy, he is always going to do what is right. He is all about his coaches and his players. It’s my job to be there for him, encourage him and let him know it’s going to be alright.”