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Dabo Swinney’s Special Night

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dabo Swinney was both the center of a wild post-game celebration and a man, inside-and-out, lost in a beautiful moment.

This was this team's mission, and there was really only one lid left on the program, and that was to win the whole dadgum thing.
~Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney has only worked for two schools during his coaching career: his alma mater and his current employer. Remarkably, he has now won a national title with both. As Monday night turned to Tuesday morning, the last 25 years, for Swinney, must have flashed before his very eyes. A blur of colors he has dedicated his adult life to converged into arguably the greatest five-minute flurry of championship football ever. Swinney was both the center of a wild post-game celebration and a man, inside-and-out, lost in a beautiful moment.

In a line of symmetry stitched like laces, Swinney's two titles share a powerful parallel. To cover the entire narrative, you have to push the plausibility of reason to the absolute brink, not totally dissimilar to the finish that took Swinney back. With triumph likely still settling in, Swinney's life has gone well-past full-circle; it is now sprinting full laps.   

An undersized wide receiver, Swinney joined the Alabama football team as a walk-on in 1989. His road to the roster wasn't an easy one, but, the Birmingham-native persevered his way to a scholarship and three years as a letterman at college football's most storied program. Swinney, for his career, caught seven passes for 81 yards, also earning Academic All-SEC honors and being named to the SEC Scholar Athlete Honor Roll. As a senior in 1992, he played on the nation's best team as the Crimson Tide topped Miami 34-13 in a deciding Sugar Bowl.

In Tuscaloosa, Swinney moved up the ranks with a strong conviction and an unrelenting fight. He made the most of the slightest of opportunities, ultimately turning a chance into a championship. Call it football foreshadowing, given what comes next.

Following his playing career, Swinney became a graduate assistant for the Crimson Tide, earning a master's degree in business administration and moving to the coaching staff full-time as a wide receivers and tight end coach in 1996. He served as an offensive assistant, in various roles, until 2000. Swinney then worked in real estate for two years before shifting to the upstate of South Carolina.

Swinney started with the Tigers as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2003, paying his dues and advancing to assistant head coach in 2007. The 2008 season proved to be an eventful one, as Swinney stepped in as the team's new offensive coordinator; that fall, Clemson opened with, of all teams, Alabama. Halfway through the year, Swinney was named the Tigers' interim head coach after the resignation of Tommy Bowden. Swinney, going 4-2 to finish out the regular season, was introduced as the full-time coach on December 1st.

Just like his time with the Crimson Tide, Swinney worked his way up at Clemson. He moved the meter with a passionate message of meshing family and football into one. The Tigers won ten games his third year, matching that double-digit mark before emerging as a contender with quarterback Deshaun Watson. Swinney rallied Clemson to a championship showdown with Alabama a season ago, an instant classic that finished in a heartbreaking 45-40 defeat. Undeterred, with the passion of a player fighting for a spot on the depth chart, Swinney led another charge.

"It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that," Swinney pledged post-game.

This run was about redemption for Swinney's Tigers. Especially Monday night. A 12-1 fall fit with an ACC Championship got Clemson back into the final four. The Tigers proved ready in a semifinal showdown with Ohio State, shutting out the Buckeyes 31-0 in holding an Urban Meyer-coached team scoreless for the first time. Given what was in the rear-view, Clemson hoped for another shot at Alabama, a rematch they later received.  

Midway through the second quarter, the Tigers found themselves down 14-0 to the nation's top-ranked team. Despite the early deficit, Clemson played with a persistence that reflected the man who leads them. The Tigers responded with three fourth quarter touchdowns, including an unfathomable, game-winning score with one second remaining, to upend the Crimson Tide in arguably the greatest title bout of all-time.  

"This was this team's mission, and there was really only one lid left on the program, and that was to win the whole dadgum thing," Swinney explained Tuesday morning.

The resolve, late, was stirring. Watson, not once, but twice, took Clemson downfield against the top defense in the game, pacing touchdown drives of 88 yards and 68 yards in the contest's final minutes. After Alabama's Jalen Hurts answered Wayne Gallman's one-yard go-ahead score with a highlight 30-yard touchdown dash of his own, Watson, in the face of staggering odds, led the Tigers downfield on one of the most iconic drives in college football history. He went 6-of-7 passing, throwing a storybook, game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining.

"You know, I mean, I don't know if I can -- I don't know if I'm going to be able to stomach watching that one any time soon. That has to be one of the greatest games of all time, just absolutely incredible, to have to take the field and go down the field to win the game, that's what it's made of. That's what I told 'em when it was over," Swinney explained. "This is what it's all about right here, boys."

As Swinney watched the drama unfold, he, as a player who had to earn a scholarship for a title team a long time ago, saw another former walk-on win a national championship with a now-legendary game-winning catch.

"Appreciate Hunter, ol' Hunter Renfrow," Swinney smiled. "He's just incredible."    

WIth the outcome hanging in the balance, Swinney, and his team, was all-in.

"We were playing to win. We were putting it in No. 4's hands, and we would have kicked the field goal if we'd have had to right there on that last play, if we'd have just had a couple seconds, we'd have kicked it and gone to overtime, but we were playing to win and making sure that we had the right call," he acknowledged.

As Swinney reflected on Watson and Renfrow, Clemson and the Crimson Tide, he did so having made history. With the victory, Swinney became just the second person ever to win a national title as both a player and a coach, joining Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson. Swinney earned that distinction on the same day that the Tigers' only other head coach to win a national championship, Danny Ford, was selected for the College Football Hall of Fame. Ford, like Swinney, suited up for, and started his coaching career, at Alabama. 

The ties between have, quite literally, proven to be the ties that bind. Swinney is the singular embodiment of all things Clemson, all with an admiration and appreciation for his upbringing in the Yellowhammer State, his time with the Crimson Tide. More than just an opponent on the field, Alabama has a place in Swinney's heart. In the aftermath of the number one achievement of Swinney's professional career, he thought about the man he played for and coached under.

"I wish Coach Stallings had been here. I know he's watching. I talked to him yesterday. Oh, man, I can only -- I can't wait to talk to Coach Stallings. His grandson is on the team. Kevin Turner's son is on the team, Lemanski Hall is here. So many Alabama-Clemson connections, guys that I won the National Championship with, and to do it again is something that -- I didn't know if it would ever happen," Swinney stated. "Been working since 1993 to get back, and we got it done tonight. So it's just special."

Swinney recently reached the pigskin pinnacle his own way, building the Tigers with an energy that has long been his driving force. One year after coming up just short on the biggest of stages, Clemson simply found a way to be on the right side of the record books this time around. The Tigers willed their way to one more win. Clemson is now the best team in the country, a result that has been in the works for quite some time.

On a night where Swinney's script had an ending that was almost too good to be true, the head coach did have a certain film in-mind.

"I said the other day, I don't know who asked me, somebody asked me the other day what my favorite sequel was, and I said, Rocky," he recalled. "First one was kind of a draw, the draw goes to the champ, but the second one, you know, they were both kind of right at the last second, Rocky gets up, and that's kind of how it was tonight."   

In addition to topping the Crimson Tide, the first team to do so in 27 tries, the Tigers defeated the last seven title-winners in their 14-1 season. Clemson came and conquered all in Swinney's signature year, giving its head coach another ring, this one orange, to proudly display. Still just 47 years old, Swinney has seen a lot during his time in football. Now, arguably, he has seen it all. A fistful of diamonds are coming home to Howard's Rock. 

"Eight years ago our goal was to work our tails off and eventually get Clemson back on top, and tonight that's a reality. It truly is," Swinney added. "The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight. We saw the top of it last year, didn't get quite there. Tonight we took that next step. It was really the only thing we hadn't done in the last eight years, and we got it done."

Always a winner, Swinney, the coach, moves forward as a champion. Searching for perspective on a night where much of his life was cut into a moving made-for-TV drama, Swinney, almost-always inspirational and upbeat, had a most-meaningful tone of grace.

"I can't tell you how humbled I am, blessed and so thankful to be a part of helping get Clemson back on top, this moment, 35 years, and doing something that a lot of people didn't think we could do." he shared. "I'm just so thankful for that opportunity, and I'm excited about continuing to help Clemson be the best. I truly am."

Raw emotion was on display as the Tigers basked in the glory of a long-awaited national title. So, too, was the line that Swinney has walked to get there. 

There was a special poignancy to all that Dabo Swinney, a man of great faith, experienced in Tampa. Just as Clemson responded to every Alabama advantage, Swinney's shadow followed all of the action on the field. College football saw Swinney, past and present, do what few could have ever imagined. Now, he has officially done it twice.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports