When Dabo Swinney officially took over Clemson football for the 2009 season, it was considered a good program that couldn't quite recapture the greatness of the Danny Ford era. Dabo had spent his entire life as an underdog, but his defiant grit pushed him past personal hardships and professional adversity. His simple formula—faith, family, forgiveness, fortitude, and fun—pushed the Clemson football program past its potential and to the next level, taking the Tigers to 10 bowl games and four ACC championships, earning three College Football Playoff appearances, and most importantly, capturing the 2016 national championship. In Top of the Hill: Dabo Swinney and Clemson's Rise to College Football Greatness, Greenville News sports columnist and Clemson insider Manie Robinson traces Dabo's coaching ascension along Clemson football's return to glory, going behind the scenes of one of the powerhouse programs in the country.
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About the Author
Manie Robinson covers the Clemson Tigers for the Greenville News, joining the paper in 2005. This is his first book.Tajh Boyd was Clemson's starting quarterback from 2011 to 2013. He was the ACC Player of the Year in 2012 and finished his career with school and conference records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
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That Boy from Pelham
Dabo Swinney is too polite to correct folks when they mispronounce his name. He is too Pelham to go by William Christopher. That is the regal name his parents, Ervil and Carol, gave him when he was born on November 20, 1969, the third boy in the family after Tracy and Tripp. As a nickname, Carol wanted to call the youngest of her three sons "Chris." However, Chris's 18-month-old brother Tripp had no interest in trying to pronounce that. He referred to his baby brother as "That Boy." When filtered through the diction of a toddler and the dialect of Alabama, "That Boy" sounds like "DÄbo." With a short a and an abrupt inflection.
Swinney admits that he did not know his name was William until the third grade. The peculiar moniker suited him. It signified his family ties, his deep Pelham, Alabama, roots. And just like Swinney, once you encountered the name, you would not easily forget it. Carol recognized Dabo's signature grit immediately. "The first time I ever laid my eyes on him, he had his little fists up," Carol said. "I laughed and said, 'Uhoh, he's going to be a fighter.'"
Takes one to know one.
Before her second birthday, Carol was afflicted with polio. During the 1940s, polio killed or paralyzed more than 500,000 people worldwide each year. Carol was admitted to the Birmingham Crippled Children's Hospital and remained there for 11 years. She was temporarily paralyzed and stricken by scoliosis. At one point, polio disfigured Carol's body so severely that her head could touch the side of her feet. Doctors presumed she would never walk normally.
After 10 years of treatments, two surgeries, and one determined spirit, Carol walked out of that hospital. She even became a majorette in her high school marching band.
During her lengthy treatment, Carol was isolated from her family. Her childhood was far from normal, even farther from easy. She wanted desperately to create a normal, pleasant life for her own children. She dreamed of the storybook life complete with the dog and white picket fence.
Two weeks after she graduated from Woodlawn High School in 1962, Carol married Ervil. Seven years and three sons later, her dream of a loving, thriving home had bloomed into fruition. Dabo was two years old when his family moved from Birmingham to the burgeoning suburb of Pelham. The Swinneys settled on a two-story house on Ryecroft Road. The Swinney home became the hub for neighborhood children and the stadium for sandlot football games.
Ervil operated a successful washer and dryer repair service. At one point he ran three locations, including one in the M&M Hardware shop in Alabaster, just south of Pelham. Ervil regaled the regulars with tall tales and trademark quips. Carol flourished as a stay-at-home mother. She volunteered at her children's schools and even served as a substitute teacher. The Swinneys' life played out like the script of a classic family sitcom.
The dream series was interrupted in 1984, when Tripp was involved in a terrifying car crash, one block from the Swinneys' home. Tripp was 16 and sustained severe head trauma and memory loss. Carol guided Tripp through photo albums like they were bedtime story books. She hoped to trigger Tripp's suppressed memories, but he recognized no one in the pictures. He did not even recognize Carol as his mother. After several months of painstaking but imperceptible progress, Tripp celebrated a breakthrough. The doorbell rang at the Swinney home. The family's pet poodle began to bark. And Tripp was instantly annoyed.
"Shut up, Peppy!" Tripp hollered.
Tripp's recall of the dog's name prompted an optimistic inquiry from Carol.
"Do you know this dog?"
"Yeah, that's Peppy."
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yeah, you're Mom."
The family rejoiced at Tripp's recovery. However, during that same period of triumph, Ervil wrestled with an economic recession. His business eventually accumulated more than $250,000 in debt. The threat of bankruptcy pushed Ervil to the edge. Alcohol pushed him over.
"He was a good dad, but when he would drink it wasn't good," Dabo said. "He was mean. It was something he struggled with for a long, long time in his life, and it affected everything. It affected his business and his family. Ultimately, it took him to the bottom."
Ervil disappeared for days randomly on drinking binges. Carol and Dabo drove around town looking for him. Sometimes, they ended their searches unsuccessfully, but thankful that they did not have to encounter Ervil while he was drunk.
Dabo quickly learned to escape whenever the pungent aroma of alcohol crept through the door with his father. He retreated to his backyard or crawled through the upstairs window to sit on the roof. He occasionally sought refuge in the family car or at a friend's house.
"I can remember many nights crawling out the window, crawling up on my roof, and just crying and hoping that it would end soon," Dabo said. "Fighting. Screaming. Things being broken. Police coming to my house."
The old, delightful Ervil usually returned by the next morning. Carol attempted to stabilize her family through this destructive cycle. Her oldest two sons, Tracy and Tripp, had moved out of the family home. Dabo was a sophomore at Pelham High School. He and his mother watched crestfallen as unpaid bills collected in the mailbox. Ervil could no longer afford the $60 mortgage payment. The bank foreclosed on the Swinneys' home. Their family unit was fractured.
"I always told my boys, 'Tough times don't last. Tough people do,'" Ervil said in 2009, during an interview with Ron Morris of The State. "Then, I didn't practice what I preached. I let tough times get to me. I just wasn't doing the right things. That's all. I've never done anything minor league. If it's anything, it's major league. When it came to screwing up, I did it major league."
Ervil moved into a mobile home behind the hardware store. Carol and Dabo rented a condo, but after merely three months, they were evicted. Before then, Carol's only job was mother. Now that she and Dabo were out on their own, she picked up a position at a department store, but the $8 per hour wage was not sufficient. They moved in with friends. Dabo slept on makeshift mattresses on floors. He and his mother were essentially homeless. Nevertheless, Dabo remained an honor student and a standout athlete. He also took the first steps of his walk in the Christian faith.
Dabo began attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings at Pelham High. On February 3, 1986, the featured speaker was University of Alabama wide receiver Joey Jones. Swinney was so moved that day that he professed his commitment to Jesus Christ.
Christian salvation did not eliminate Dabo's troubles. However, his fresh understanding of faith, devotion, and sacrifice helped him process his pain and maintain a positive outlook. "When I got saved, I thought life was going to be good. That's when life became the worst," Swinney said. "Within a year, it became as bad as it had ever been. We lost our home. My parents got divorced. We moved into a place. We got evicted. I'd go live with friends. I had a car, lost a car. That's the greatest lesson I've had in life — trust the Lord and do the very best you can in making decisions. Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean life's going to be gravy. It's all about having peace and happiness on the inside."
Dabo graduated from Pelham and enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1988. He attended Alabama football games that fall. He sat anxiously in the stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium. After each game, wonder stirred inside of him. By the third game, that wonder transformed into resolve. He turned to his longtime girlfriend, Kathleen, and confidently proclaimed, "I can do this."
Alabama closed that season with a 9 — 3 overall record. The Crimson Tide was ranked No. 17 in both the Coaches and Associated Press polls. Yet Dabo Swinney, a straggly, 170-pound freshman, believed he belonged on that field.
"Most people don't believe," Dabo said. "Most people, they want you to fail. They get excited to see you struggle. They get excited to see you not have success. That's the world we live in. It's really sad that people have so much joy in somebody not being successful. But I've never been afraid to fail. I've never been afraid to put myself out there, because I believe in myself, and that's what I've learned as a human, is that, if I have my eyes on the right things and I believe in myself, I'm going to make it. That doesn't mean it's going to always go right, but I'm going to be successful."
Swinney joined more than 45 other aspirants the following January during a strenuous walk-on tryout program. He reported to strength and conditioning coach Rich Wingo, in a heated weight room at 5:30 am, three days each week. After two months of grueling tests, only two men remained standing. Dabo was one of them. He earned a spot on the scout team as a wide receiver.
"They'd put us all in jail today, for that program," Dabo said with a smile. "It was surreal for me to finally be in the room and to be introduced to the team. I always tell everybody I was a 'crawl-on.' I was one notch below a walk-on. I crawled on the field out there. They didn't invite me to come out. But to get to go out that spring and be a part of the Crimson Tide was unbelievable for me. I mean, I was one of those kids who watched The Bear Bryant Show every Sunday, and every time Alabama was on TV or on the radio, I was listening. I'd fight you in school if you talked bad about them."
That summer, while enduring his first training camp with the football team, Dabo continued a side hustle he had worked successfully for years. He cleaned gutters in large, affluent neighborhoods around Pelham and Birmingham. "Man, I'm the best gutter cleaner out there," Dabo said. "I started cleaning gutters when I was 14, me and Les Daniels, my buddy. We couldn't drive at the time, so we'd carry a ladder and a blower and a rake. All the big houses were in a place called River Chase, and we'd just knock on people's doors and clean their gutters and got really good at it."
Dabo cleaned gutters like he did everything, with tireless energy. He developed a rapport with many of his customers, and before long, he did not need to randomly knock on any doors.
"People just expected me to show up, and I did," Dabo recalled. "It's just what I needed to do. It was a great way to go make some money. It was good times, man, a lot of fun. I still, even now to this day, I ride around and look at people's gutters, man. I should go knock on their door and clean it up."
That particular summer, the gutter cleaning enterprise did not yield quite enough to cover Dabo's share of the rent and utilities and his tuition, books, and fees. As the start of the 1989 fall semester neared, Dabo waited anxiously for the Pell grants and student loan funds to arrive. He went to Coleman Coliseum on the edge of campus to retrieve his class schedule. Instead, he received disappointing news from the bursar.
"Tuition at the time was like $1,100 a semester," Dabo recalled, "and she said, 'You've got to pay 50 percent by tomorrow or your schedule's canceled." That was only half of Dabo's problem. He also owed his landlord, Mr. Cotton, approximately $400.
"I was expecting to get my check that day, and I was going to pay him off and be good to go," Dabo said. "I went home, and I just remember sitting in my little apartment, going, 'You know, I guess you've just got to go home. You've got to do what you've got to do.'"
Dabo called his mother to relay the predicament.
"We just cried on the phone, and I told her, 'Listen, I'll just come home, and I'll work this semester and maybe I can come back in January," Dabo said. "I had no answers. A thousand dollars, at that time, that might as well had been a million for me. I was devastated, because I'd put all this work in. I was going to be a redshirt freshman. But I really didn't have anywhere to turn. I got on my knees. I prayed and just had peace about it."
Dabo walked to the mail center at his apartment complex. He opened his box and pulled out a stack of envelopes and flyers. He returned to the apartment and unloaded the stack on the coffee table. He noticed a Discover card envelope peeking from behind the pizza coupons. Dabo curiously opened the envelope and found a letter announcing the new Discover Checks program for current cardholders. He was immediately skeptical.
"There were two checks attached to it, with perforated edges. Two checks. It gives me chills to even think about right now," Dabo said. "You've got to understand. I didn't have a checking account. I operated in cash only, because at that time, we'd had some problems in my family of checks being written and things like that, and I was just scared of a checkbook. I thought it was a scam. I didn't know what it was. But it said, 'If you've got any questions, call 1-800DISCOVER.' So I called 1-800-DISCOVER."
A pleasant customer service representative answered. Dabo explained the letter he had just opened. "She says, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, that's a new program. You just use it like a check, and you just write it for anything you want, just like a normal check," Dabo recalled. "And I said, 'There's only one problem here. I don't have a Discover card.'"
The customer service representative was puzzled. She asked for Dabo's social security number, punched it into her computer, and searched for his account information.
"She pauses, and she comes back and she goes, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Swinney, your card was returned. We sent it to a faulty address.' I'm kind of panicking, because I was thinking it might've gotten sent to somebody, and now I'm in debt or something, but she said, 'Just give me your correct address, and I'll be sure to send it out there to you.'"
Dabo stuttered in disbelief. He could not yet process what the lady on the phone was telling him. "I'm like, 'Wait a minute! You mean I've got a Discover card?' And she said, 'Yeah, because of your grades. It's a student program, and you qualified for it,'" Swinney recalled.
"I said, 'Well, what's my credit limit?'
"She said, 'A thousand dollars.'
"I went nuts. This lady is probably telling this story somewhere in America right now. I went crazy. I'm like, 'Whaaaaaat?!'"
Stunned, Dabo asked the lady again to ensure he did not hear wrong. He asked her once more to ensure he was not dreaming.
"I said, 'Now, wait a minute. You mean — what do I do again?'" he recalled.
"She said, 'You just write it for whatever you want.'
"'Oh, my God! You've got to be kidding me."
Dabo thanked the lady, hung up the phone, and then picked it back up to call his mother again. "I had chills on me. I said, 'Mom, you're not going to believe this.' And I told her the story, and we're both crying on the phone," Dabo said. "I hung the phone up. I got on my knees. I'm just thanking God."
Dabo returned to Coleman Coliseum. He tore one of those checks off the back of that letter. He wrote it for $550 to the University of Alabama. Then, he ventured directly to Mr. Cotton. He tore off the second check and wrote it to cover his rent. "I'm $1,000 in debt, but I'm good to go," Dabo said. "Then, about a month later, I got my Pell grant, I got my student loans, and then I never had that problem again. You live, and you learn."
The Pell grants and loans were not the only reason Dabo avoided that same predicament. The former crawl-on inched closer to earning a scholarship. In 1989 he climbed to the periphery of the receiver rotation. Alabama rolled to a 10 — 2 record and won a share of the Southeastern Conference championship. Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl to Miami and then lost its head coach, Bill Curry, to Kentucky. Among the departing assistants was Dabo's first position coach, Tommy Bowden.
Alabama replaced Curry with Gene Stallings, who had played for legendary coach Bear Bryant at Texas A&M University and been a member of Bryant's first coaching staff at Alabama in 1958. Stallings replaced Bowden with Woody McCorvey, who initially relegated Dabo to the scout team.
"I swear to you Woody McCorvey didn't know my name, and I had just been through a spring and a summer with him." Dabo said. "I hadn't sniffed the field."
Alabama dropped four of the first seven games of the 1990 season, and the receivers dropped enough passes to make McCorvey rethink his depth chart. In addition, Alabama lost its top two receivers, Craig Sanderson and Prince Wimbley, to injury in consecutive games against Florida and Georgia. McCorvey needed to either motivate his starters to tighten up or find an alternative. At the start of a practice during the ninth week of the season, McCorvey figured he could possibly achieve both of those objectives through Dabo.
"I'm over there on the scout team getting ready to do my daily job, and, out of the blue, Coach McCorvey, he starts calling my name over from the other field," recalled Dabo, who immediately began to retrace his steps to ensure he had not done anything to draw McCorvey's ire.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Top of the Hill"
Copyright © 2018 Manie Robinson.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Tajh Boyd ix
1 That Boy from Pelham 1
2 Dab and Kath 14
3 Lightning Strikes Twice 32
4 All In 51
5 Mr. Fix-It 65
6 The Buy-In 84
7 Fourth-and-16 96
8 The One That Got Away 107
9 The Legend of Deshaun 120
10 The Audition 133
11 15-for-15 139
12 BYOG 155
13 Pizza Party 164
14 Rather Later Than Sooner 178
15 Roll Tigers 187
16 Desert Disappointment 195
17 Chasing Greatness 202
18 Flirting with Disaster 214
19 Little Brother 223
20 Orange Crush 234
21 Home 246
22 Attacking National Champions 258
23 Built to Last 272