Clemson fans, all those great things that have happened since Dabo Swinney took over as football coach nearly never started. You have Swinney’s two oldest sons to thank for him staying in coaching.
Back in the mid-2000s Swinney was in Florida recruiting, holding serious doubts about whether to continue in the profession. Swinney, who was Clemson’s wide receivers coach, felt he was missing his children’s upbringing. So he came home and called a family meeting with wife Kathleen and the kids.
“I just told them, ‘Listen, I want you to know y’all are the most important thing in the world to me,’” Swinney recalled during Sugar Bowl media day before Monday’s college football playoff matchup with Alabama.
“Your dad can do a lot of things. I’m going to get out of coaching, and I’m going to get a job where I can coach your (youth) teams and be home on the weekends. I don’t want to miss this opportunity to be a great dad.”
Instead of being elated that their father would stop traveling so much and missing so many of their activities, sons Will and Drew panicked. They liked their father being a college football coach and all the experiences that went with it. They didn’t want this change, even knowing their father’s intention was to increase family time.
“They looked at me (and said), ‘But, daddy, if you’re not a coach, we won’t get to know the players. And we don’t get to ride the (team) bus.’"
Swinney, a man of deep religious faith, looks back on this as God speaking to him through his children, offering him a vision that what he viewed as a threat to the Swinney family unit was in fact a strength.
“All of a sudden, my kids start opening my eyes,” Swinney recalled, detailing a decision that had far-reaching effect more than a decade later. “I was focused on the things we didn’t get to do. God used my kids to get me to focus on the things we do get to do, and they got to do.
“A whole different lens and perspective that I didn’t have.”
In 2008, following the midseason departure of Tommy Bowden, Swinney was promoted to interim head coach, then got the job full time.
What ensued has been spectacular: The Tigers play Monday at the Superdome (8:45 p.m., on ESPN) in their third consecutive playoff appearance, and also a third postseason matchup against Alabama, Swinney’s alma mater. Clemson is the reigning national champion, 12-1 this season and top seed in this four-team playoff format.
For all the demands on the head coach of such an elite college program, Swinney refused to let his job consume him. He carved out time to coach his three sons in youth baseball. He showed up on Friday nights for their high school football games.
Also, he didn’t reserve that right to work-life balance to himself. There has been minimal turnover on Clemson’s coaching staff. One of the reasons, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said Saturday, is Swinney doesn’t just tolerate the assistants having lives outside their jobs, he expects it.
Now, the Tigers are in another game of huge stakes, after splitting with Alabama the previous two seasons. When Clemson lines up for a field goal or an extra point, a freshman named Will Swinney – yes, the coach’s oldest son – will be the holder.
“That was a life-changing moment for me,” Swinney said of that family meeting. “Through these boys’ mouths, and the experiences they had, they started telling me, ‘Dad, we love you being a coach.’”