Dabo Swinney had no idea what was going to happen or if the next day, November 29, 2008, was going to be his last as a Clemson coach. All the 39-year old knew at the time was he had one more game to fulfill his obligation as the Tigers’ interim head coach.
Six weeks earlier, Swinney stepped into a difficult situation when he took over the Clemson football program for longtime head coach Tommy Bowden, who stepped down after the Tigers failed to live up to their top 10 preseason ranking and were 3-3 at the midway point of the season.
In his first five games as interim head coach, Swinney had guided the Tigers to three wins over Boston College, Duke and Virginia. A win over arch rival South Carolina in the regular-season finale would give the Tigers a 4-2 record, while qualifying them for a bowl game at the same time. It meant Swinney would be the first interim coach to take over at mid-season and lead his team to a bowl game.
In doing so, it more than likely would assure Swinney as the frontrunner to take over as Clemson’s new head coach.
“We finished 4-2 those last six regular season games, and that was certainly the game that got us over the hump and it got us bowl eligible,” Swinney said. “We weren’t going to a bowl, so it gave us an opportunity, and it was huge for me, getting the job, because it gave us a bowl season to prep and get some things in place for spring practice and to give some of those young kids an opportunity to continue to kind of sew some seeds and develop our culture a little bit, even though it was a very chaotic situation all the way through January.”
With an overcast sky and the team getting ready to head off to the team hotel the Friday before the big game, the Tigers were met by a Clemson Legend. Former Clemson President R.C. Edwards, who was not doing well physically, sent the Clemson team off from his hospital bed while wearing a Clemson cap and jacket.
“It was unbelievable,” Swinney said on Tuesday, while recalling that afternoon and his visit with Dr. Edwards.
Edwards, who was 94 years old, was an inspiration to Swinney and his team. It was just the boost the Tigers needed before playing the Gamecocks the next day.
“I remember it was kind of a cold, kind of cloudy, seemed later than it was, type of a game, and I just remember the spirit of our team and how hard they played, their will to win,” Swinney said.
South Carolina, who the Tigers will host this Saturday in Death Valley for the 114th meeting in the longstanding rivalry, had no chance that next day. Clemson got three touchdowns from running back James Davis, along with a touchdown pass from quarterback Cullen Harper to Jacoby Ford on a trick play, while the defense had four interceptions in a 31-14 victory.
At the end of the game, Davis led the 81,000 packed into Death Valley with the chant … DABO! DABO! DABO! It was their way of letting then athletic director, Terry Don Phillips, know who they wanted as their next head coach.
“The crowd at the end of the game was a special moment for me. It was no question,” Swinney said. “If we don’t win that game, I’m probably not here. I mean maybe. I mean Terry Don Phillips has some guts, but I don’t know if he had that kind of guts.”
Two days later, Swinney had the interim tag removed from his title and he was named the head coach. Eight years later, as the Tigers get set to play their rivals in the same stadium where it all began, Swinney has Clemson on the cusp of winning its second straight ACC Championship—third overall under his direction—and making the College Football Playoff for a second straight year.
“It was unbelievable, and I am very thankful for that group of seniors because those guys really bought into how they wanted to finish. That’s what we control. It’s always about what’s next. The best is yet to come,” Swinney said. “Those guys did an unbelievable job and played their hearts out.”
R.C. Edwards passed away a few days after Swinney was hired, but his gesture on that cold overcast day in 2008 has never been forgotten by Swinney. Without it, perhaps none of what the Clemson football program is experiencing today would be possible.
–File Photo Credit: Bart Boatwright-USA TODAY Sports