Dabo Swinney tried to hold back the tears as ESPN’s Samantha Ponder interviewed him following Monday night’s national championship victory over Alabama at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
With his mom, Carol, and wife, Kathleen, hugging him the whole time, Swinney thought about all of those who came before this team, those who were here with him when his dream of bringing Clemson back to national prominence first began.
“It has been an unbelievable eight years. This is for all of our teams because they are all a part of this,” Swinney said. “They all get a piece of this trophy … Eight years ago, my goal was to put Clemson back on top, and tonight that is a reality.”
“This was our night and this was our time,” he continued. “This has been a process in the making for us. Hats off to our team, and I’m just so happy for the Clemson Nation. This is unbelievable. I know Terry Don Phillips is sitting at home, and Terry Don, I’m not here without you brother. I appreciate you.”
It was Phillips that gave Dabo Swinney a chance when he named him as the interim head coach at Clemson following Tommy Bowden’s resignation on October 13, 2008.
Swinney eventually won the job after posting a 4-2 record down the stretch, including a 31-17 victory over Steve Spurrier and rival South Carolina. Phillips, who held a national coaching search the whole time and interviewed some strong candidates, took some heat from alumni, boosters and fans by hiring a coach who had no previous experience as a coordinator and six years earlier was selling real estate.
“We did as thorough of a search as you could before we selected Dabo,” Phillips said. “You want to do your due diligence and insure that if in fact you are going to go with an individual at that time that did have the experience as a coordinator and prior to coming to Clemson had been involved in real estate. So regardless of how we felt, we needed to do a very thorough search, which we did. We interviewed some very good sitting head coaches and coordinators, and when it was all said and done and visiting with the other coaches, I just truly believed in my heart of hearts that Dabo had some attributes that would make him successful.
“I really did not have any doubt that he would be successful. Now, I’m not sure that I saw the national championship in the cards. I would like to say that I was that smart, but I can’t say that I did. But I thought he was a special young man. He came up the hard way. He has earned everything that he has gotten. No one has given him anything, and what you see is what you get.”
What Clemson got was a fiery, passionate football coach, who will fight for his players, coaches, Clemson University and its fan base.
“What you see is what you get. There is no facade to him,” Phillips said.
Even when Clemson struggled in 2010, going 6-7 which included a loss to South Florida, and fans were calling for Swinney’s head, Phillips never backed away from his commitment to Swinney. Following a 29-7 loss to South Carolina at home that same year, Phillips met Swinney in his office after the game and told him he was never surer he was the man for the job than he was that night. The next year, Clemson won its first ACC Championship in 20 years and has been on a roll ever since.
In the last six years, Clemson has won at least 10 games every season, has won 70 games, won five division titles, three ACC Championships, played for the national championship twice and of course won the football program’s its second national championship with its 35-31 victory over Alabama on Monday night.
Along the way, Swinney has beaten national championship coaches such as Les Miles, Urban Meyer (twice), Bob Stoops (twice), Jimbo Fisher and now Nick Saban.
In the Tigers’ playoff run this year, they hammered Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl and then beat big, bad Alabama in the national championship game, to snap their 26-game winning streak. Instead of things being said, like he should not have been a head coach or he was too inexperienced at the time, Swinney is now considered one of the best coaches in the country, and after winning a national championship, some say he is one of the top three coaches.
“I certainly think he is right at the top. He has proven that,” Phillips said. “Back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances and he had a great shot of winning it last year… Ever since he beat Les with that last second field goal, his program has been on a very steep climb up. Dabo does not have to back down to anybody these days.”
But like Swinney said, none of it, the win over LSU, the two victories over Ohio State and Oklahoma, the 70 victories in the last six years and Monday night’s national championship win over Alabama would not have been possible had it not been for Terry Don Phillips believing in Swinney when no one else did.
“I really appreciated that. It meant a great deal to me. There was no question about it,” Phillips said. “Dabo is a special person and so are Kathleen and his family. He is just a tremendous person, and I’m just really happy for him.
“He has to go through some rough times after I named him head coach and just kept his nose to the grindstone and he kept working.”
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