After walking on at Alabama in 1988, Dabo Swinney worked his way up the ladder to earn playing time. By the end of the 1989 season, his position coach at the time, a guy by the name of Tommy Bowden, had already told Swinney he was going to play the following season in some capacity.
It was a glorious moment for the 20-year old, who had proven a lot of the naysayers wrong by not just making the football team at Alabama, but earning playing time as well. However, on the way to prosperity, Swinney’s journey took a step back when then head coach Bill Curry left Alabama for the Kentucky job in 1990.
The Alabama brass brought in a Bear Bryant disciple in Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant when the legendary head coach was at Texas A&M. Stallings brought with him a former Clemson assistant named Woody McCorvey, who would coach the wide receivers.
“Dabo was disappointed,” older brother Tracy Swinney recalled from a conversation they had back in the winter of 1990. “Tommy Bowden knew him. He just was not a walk-on anymore. He was a guy that could probably contribute. And then Tommy leaves, and Dabo goes, ‘I don’t know how it is going to end up. They are bringing in some guy named Woody McCorvey. I don’t know anything about him. I’m going to be stuck at the bottom again.’”
At first Swinney was right. McCorvey did not know Dabo at all and treated him just like all the other walk-ons. He was just another walk-on to the new coaching staff.
But that quickly changed.
Though McCorvey had a hard time pronouncing Swinney correctly, he noticed the tall and skinny kid from Pelham, Alabama.
In the fall of that first season, Dabo finally got his opportunity to show what he could do. In one particular practice, the Alabama wide receivers were dropping everything. Over on the scout team, McCorvey had noticed Dabo was catching everything thrown his way, so he had enough and yelled for Dabo to come over and work with the first- and second-team receivers.
“Dabo,” McCorvey hollered. “Come over here! If you catch these passes, you are playing on Saturday.”
The rest is history.
“That was the door opening right there,” Tracy said. “It is a cool story about how he got to Clemson. It is really a cool story. I was glad to be a part of it and just watch it happen.”
Dabo Swinney’s story did not totally begin right there — Tracy said it all began when Dabo was a young boy, who always believed in the good in everyone and everything.
“I knew when Dabo was really young that he was different and special because he never saw the negative in anything, he always saw the positive,” Tracy said. “Now, as you can see, as a grown man, that’s what he always sees.
“He always sees the positive in everything. He was always like that. He was always the kid that never gave up. Some kids would get disgruntled about things, but Dabo would find what was good about it. He was always like that.”
It was then when Tracy knew his little brother was destined to do great things.
“I always knew whatever Dabo was going to do he was going to be very successful,” he said.
Years later, as Tracy recalled, Dabo told everyone he was going to walk on to the football team and play for Alabama. Those not close to Dabo appreciated his enthusiasm but doubted he would actually accomplish it.
Not Tracy. He knew Dabo was serious. He had seen this look in his eye before.
“I told him to go walk on and play basketball,” Tracy said. “He is a great basketball player. I always told him, ‘You should play basketball there. You can play that game.’ He would say, ‘No, I can play football there.’
“All I had to do was hear it, and I knew he would do it. I knew he would do it because I just knew how he was growing up. He was always a great little league baseball player. He was always the best player on his team. He was always the best player on the all-star team because he just worked at it, and he loved it.”
After beginning his career as a police officer in Alabama, the older Swinney worked nights and long shifts so he could have weekends off to go watch his brother play.
“I did not miss any of his games,” Tracy said. “I wanted to go to all of them. I wanted to go to the bowl games.”
Later in Dabo’s playing career, Tracy got Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, so every Wednesday he drove to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and watched Dabo practice. Afterward, they would go out for dinner and talk about everything.
“We just talked,” Tracy said. “We talked about how it was going with football. How was school going? I did that every week and I looked forward to it. I could not wait for my off days to get there and watch Dabo practice. It was awesome for me.
“I was so proud of him. Oh my gosh! I was so proud of him.”
When Dabo’s playing career came to an end after the Tide beat Miami in the 1992 Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship, Stallings asked Dabo to join his staff as a graduate assistant. When Tracy heard the news, he knew right away what it meant.
“I knew then coaching was his calling,” Tracy said. “I knew it because he has always been a great note-taker. He gave everything he had into that graduate assistant job. He was different. He just loves it. It is a love. It is a passion. A lot of people don’t have that, but he’s got it, and he had it then. When he got to Alabama, he was passionate about it and I was all for it.”
Tracy knew his brother would one day be a head coach. However, he also knew he would have to pay his dues as well. Even when Dabo left the business for two years after being a part of the Mike DuBose staff that was fired in 2001 at Alabama, Tracy knew Dabo would ultimately find his way back into coaching.
And of course Dabo did as Bowden called him up in the spring of 2003 to be his wide receivers coach at Clemson, a position he held for the next five years until that faithful day of Oct. 13, 2008. That’s the day Bowden stepped down as head coach and Dabo was appointed as the interim by then athletic director Terry Don Phillips.
Tracy remembers that day well. He remembers saying to himself when he heard the news, “He is going to get that job.”
“I knew he would be a head coach, but not that soon. That was soon,” Tracy said. “That was soon, but you know, that is how God works.
“There was no question in my mind he was going to get the job, though. Everything I had seen growing up, (I said) ‘he is getting it. It is his. He is not failing at this. He will not fail. He is getting this job.’ I knew it. I knew it. Then, to win a national championship, it did not surprise me a bit.”
It did not surprise Tracy, but it surprised everyone in the media in South Carolina, across the country and in his home state of Alabama. Tracy recalls listening to the radio in his car the day Clemson officially named Dabo as its next head coach and hearing all of the talk show hosts talking about what kind of mistake Clemson had made and how he would never get it done there.
“All of these people were saying Dabo Swinney does not have a chance. He has no chance,” Tracy said. “I just chuckled because I knew he would do it. They did not know him. They did not know who Dabo was. They did not know his work ethic or where he came from and how he had been taught.
“Coach Stallings, Coach McCorvey, they are his biggest mentors ever. When you are looking at Dabo coach, you are looking at Gene Stallings and Woody McCorvey. That is what you are looking at. That is exactly what you are looking at. It is amazing.”
It is amazing to think how things might have turned out differently had Woody McCorvey, Clemson’s Associate Athletic Director for Football, not been let go at Clemson as part of Danny Ford’s staff in 1990, and never came to Alabama and discovered a tall and skinny kid that just never gave up and always stayed positive.
“Low and behold, Woody McCorvey is the best thing to ever happen,” Tracy said.
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