Even before Dabo Swinney was leading his Clemson football program to conference and national championships, he was doing something more important for his community.
A week after he took over the Clemson program, as an interim head coach, Swinney knew it was important for his team to come together and do something together that had nothing to do with football.
Clemson was coming off a loss to Georgia Tech and had an open date before they went to Boston College that following week.
“I remember very vividly. I was like, ‘You know, we are going to do something a little different this year on our open date,’” Swinney recalled on Tuesday. “‘We are going to practice, but we are going to take one day and do no football. We are just going to go serve. This is going to be a part of our program.’”
And it has ever since.
On Tuesday, the fourth-ranked Clemson Tigers, in the middle of another possible championship run, took a break from the football fields and served its local community once again. Through the Littlejohn Community Center, more than 300 local families from Clemson, Central and Seneca were identified and invited to participate as the football program helped the Golden Harvest Food Bank provide healthy groceries for those families.
“It has been great. Look how many people are here,” tight end Garrett Williams said. “I was talking to another individual here, there are so many people here that actually work for the university. I see so many Clemson University shirts on. You never know walking around campus, who is around. So, it is so cool to come in here and help out those people who are serving us up on campus all day long.
“There are also so many families here who are needing some of these services that we are providing. It is an awesome opportunity.”
Swinney chuckled thinking back to when it all began 10 years ago and how some people did not like it.
“I remember that there was actually some criticism about that,” he said. “Like, ‘Gosh! They are not practicing, and they don’t care, and no wonder they stick.’ I remember in my message, ‘We are practicing, but we are just not running football plays.’
“But we were still practicing as a team. We were developing as a team. We were growing our players. We were teaching.”
That first year, the Tigers went to the hospital in Greenville and Swinney walked away from that day knowing it was so important they provide their young people opportunities to serve and to give back to make a difference for others.
“It is especially important to serve people who cannot do anything in return. I just think that is such a powerful lesson,” Swinney said. “It is something I learned early on as a kid. I know this, I had a lot of people serve me when I needed it. So, this is an opportunity for me to give back and for these players to gain such great perspective and to do something together and work together.”
After doing its first community service project, Clemson came back that next week and beat Boston College, 27-21, in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It was Swinney’s first win as a head coach. The Tigers closed the regular season that year by winning four of their final five games.
They beat South Carolina, 31-14, in the season-finale and the next week Swinney had the interim tagged removed from his title. He is still the only interim coach to take over a program at mid-season and lead that program to a winning record and a bowl game.
Clemson is 9-1 coming off a week in which it did its community service project.
“I think Coach Swinney stresses this,” senior running back Darien Rencher said. “For us to be successful, it takes hard work and dedication. At the same time, it takes rest and recovery away from football. Ultimately, we are more than football players. We are growing up as men and this is helping us have a whole different perspective in life and to give back and serve.
“This is great for him to do this for us.”