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But Swinney is now a Tiger through and through
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Dabo Swinney long dreamed of winning a national football championship as a college head coach. When he assumed the reins at Clemson during the fall of 2008, he knew he was in a position and place to make it happen.
Slightly more than seven years later, Swinney and the Tigers stand at the brink of fulfillment. Clemson needs one win to become the first 15-0 team in FBS history and bring home the Atlantic Coast Conference’s second national football title in three years.
Alabama (13-1) is the last team standing in Swinney’s way as he prepares his team for the trip to Glendale, Arizona, and Monday night’s College Football Playoff Championship Game.
More specifically, it is the University of Alabama.
The school from which Swinney holds his undergraduate and MBA degrees. Where, after growing up in nearby Birmingham, he fulfilled one of his earlier, lifelong dreams of playing on a national championship team as a senior. And the football program in which Swinney earned his first coaching credentials, first for three years as a graduate assistant, and then as the Crimson Tide’s receivers coach for five seasons from 1996 through 2000.
“I think God has got a sense of humor,” Swinney said. “I really do.”
When the ball is kicked off Monday evening a little after 8:30 Eastern time, Swinney won’t be wallowing in nostalgia or thinking much about his strong ties to one of the game’s storied programs. But his roots remain strong.
“You're looking at a guy that grew up in the state of Alabama, and I mean, my dream was to play there, to go to school there,” Swinney told reporters earlier this week. “I was the one of the first in my family to get a college degree, and to be able to get it from the University of Alabama was a dream come true for me and for my family.”
Swinney noted that he arrived on campus as an 18-year-old and did not leave for well over a decade.
“I grew up in Tuscaloosa, basically,” he said. “That was kind of the most normal time of my life. I lived in that little apartment there for five years. I lived there longer than (anywhere else) – that was kind of my spot until I got married. It was a special 13, almost 14 years for me before I moved away from Tuscaloosa.”
In essence, Swinney’s ties to Alabama are the reason he is with the Tigers today. He left coaching for private business at the turn of the century and stayed out of college football for three seasons. But a call from Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden – his college position coach with the Crimson Tide – lured him back to the game.
After six years as an assistant on the Tigers’ coaching staff, Swinney stepped on an interim basis when Bowden resigned midway through the 2008 season. A strong finish that included a win over rival South Carolina removed the “interim” tag and secured his spot as the program’s 27th head coach. The Tigers were in the Dr Pepper ACC Championship Football Game a year later, and the rest is impressive history.
“You go on with your life, and I've been at Clemson 13 years, and I've been trying to get back to the National Championship as a coach for 20-plus years now,” Swinney said. “You know, to have the opportunity to be in my first National Championship Game as a coach, and it comes against Alabama, I just … I just have to smile at God on that one.”
Swinney was asked in any family members in his native state might be maintaining their long-standing Crimson Tide allegiances.
“Not if they're in my family,” he declared. “I've got a lot of people that want to be in my family right now, by the way. It's a big family. I've got a bunch of cousins and nephews that I didn't even know I had.
But no, it's all good. It's all good. All I know is they're not getting a ticket from me unless they're wearing orange.”
ABOUT THAT ROLLING TIDE …
There is a reason that Swinney – unless asked – hasn’t spent the week talking about or dwelling on his Alabama ties. His Tigers are preparing for a Crimson Tide team that has played with a renewed focus and sense of purpose since stumbling versus Ole Miss by what now seems an unbelievable score of 43-37 in the third weekend of the season.
Alabama (13-1) has not allowed more than two touchdowns in the last 11 games. That includes a 38-0 dismantling of No. 3 Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals that served notice the second-ranked Tide is serious in its quest to bring home its fourth national title in nine seasons under head coach Nick Saban.
“It didn't take long to get past, ‘Well, that's a neat match-up,’ (once) you turn the film on,” Swinney said. “You watch the tape, and you go, ‘Oh, boy.’
“This is a great football team we're getting ready to play … it's a great match-up, and the two best teams. That's just the way it's worked out, and I think it's special.”
In addition to a defense that ranks among the nation’s finest, Alabama boasts the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner in running back Derrick Henry. With 2,061 yards, Henry is the 25th player in NCAA single-season history and the 19th player in FBS history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. He is the first SEC player to collect 2,000 yards.
Alabama boats the offensive diversity and skilled position players to keep the Tigers from focusing on Henry alone, but Swinney makes no secret of where Clemson’s defensive game plan has to start.
“If you don't stop the run, you have zero chance, Swinney said. “Absolutely zero, because they're going to commit to it, obviously. Henry has had several games he's carried the ball 40-something times.”
SABAN LOOKS AHEAD
Clemson and Alabama last met on the football field for the 2008 season opener. The Crimson Tide, in the second year under Saban’s watch, had posted an uncharacteristic 13-13 record over the previous two seasons. But Alabama downed the ninth-ranked Tigers in the Atlanta Georgia Dome by a convincing 34-10 score.
Saban looks back at that game as one that helped Alabama turn a corner in its quest to regain national prominence, but considers in a footnote in regard to Monday night.
“That's ancient history compared to the kind of team Clemson has now and the kind of team we're going to play against in this game, Saban said. “Even though it was something that helped us establish a foundation for the program here a long time ago, I don't think it has much significance in what's going to happen in this game.”
While Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss back on Sept. 19 proved that the Crimson Tide can be beaten, Saban now views it as a disguised blessing from which his team continues to reap a reward.
“I think the early loss to Ole Miss probably did a lot to jilt the attitude of this team in helping them do the things they needed to do to be what they could be and follow and do the things that were necessary for them to be a good football team,” Saban said.
Alabama carries an 11-game winning streak in the CFP Championship Game, including the recent 38-0 whitewash of Michigan State that seemed flawless to most – but not to Saban.
“I wouldn't say so,” Saban responded when asked if his team had played the “perfect game” against the Spartans. “But you're always critical as a coach. There were a lot of good things that we did in the game, and (I am) very pleased and happy about that.
“But you know, there were a lot of things that we could do better, and hopefully our players will look at that and try to go to work and improve on the things that would help us play better in the next game.”