ACC Legends Week: Georgia Tech's Ken Swilling
Nov. 14, 2012
Ken Swilling (Georgia Tech 1988-91), a hard-hitting safety and one of the leaders of the Yellow Jackets' 1990 National Championship team, lettered for four years for head coach Bobby Ross. A 3rd-team All-America as a sophomore in 1989, he earned consensus first-team All-America honors in 1990 as the Jackets were named National Champions by the UPI Coaches poll. A two-time first-team All-ACC selection (1989-1990), he keyed Tech's defense from his free safety position and led the ACC in pass interceptions with five in 1990. He led Tech to a 16-game non-losing streak, including a stretch in the 1989 and 1990 seasons where the Jackets won 18 of 20 games. He completed his career with 13 interceptions, returning them for 239 yards and two touchdowns. The 13 picks are tied for the 5th-best total for a Tech player. As a sophomore in 1989, he became the first ACC player to return an intercepted conversion attempt--a 99-yard return versus Duke--for a two-point defensive conversion. That same year he had interception returns for touchdowns of 72 and 95 yards. He finished his career with 267 tackles, the second-highest total by a defensive back in Georgia Tech history. A seventh-round selection in the 1991 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, he played one season in the NFL. He was named to the ACC's 50th Anniversary team in 2003 and was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. A native of Toccoa, Ga., he currently resides in Atlanta.
You had some strong family ties to Georgia Tech. How much of a factor was that in your decision to attend school there as well?
I looked at some other places coming out of high school, but I guess you could say Georgia Tech was always my number one choice. My cousin, Pat, was there and his brother, Darrell, was there. We had several other guys from my community go there. Whenever I would visit there it felt like home and felt like it was the place for me to be.
There had been a coaching change just before you got there, but had you heard good things about Coach Ross and were you impressed with what he was starting to build there?
Yes - at the time they weren't winning, so it wasn't the winning record that got me there. It was more him. It came right down to the wire between Tech and Alabama because Bill Curry, who had been the coach at Georgia Tech, had coached my cousin Pat. That made me torn between Georgia Tech and Alabama. Luckily, I made the right decision because two years after Coach Curry took the job at Alabama, he was gone.
Tech struggled your freshman year and at the start of your sophomore year, but could you see that the pieces were in place for what was to follow later?
The pieces were definitely in place. When you are on a team that is losing and struggling, you have to learn how to win again. We had guys who came from winning programs in high school - I know I did, and several others did. But we just had to learn how to win and learn how to get out of our own way and allow ourselves to win and learn how to finish. We would be so close every week, and then we'd give it away. Once we got over the hump and started winning my sophomore year, it kind of turned the tables for a lot of different things.
You finished so strongly your sophomore year in 1989, won six of your last seven, beat Georgia--did you feel any injustice at not getting a bowl bid, and if so how much did that motivate you and your team during the offseason?
It motivated us a whole lot. I remember being home from Christmas sitting at my Mom's kitchen table watching a bowl game and being kind of upset that we weren't there. I told her, `I am not going to be here at this time next year. We are going to be in a bowl game.' I didn't know at that time that we would be playing for a National Championship and doing all of those things, but that was definitely one of the things that pushed us over the edge. That made the whole environment around the football program change, just being so close and not being in a bowl game. Had we been in the present system, we would have gone to a bowl game of some sort. But that was a different time. There weren't as many bowl games, and the matchups and pairings were different because you didn't have all the conference alliances that you have now.
You received a lot of attention during the 1990 season when you revealed early on that you'd had a dream that Georgia Tech went unbeaten and won a National Championship. Do you remember exactly when you dreamt that, and how exactly that all unfolded?
I pretty much had several recurring dreams and open visions, and positive-thinking moments when we were working out. I thought about it at night a lot. At first I didn't think much about it, but then I started talking about it and telling some of my friends about it. Then it just so happened one day that I was in a press conference, and I actually said it to someone there.
Did you get any feedback from Coach Ross for saying that?
Of course, I got called into the office the very next day and he let me have it pretty good. I said, `But Coach, this is how I feel and I really believe it is going to happen that way.' He said, `Kenny, it's OK for you to feel that way. Just don't put it in the paper where everybody can read it.' So we went through the rest of the preseason and on into the season kind of being hush-hush about it. But, really, it built some confidence as we talked among ourselves. And then when we won our first two or three games, everybody was like, `Hey, there might be something to it.' Then we had a big win over Clemson, and things just kept building that way.
The Clemson game was where you hurt your ankle returning a kickoff and you missed a couple of games afterwards. You had a great season, but do you ever think that it might have been even better if that hadn't happened?
I often think about it, but all things happen for a reason. If I hadn't hurt myself on that first kickoff, then the young man who basically won the game for us with a long kickoff return later in the game might not have even have gotten the chance to do it. Kevin Tisdale took it back about 85 yards and got us into scoring range late in that ballgame. So who knows? Had I been healthy, that could have been me running that kickoff, and he was a much better return guy than I was. And he was a walk-on guy, and that propelled him to getting a scholarship. Hindsight is always 20-20 and you always wonder, `What if I hadn't gotten hurt?' But I also look at the positive things that happened as a result of me getting hurt. It might not have benefited me at the moment, but it benefited our team and it benefited our whole situation.
The week after the Clemson game, you couldn't play in the game at North Carolina and that wound up in a tie - the only small blemish on an otherwise perfect season. Does that even matter in view of the fact you won the National Championship anyway, or does a part of you wish you could have been out there and maybe helped get your team over the hump?
I didn't travel with the team because I was hurt, but I found a way to get up to the game. I remember (North Carolina coach) Mack Brown came up to me before the game and said, `I am sorry you are hurt, but I am sure glad you aren't playing today,' and we laughed about it there on the field. But the tie left a bad taste in our mouths and got us ready to take on the rest of the season. North Carolina is historically a hard place for Georgia Tech to play, and they were on the rise at that time football-wise. That was a pivotal moment in our season. We actually had to come from behind to tie that game up, and we had several games like that during that season. I remember beating Virginia Tech 6-3. We just learned that we had to play every game, every down, every moment, every second.
The game everyone talks about is the shootout with Virginia, which was ranked No. 1 at the time. You wound up winning 41-38. When you think of that game, and all the excitement leading up to it, was that your most exciting time as a college player?
It was probably my most exciting time. I remember just trying to get myself together to play that week, because my ankle was still swollen and I was only able to do the walk-through practice on Thursday. I probably shouldn't have been playing, but that was one game I wasn't going to miss. I didn't have a great game and (Virginia wide receiver) Herman Moore caught a bunch of balls against us for over 200 yards. But that's a game I wouldn't change for anything in the world.
You went on from there to win out, including the Citrus Bowl win over Nebraska that clinched a share of the National Championship. Did what you had accomplished sink in immediately, or did it take a while?
We knew exactly what we had accomplished. We beat a highly-ranked team in our bowl game that had historically been great. I remember later that night we were all watching Notre Dame play Colorado and seeing the Rocket (Raghib Ismail) take the punt back we thought had won the game for Notre Dame. We were all jumping around, and then this mysterious (penalty) flag comes out. So we wound up splitting the National Championship with Colorado. We often talk about that play, and the `fifth down' Colorado had earlier in the year against Missouri. But you look back over time, and like life, things happen for a reason. I'm just thankful we had the opportunity to be part of something that was so meaningful and so great.
You returned to Tech for your senior year, spent a year with the Browns, then returned to Atlanta and have been in the ministry for almost 20 years. Is that something you always felt called upon to do?
Probably since I was a little kid, I knew. When I got to be 16 or 17, I knew that was definitely a calling in my life, and that the Lord had something for me to do other than playing football. I ran for a while and really didn't want to heed to it. But eventually I did heed to the calling that was meant to be my life. And that is what I am doing now.