The Official Coach William Swinney Thread

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    Thick and thin
    Larry Williams • TigerIllustrated.com
    NEW ORLEANS, La. -- On Jan. 9 of 2017, Dabo Swinney was responsible for handing Alabama an excruciating last-second defeat in the national title game.

    On Oct. 14 of 2017, Swinney was responsible for a thunderous ovation from more than 100,000 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium before the Crimson Tide's game against Arkansas.

    Think about that for a moment, and forget for a second that he's an alum. The proudest, football-craziest fan base in college football unanimously let its guard down to show overwhelming love to the man who ripped their hearts out in Tampa.

    "That ovation was crazy, nuts," said Mario Morris, who stood with Swinney that evening as the Tide's 1992 national title team was honored 25 years later.

    "As we were walking off the field, they were chanting, 'Dabo! Dabo!' It sort of gave me chills, to be honest with you. It still does."


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    Everyone at Clemson knows all about the power of Dabo, the man who has turned a perennially underachieving football program into a supreme being that takes a back seat to no one. The folks in the Upstate love him not just for what he's done but for how he's done it, building it in his own unique way with personality and passion and a joy in just about everything he and they do.

    But what about what they think over in Tuscaloosa, the place where he was a walk-on and then a scholarship receiver and then a graduate assistant and then a full-time coach?

    Quite clearly, they'd all love to have him whenever Nick Saban decides to hang it up. Everyone knows that, though there's much less certainty about whether he'd actually do it (more on that later).

    But what about this ouch my b-hole run of three straight postseason showdowns between Swinney and the school he grew up loving? What are the emotions like for Alabama faithful, and the guys he played with, as they prepare for four more hours of this spectacle Monday night?

    Let's put it this way: It's complicated. And conflicting. A situation that stirs emotions in a positively unique way.

    "I'm going on record as saying I'm not going on record," said Chris Donnelly, a defensive back on the 1992 team and Swinney's roommate that year.

    "Obviously I'm a big Alabama fan. But I'm also a big Dabo fan. You have a tendency to root for people. Let's just say all of his former teammates can't lose."

    George Teague, a defensive back on the 1992 team, thinks he'll be happy as long as Alabama wins a close one. But even then, he's not sure how to describe his emotions.

    "It's been awesome to watch him and see the success he's had. But it makes it hard. Like: 'Man, who do I root for?' Last year was one of the most conflicted moments I've ever had. I felt like we won either way. He's taken care of so many former players who are now coaching with him. But it's tough."

    Many of Swinney's former teammates, coaches and support staffers were back together in Tuscaloosa on that October day, and most of them were stunned to hear Swinney was even coming.

    It was the middle of football season, after all, and Swinney is usually pretty busy on fall Saturdays.

    But so much of Swinney's life has been like some movie, so of course the stars aligned and had Clemson playing Syracuse on a Friday night that week.

    Donnelly: "It was so storybook. But let's be honest: Everything for Dabo is storybook. That's his story."


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    Longtime Alabama athletics department staffer Tommy Ford, a distant cousin of a former Clemson coach named Danny, organized the reunion and said the date of Oct. 14 was settled on by former coach Gene Stallingsbefore Clemson's 2017 conference schedule was even announced.

    "We knew it was almost a given that Dabo wasn't going to be able to come," Ford said. "I later saw that Clemson was playing Syracuse but I didn't pay attention to the day. We sent out save-the-date cards in January. Dabo got back to us later and wrote that if there was any way he could get there he would."

    Two weeks before the reunion weekend, Stallings suffered a heart attack. He'd already suffered two strokes, so it was assumed he wasn't coming.

    But a week before the game, he was discharged from a hospital in Dallas and went straight to College Station for the Aggies' game against Alabama. Texas A&M was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1967 Cotton Bowl win over the Crimson Tide.

    So when Swinney heard his mentor was going to show, he committed to making the trip. He was going to bring a group from Clemson that was also part of that team, including Woody McCorvey, Thad Turnipseed, Danny Pearman and Lemanski Hall. And they were going to come on a university plane from the Clemson area just hours after landing in Greenville-Spartanburg from the Syracuse trip.

    That Syracuse trip turned into a nightmare when the Orange dealt the Tigers a shocking 27-24 loss heading into the open date. That made for a miserable trip home, and plenty of the folks in Tuscaloosa thought Swinney would back out.

    He and the crew made the trip anyway, landing in Tuscaloosa at 2:15 and arriving to the stadium via police escort by 2:30.

    "People were shocked when we told them Dabo was coming," Ford said. "Had they not been off the next week, I doubt they'd have been able to come because I'm not sure how that would have been perceived."

    Morris, a junior linebacker on the 1992 team, later went to law school and is now the chief financial officer for Wisconsin's athletics department. He doesn't keep in great touch with Swinney but has paid close attention from afar and marveled at every step along the way during Swinney's now-brilliant head coaching career.

    "For me it is one of the best stories not only in college football, not only in sports but in life," Morris said. "He didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth, and he still remembers where he came from. He's a good 'ole Alabama boy who worked his way up and was never given anything. He's just a good person, and that carries you a long way in this world."

    The popular sentiment from Alabama folks, from the matchup two years ago to last year's to the one Monday night in the Superdome, is basically this:

    "We want badly to win. But if we lose, let it be to one of our own."

    Not that such a resolution is easy. And not that there aren't exceptions.

    "I know people who have been torn -- I'm talking extremely torn -- over who to pull for," Morris said. "I'm talking full-fledged Alabama fans who don't know whether to root for Dabo or for Alabama. I think it's because they like to see an Alabama boy carry himself with the class he has, the way he treats his players and his staff. People can see the genuineness in him, and they really just love his story. I'm in awe of him."


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    Donnelly and Swinney are quite close. A couple years ago a newspaper wrote an article on Donnelly as "the man who lived with Dabo Swinney and his mom at Alabama." Donnelly says his friend hasn't changed a lick.

    "I've been around him when he's had no money and didn't know where his next meal was coming from, and I've been around him when he's the second-highest-paid coach in college football and building a mansion. What's special about him is he's the same person through it all. A lot of people change based on their life circumstances changing, but he's the same guy. Dabo is happy no matter the circumstances."

    Donnelly, now the president of a medical sales company in Birmingham and a high school football coach on the side, makes regular trips to Clemson and worked Swinney's camp for 13 straight summers before the NCAA banned the practice.

    Swinney has populated his staff with Alabama guys, and he makes a big deal of urging his former teammates to come to Clemson games and stand on the sidelines.

    The only rule: You must wear orange.

    "There are probably ex-players who go to more Clemson games than Alabama games," Donnelly said. "He's kind of like the Pied Piper. Everybody feels like they're a little bit part of Clemson football. You feel part of both."

    You can't talk about this topic without addressing the elephant in the room, the notion that Swinney might leave for Alabama and replace Saban at some point.

    If you're in Clemson you've probably picked up wind of how happy Swinney and his family are there, how he's almost certainly content to be at the place for the rest of his life.

    It's popular among Alabama folks to think Swinney, like Bear Bryant did in leaving Texas A&M, will find it too hard to resist the urge of mama calling.

    Donnelly, a man closer to the source, doesn't profess to know what would happen. But he does believe it would be a lot harder to pry him away than most Alabama people think.

    "I'm asked that all the time and I say I can't say, and it would be a tough situation," he said. "But I'll say this: The longer he stays at Clemson, the harder it would be.

    "Some Alabama faithful think all we have to do is pick up the phone and it will be done, but it's not going to be nearly that easy. They love it in Clemson, and they've raised their boys there. Kathleen and Dabo would tell you Clemson is home for them."


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    Teague, a star on that '92 team and a current high school coach in the Dallas area, hears the talk too from Bama folks. But he knows Clemson is Swinney's baby.

    "Man, he's at a good place. It's a great school, a great community and he's doing great things. He's got that place rocking and rolling."

    The Clemson entourage arrived in Tuscaloosa wearing neutral colors, and before the pregame ceremony on the field they were able to spend several hours visiting with Stallings and about 100 other 1992 team members.

    Swinney was a walk-on at Alabama, but he's always been a 5-star worker of a room.

    "Dabo is always the hit of the party anytime he's here because he's got such a great personality," Ford said. "He's such a great storyteller. He's got a steel trap for a mind. It's unbelievable listening to him talk about the Alabama days -- specific plays and roommates and funny stuff."

    The Clemson entourage was not staying for the game. Minutes after the ceremony on the field, after Swinney received an ovation that was surpassed only by the roar for Stallings, they would be whisked back to the airport by 6:30. So by early that Saturday evening, Swinney was back in Clemson and trying to figure out what in the heck went wrong the night before at Syracuse.

    Turnipseed said the plane ride from Syracuse was miserable, and the trip to Tuscaloosa even worse. Swinney was in a particularly bad mood as he thought about all the ways Clemson let it slip away the night before.

    The trip back, though, was totally different. Swinney and his assistants were jovial, laughing and joking and re-telling stories they'd heard at the reunion. The trip was the precise piece of therapy they needed.

    "You can preach it and preach it that it's not life or death when you lose, but it's human nature to be devastated by it," Turnipseed said. "When you do lose, it's hard to get over. And that right there put the Syracuse loss in proper perspective. We had players die from that 1992 team, players suffering on that team. Coach Stallings found a way to be there, and it might have been one of the last times to see him. When you get the bond of that team back together, you realize: Man, this is so much bigger than losing to Syracuse."


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    AP
    Monday night, Swinney will be back in front of a bunch of Alabama fans. And this time he won't be wearing neutral colors.

    Inside the same building where he won a national title with the Crimson Tide 25 years ago, he'll be trying to cut the heart out of his alma mater once again.

    But for Alabama folks, this game will contain some irresistible good regardless of what happens.

    Because they're proud of their boy.

    "His former teammates can't lose," Donnelly said. "I was in Tampa last year, and I found myself not very devastated. I found myself more excited for him, and my feelings for him way outweighed my feelings for my alma mater. We'd won four titles in seven years, so it was Clemson's time.

    "I was as excited as if Alabama won."
     
    Tiger Roll, 19B, Clemson327 and 5 others like this.

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