Dabo Swinney has become one of college football’s most successful coaches.
Swinney has led the program to unprecedented heights. He has guided the Tigers to 150 wins during his tenure, becoming just the third coach (Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops) in FBS history to reach that mark in the first 15 years of coaching.
However, for as successful as Swinney has been, his career as a coach almost never was. The former walk-on at Alabama had never even thought about coaching after his playing days were over, telling former Clemson RB Darien Rencher on the latest edition of The Players Club Podcast that the original plan was to be a pediatrician.
“I can honestly say I never ever thought about coaching, dreamed about coaching,” Swinney said. “I only ever thought about playing. I was gonna play in the NBA. I’m gonna play in the NFL. I was going to the Braves. I mean, that’s all I really thought about. And then I was gonna go be a doctor and that was it.”
“I went to college as 18-year-old thinking I’m gonna be a pediatrician. I was a pre-med major, biology major for three years. And then I just had this like moment of like, ‘God, this isn’t what I want to do.’ You know, I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t love it. I’m just starting. I got 10 more years of school.”
The spring following his final season at Alabama, Swinney was on hand for one of the Crimson Tide’s spring practices as the team began prep for the 1993 season. He was looking forward to starting a career in a field that had nothing to do with the game of football while finishing up his MBA. Then his former head coach, the legendary Gene Stallings, presented him with an offer that would change his life forever.
“I switched into hospital administration, in the business school, getting a business degree,” Swinney said. “That brought me back for a fifth year because I had lost some hours transferring over. I go out to spring practice to just watch practice. First time I’ve never been a part of a team in my life. Next thing I know coach Stallings, he’s like, ‘Hey, you need to get a master’s degree, I’m gonna pay for it, and I need a graduate assistant coach, and you start in July.’ I had never even thought about coaching a day in my life.”
Swinney recalled being very skeptical at first, then deciding to take a leap of faith. In part due to his fear of having to turn his former head coach down, something he had no interest in doing.
“I tried to get out of that,” the head coach said. “I kind of talked myself into it really because I was scared to tell coach Stallings no. I just didn’t want to deal with it, you know? He’s just relentless and he’ll hound you.”
One week into his new career, one he didn’t even think he wanted, Swinney knew he had made the right decision. He quickly realized he unknowingly had all the tools needed to start out as a new coach. After spending three years in his role as a grad assistant, Swinney was promoted to a full-time assistant after the 1995 season, coaching wide receivers and tight ends.
“Honestly, within a week of becoming a coach, it was like, bam, like this ‘aha’ moment of clarity in my life,” Swinney said. “Like, all of a sudden for me, there were lots of things that happened. One, I’m still part of the team. I still love to compete. I realized I had way more knowledge than I even knew I had. You just don’t even know what you know. And I had all this knowledge.”
“Then the other thing that really spoke to me, that I really think God revealed to me clearly, was everything that I had experienced in my life up to that point, all of a sudden, made perfect sense to me. Like things that I hated, things that I wouldn’t want to go through again, things that were like, the liabilities in life now are all of a sudden my greatest assets. And I realized that I had a lot to offer.”
It also didn’t take long for Swinney to realize he did not only want to coach but that he wanted to run his own program. Eventually, he got his shot at Clemson. Two national titles and seven ACC Championships later, as well as numerous National Coach of the Year awards later, it’s safe to assume Swinney made the right decision.
“I just instantly fell in love with coaching,” Swinney said. “And immediately I knew this is what I’m supposed to do. Like, this is what I’m called to do. And so, you know, I literally started right then planning to be a head coach one day, I didn’t know if it would ever happen. But, you know, 15 years later it did.”
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