For nearly two years in his early 30s, Dabo Swinney remembers praying the same thing every morning while driving to work:
“God, I want to coach. That’s what my will is, but I want to be within Your will. If it’s not Your will for me, I pray that You keep that door closed and help me stay focused on what I’m doing. Help me enjoy what I’m doing.”
Swinney had found himself out of coaching following the 2000 season, after eight years as an assistant at the University of Alabama due to an overhaul of the Crimson Tide staff.
His subsequent attempts to land a coaching position fell through. Needing work, he turned to real estate development, earning significantly more money as a shopping center leasing agent than he had in football—but the void in his heart and life was unmistakable.
Eventually, the Lord answered his prayer and granted the desires of his heart. Swinney’s breakthrough came in 2003 when he was hired to be the wide receivers coach at Clemson University.
Less than six years later, Swinney became the Tigers’ head coach and today, at 47, he leads one of the nation’s most successful programs—one that reached the pinnacle of the sport last season when they won the national championship.
“Only God can do this,” Swinney said as he fought back tears while accepting the championship trophy moments after the Tigers’ 35-31 win over top-ranked and previously unbeaten Alabama—Swinney’s alma mater and the school where his coaching career started.
Yet as much as the national championship—the second in Clemson history and first since 1981—meant to Swinney and the Tigers, he refuses to overemphasize it or to allow it to change him.
“We’re not going to be defined by that trophy,” he said. “That’s never going to be the definition of success for us. What we’re going to be defined by is how we love our players, how their lives are changed.
“I’m very aware of what my job is. My job is to coach football and to win football games, and I take a lot of pride in that. But we’re not results-driven around here. We’re so much more about how we do things.”
Still, Swinney’s results have been exemplary. He entered this season with an 89-28 record at Clemson, including appearances in the national championship game each of the past two seasons. The Tigers played Alabama in classic, down-to-the-wire games both times. The Crimson Tide won the first contest 45-40 before Clemson got revenge this past season by outscoring Alabama 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, Swinney revealed the advice he gave his players before and after the game about how to remain humble and avoid letting the spotlight of success spoil them: “Let the light inside of you shine brighter than the light that shines on you.”
Though he’s committed to keeping his priorities in order, make no mistake: Swinney is fiercely competitive.
“The Bible tells us to run in such a way as to win,” he said. “God creates us to compete. He creates us to win. It matters. But you’ve got no chance if you don’t do your best. That’s what being ‘all-in’ is about for us.”
Swinney’s principles were forged through the difficulties of youth. When he was a teenager, his father struggled with alcohol, and his parents divorced. At times after his two older brothers were grown and had moved away, he and his mother, Carol, lived in other people’s homes.
Dabo’s turning point came at age 16 when he received Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“That was the game-changer for me,” he said. “But it wasn’t like life just all of a sudden got rosy. In fact, it got worse. But the inside of me changed. What Christ did for me was to give me hope, give me resolve and give me belief in a future that was beyond my circumstances.”
When Dabo enrolled in college at Alabama as a pre-med student and walk-on wide receiver for the Crimson Tide football team, his mother needed a place to stay, so he invited her to move into an apartment he was sharing with a roommate.
Though the quarters were cramped and less than ideal, Dabo and Carol enjoyed the time together and grew even closer than before.
The situation exemplified Dabo’s loyalty to his mom, and today it helps him relate to players facing family challenges.
“I see so many young people who don’t have hope, and I understand that,” Swinney said. “I understand the feeling of desperation. I understand the pain that is associated with disappointment and embarrassment. But I tell them to be part of the solution, not the problem.
“Coaching makes some of the things I’ve experienced in my life make sense to me. It allows me to use my life experiences to impact young people and to serve God through what I do. I’m very passionate about seeing young people graduate, mature and develop.”
Swinney said he views coaching as an opportunity to “teach life” to his players, with a vision for their long-term success, both on and off the playing field.
“I don’t ever want to be that coach who, when his players get to be 35, they look back and say, ‘Man, that guy didn’t care about me. He knew I wasn’t going to class, and he knew I wasn’t doing this or that, but he allowed me to get away with it just because I could help him win games,’” Swinney said.
“I want to tell them the truth. I want to empower them and give them hope. I try to hold these guys accountable. I try to love them and create hope in their lives, no matter what’s going on.”
Swinney is unabashed about sharing and living out his faith in Christ, wherever he goes, including around his team, but he is careful about not imposing it on anyone.
He stood firm three years ago when the Freedom From Religion Foundation accused him and the Clemson football program of illegally coercing players toward Christianity.
While chapel meetings, Bible studies and trips to church services are available to players, there are no requirements to participate.
“All this mud was being thrown with no basis in reality,” Swinney said. “It was very disappointing because it just wasn’t the truth. I totally respect the freedoms of this country. I’ve coached young people of all religions. I love them all. It’s not like we only play the best Christians. That’s not the deal here.
“Of course, I do hope I can be a positive influence with how I live my life. God has called us to be a light in the world, and that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.”
Swinney’s life and career are centered securely in his relationship with Christ.
“He’s my rock. He’s the anchor. He keeps me from getting washed out to sea when the storms of life come,” Swinney said. “Christ reminds me and teaches me that God loves me no matter what. He teaches me that He can take the worst thing that can ever happen and create eternal good from it.
“I’m thankful that I have this relationship with Christ and that through Him, I’ll be in Heaven one day—no doubt about it. Zero.”
With the assurance of salvation settled in his heart and mind, Swinney presses on with gusto in football and in life.
“Ultimately, when I meet my Maker, He’s not going to pat me on the back and say, ‘Atta boy, you won 100-and-something games, you made coach of the year, you made a lot of money,’” Swinney said. “But He’s going to say, ‘How did you use what I gave you? How did you help others? I put a lot of people in your path—how did you impact their life?’ That’s what I’m going to be measured by.”