The former walk-on, real estate agent, and interim head coach is now simply one of football’s elites.
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson pulling its second upset against Alabama and arguably the most shocking title game result of all time was far from the first time he’s exceeded expectations.
For the last eight years, in fact, his teams have finished higher in the final AP Poll than where they started out:
For NCAA record 8th consecutive year, Clemson under Dabo Swinney will match or finish year ranked higher in final AP poll than preseason poll:
Year Pre Final rank
2018 2 1
2017 5 4
2016 2 1
2015 12 2
2014 16 15
2013 8 8
2012 14 11
2011 NR 22
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) January 8, 2019
While most of these are small jumps, the Tigers have consistently beaten expectations.
The biggest jump was in 2015, when the Tigers went from being a team always in the New Year’s picture to a team always in the championship picture. In 2016, they then exacted revenge against Bama to take yet another step.
While 2018’s jump was just one spot away from the initial rankings, just like 2016, any season that ends with a move up to No. 1 is a big deal.
Beating the odds has been the story of Swinney’s entire career.
Before all this, he went from walk-on at Bama to real estate agent to surprise interim Clemson head coach to a guy on the hot seat.
In 2000, after Swinney was no longer on Alabama’s staff, former Tide strength coach Rich Wingo — who had started a commercial real estate firm building shopping centers after leaving football — came calling.
His real estate stint didn’t last long. He got hired under Tommy Bowden at Clemson in 2003, then stumbled into an interim gig after Bowden’s firing that turned into a full-timer, all despite never even having coordinator experience before.
In his second full season, 2010, his team finished 6-7, capped with a loss to South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. There were obvious questions surrounding his future. He thought he was going to be fired.
Swinney had just finished his postgame press conference when he was met in the hallway by his wife, Kathleen, her eyes filled with tears, to let her husband know his boss was in his office. Swinney recalled arriving to find the room dark, door barely cracked, with Phillips situated on the couch.
“I’m thinking I’m getting ready to be fired and I said to myself, hey, I did the best I could do and I’m thankful for the opportunity. God never says oops, that’s what I said, and I took a deep breath and walk in and he doesn’t even have a light on.”
But Clemson showed patience, and Swinney began proving everyone else wrong, first by making a big bowl game — a disastrous 2011 Orange Bowl against West Virginia, which put him right back on the hot seat — and then by winning them. That Orange Bowl was the last postseason game the Tigers lost outside of the Playoff, in fact.
Since then, Clemson has gone to unprecedented heights, with eight straight double-digit win seasons and two of the school’s three national titles.
He summed up his own story, Monday night after the game:
“I know we’re not supposed to be here,” Swinney said. “We’re just little old Clemson. I’m not supposed to be here, but we are, and I am. And how bout them Tigers, man? I’m so proud of our guys, these seniors. We beat Notre Dame and Alabama, we left no doubt. And we walked off this field tonight as the first 15-0 team in college football history.”
(Clemson’s actually the third — 1894 Yale and 1897 Penn were previous FBS-level teams to do it, and lower-level teams have as well.)
But Swinney’s probably done being underestimated.
No matter how much Dabo likes thinking of himself as an underdog — on 2018’s Selection Sunday, ESPN’s Rece Davis kidded Swinney about claiming to be on a “Rest Of Y’all” bus, lagging behind eternal favorite Alabama — those days are done. The Tigers haven’t displaced Bama for good, but they’ve moved right alongside them atop college football.
Clemson’s landing five-stars like Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross (the same Ross who shocked Alabama as a recruit) and winning titles with them less than a year after they stepped on-campus.
Not even Vegas can keep up, as Swinney’s Clemson is 18-11-1 against the spread over its last 30 games despite being favored by bigger and bigger numbers.
And now his Tigers aren’t just beating the favored Tide — they’re humiliating the closest thing in the country to an all-star team.
Bama entered the Clemson game with one of the highest-touted players at almost every position group. Tua Tagovailoa was one of the closest Heisman runner-ups ever and might’ve won if he’d stayed healthy, WR Jerry Jeudy and DL Quinnen Williams were named the best players at their positions, Jonah Williams was the country’s only unanimous All-America offensive lineman, Deionte Thompson was a consensus All-America DB, Josh Jacobs is considered perhaps the 2019 draft’s top RB, and so on.
When you manhandle quite possibly Saban’s most talented team ever, you have more than earned your place among elite head coaches, whether you’d prefer to fly under the radar or not. Although Swinney claims his program is still “a long way” from a dynasty, we might’ve witnessed the start of one anyway.
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