Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney—his team the national champion after Monday night’s epic beat down of Alabama—disproves the familiar saying about nice guys. Sometimes, they finish first.
Dabo was a question mark when Clemson hired him as interim head coach in 2008. While he had been an assistant coach since 2003, he had no previous head coaching experience. But when previous head coach Tommy Bowden resigned halfway through the 2008 season, the university was in such desperate straits that it was willing to take a risk.
The team turned around and after beating South Carolina later in the season, he was named permanent head coach. By 2011 Clemson was ACC champion and Dabo was national Coach of the Year. He won his first national championship in 2016 (you can read a previous blog about Dabo’s secret to leading his team to that victory here). The second came Monday night. If his track record is any indication, more will follow.
Observers point to Dabo’s leadership skills as the explanation for his success. He’s an elite recruiter, annually placing Clemson in the top ten recruiting classes in the country. He has a great eye for talent and has hired superior assistant coaches. His players love him because of the personal relationship he builds with each one. He’s an outstanding motivator of people.
But the simplest explanation for Dabo’s success is the most obvious. In the cut-throat world of college football, he’s a genuinely nice guy.
This is a cynical age and calling Dabo a nice guy isn’t necessarily a compliment. More often than not, the title has a plain vanilla taste or the whiff of primness. It’s what guys are called when they’re too kind to get mad at and too gentle to be taken seriously. A nice guy may make a good neighbor but as someone to charge up a mountain with? Not so much.
Dabo isn’t a nice guy like that. He’s fiery, passionate and focused. He holds the people around him to a high standard. He doesn’t mind making hard decisions. He offers no apologies for putting his family ahead of his job. He doesn’t care if his religious convictions offend people. He’s nice in a different way.
His father an alcoholic, Dabo grew up in an environment of domestic violence that, when he was sixteen, led to a shattered family. Years of poverty followed as he made his way through the high school and college years. Against all odds, the walk-on spot he won on Alabama’s football team as a freshman grew to a full scholarship the next year. He became a graduate assistant to Alabama head coach Gene Stallings following graduation. In 1994 he married Kathleen Bassett and their happy marriage of almost twenty-five years produced three sons.
Along the way of his twisting journey to head coaching stardom, Dabo found the personal faith in Jesus that’s become as well known as his championships. He once described his conversion as “a game-changer for me. That’s really become the foundation of my life.”
Dabo is today at the pinnacle of professional success. But that’s not what he values most. His priorities of God first, family second and job third, built into his life from early on, guide him today as much as when he first embraced them as a teenager. He said as much at a press conference earlier this year:
“It’s hard to survive and thrive in this world if you don’t have a spiritual foundation. Life is hard, and we’re all going to experience death and failure and setbacks and disappointments. For me, my relationship with Christ has given me hope and peace.”
“My relationship with Christ gave me the ability to have a hope and peace beyond my circumstances. When I meet my Maker, he’s not going to pat me on the back and ask me how many football games I won. He’s going to hold me accountable to how I took advantage of the blessings and opportunities he gave me.”
College football fans across the country follow Dabo’s coaching record. But those who could care less about football still admire his personal story. Leaders on his level usually don’t manage to combine success, integrity and passion as easily as he does. For all his achievements he comes across as a sane and balanced man, focused on the things that matter most.
He’s a nice guy who finished first.