Tour of Dabo Swinney’s office: football, family, a singing Santa

December 25, 2016

CLEMSON – Just another pre-Christmas workday morning for Dabo Swinney, who arrives at Clemson’s Death Valley football headquarters early to sneak a peek at some Ohio State game tape before a staff meeting. Administrative assistant Beth Douglas isn’t surprised that he bounces in humming “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

But the bubbly Clemson head coach is drowned out two steps into his office by another crooner. The two-foot-tall singing Santa standing guard before a museum’s worth of signed footballs, meaningful helmets and cherished photos is belting out “A Holly Jolly Christmas” as well as Burl Ives.

Like a Clemson football team constantly adapting in its preparation for a College Football Playoff semifinal game against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31, Swinney’s office is fluid. A guided tour reveals more updating is likely after the Tigers meet the Buckeyes in Glendale, Ariz., with a major renovation certain if Clemson gets a national championship game rematch with Alabama.

Newest addition to the front of the desk: a Dec. 5 photo of Swinney and his wife Kathleen snapped on the sideline of a Colts-Jets NFL game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It’s framed with a picture of Dabo and Kathleen taken when he was an Alabama sixth-grader in 1982.

“A friend of mine put this together,” says Swinney, 47. “The exact same pose. I’ve got my left arm around Kath and we’re like the same exact height difference. So that’s pretty cool.”

Otherwise, Swinney’s office is crammed with autographed jerseys and ticket stubs, mementoes blocking knick-knacks, a crucifix or several, personalized Coca-Cola bottles, a Dabo bobblehead, awards, plaques, game balls and two TVs.

Ties to Clemson past – lore that long preceded Swinney’s 2008 appointment as interim head coach or 2003 arrival as a wide receivers coach – are everywhere. There are photos of former Clemson coaches Frank Howard and Danny Ford. And here’s a framed 1982 Orange Bowl ticket, a souvenir from Clemson’s national championship-clinching victory over Nebraska.

When Gene Stallings, Swinney’s head coach at Alabama, paid a visit to the office Swinney couldn’t wait to show him a football signed by Dwight Clark. Along with the autograph, Clark diagrammed “The Catch” play, Clark’s iconic leaping touchdown snag of a Joe Montana pass that made the difference in the San Francisco 49ers’ victory over Dallas in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 10, 1982.

“Coach (Stallings) came in and I was so proud of the ball because I had just played golf with Dwight Clark,” Swinney says.

The conversation went awry.

Swinney: “Hey, Coach, remember Dwight Clark?”

Stallings: “Yeah, Dabo, I remember Dwight Clark.”

Swinney: “Remember The Catch? Well, here is a football he signed. And he even drew up the play on the ball.”


Stallings: “Uh, Dabo. You do realize I was a defensive coach for the Dallas Cowboys in that game, don’t you? I’m very well aware of that play.”

Swinney: “OK. Well, coach, here’s a picture of you and me over here …”

Spiller and Saban

Former Tigers running back C.J. Spiller signed his life-sized Clemson poster, and Swinney still has Spiller’s “promise card” – hastily scribbled confirmation from Spiller to Swinney that he would make a recruiting visit.

Swinney loves the photo of a weed growing high in the cement stands at Death Valley.

“That’s my ‘Find a way’ picture,” Swinney said. “If that weed can do it, you can too.”

A poster of DeAndre Hopkins making a fourth-and-16 catch critical to Clemson’s 25-24 victory over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl includes the words “Never Give Up.” It is on the wall next to a Clemson fan’s former California license plate: 4TH N 16.

Swinney points to a framed map of Boca Grande, Fla., a Gulf Coast island near Port Charlotte where the Swinney family owns a vacation home.

“We’re right here,” Swinney says, “and (Alabama head coach Nick) Saban’s right there. Every now and then we’ll go down there when I need a mental break.”

Family gestures

Family is the prevailing office theme.

The largest photo on a side wall near windows high above the Death Valley parking lot is of all the Clemson coaches and their families.

A framed photo right behind the desk is of the Swinney family – Dabo, Kathleen and their three boys – standing at Howard’s Rock, the famed player entry point to Death Valley.

To the right is a photo of Ervil Swinney, Dabo’s late father, raising his fists in celebration while watching a Clemson game. Adjacent is a photo cropped from the 2016 Clemson schedule poster: Dabo on the sideline, same gesture.

Beth Douglas spotted the similarity.

“She said, ‘I want you to look. Your hands are up just like your dad’s,’” Swinney says. “Even our fists are clenched the same.”

A visitor has to ask.

“God forbid, Dabo, but if the fire alarm went off and you could only grab one thing in this office, what would you pick?”

“With all this stuff in here?” Swinney says. “I’d be in trouble, wouldn’t I?”

He thinks for a few seconds.

“Man, probably my phone,” Swinney says. “And then I’d run.”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff