Keep right on dancing, Dabo

Published 10:21 am Monday, January 18, 2016

It began as a shock, really. Okay, maybe just a surprise.

It happened on a Sunday in the middle of a football season, Oct. 13, 2008 to be exact.

That’s the day then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips quietly fired popular coach Tommy Bowden, then walked into a room of Bowden’s assistant coaches and pointed to the guy from Alabama with the goofy grin. After all, the Tigers had just lost to Wake Forest and their record stood at 3-3.

The news of the firing had to be a shock. Bowden had been the position coach when the guy had played receiver at Alabama, been a fixture in Death Valley for nine and a half years; and now, poof, he was gone. I guess all the assistants thought they were on thin ice for the rest of the season.

Instead, Phillips told the guy the job was his – but only on an interim basis, for now. The guy proceeded to go to work – first assembling a staff then preparing for a Georgia Tech team that was vying for the ACC Coastal Division championship.

That guy hit the ground running in his first week as interim head coach. While the Tigers lost to the Jackets by four points, the guy was said to have done more in six days through his outstanding leadership. He changed the pre-game routine, allowing the team bus to stop outside the tailgating section where the team was mobbed by thousands of Tiger fans who stood 10 deep for the 200-yard march to the stadium. It was the centerpiece of the guy’s “All In” theme during his first week as head coach.

In his second week, the guy invited the Clemson student body to a practice, and nearly 1,000 students showed up, even allowing some to participate in practice, attempt a field goal, and run a punting drill against a live rush. Later that year, the guy also took his entire team to the Greenville, SC Children’s Hospital for a visit with young men and women fighting cancer.

When he interviewed to become the permanent coach later that year, the guy arrived with a notebook that contained thoughts, philosophies and ideas dating back to his days as a walk-on at Alabama under then-coach Gene Stallings. They were his blueprints for coaching an FBS team.

Clemson finished 7-6 that year and after beating South Carolina, on Dec. 1, the ‘interim tag’ was removed from the guy’s title. He had coached the Tigers to 5-2 after taking over – and earned the team a bowl bid. They lost that one, and their first three, but since, have gone 5-3, including their Orange Bowl win on New Year’s Eve.

“He’s just that kind of guy,” Don Munson, the play-by-play voice of Clemson football said. “He’s had that drive, he’s had that vision.”

“That guy” is Dabo Swinney. He’s emotional, lively, seems to always be thinking first of his players, and – oh yes – he can coach up a football team, too. There are some though who say his post-game locker room dance moves could use some work.

Swinney had to settle for second-best after Monday night’s loss to Alabama – his alma mater – in the championship game, but he had said all along that bringing the big trophy back to Pickens County, SC from the desert was going to be tough.

Sometimes you need luck to make it all the way. 15-0 would’ve been nice, but Clemson’s road to the top this year was no fluke. The guy made them earn every single win.

“Seven years ago, when I got this job, I said that we would win a national championship again,” Swinney said without remorse at his post-game press conference Monday night. “It was just a matter of when. It’s been a long time since we’ve stood on the mountain; we’re not quite there yet, but we can see it and we’ll get there.”

And then – like the song says – I’ll bet you’ll see him ‘dancing like he’s never danced before’.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7211.