For Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, roots run deep in Alabama

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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (AP) Before coming to Clemson 13 years ago, all Dabo Swinney ever knew was Alabama.

The Tigers coach grew up in near Birmingham, and like so many boys his age, dreamed of playing football for the University of Alabama and coach Bear Bryant. He fulfilled part of that dream.

Swinney graduated from Alabama, married a girl he met in first grade, and worked as a Crimson Tide assistant coach in Tuscaloosa. When he was away from coaching, he worked in commercial real estate for a former Crimson Tide football star. One of the shopping centers Swinney helped create during his other life is still thriving in Hoover.

Now Swinney stands at the pinnacle of his career, facing his past. The top-ranked Tigers (14-0) face No. 2 Alabama (13-1) on Monday night in the College Football Playoff, seeking a national title.

“I think God has got a sense of humor,” Swinney said. “I really do. I think it’s great.”

Swinney’s love of Alabama football came from his father, Ervil Swinney. William Christopher became Dabo when he was just a baby and his older brother called him “that boy,” and it sounded like Dabo.

Swinney grew up watching the Tide dominate on Saturdays and Coach Bryant talk about the previous day’s game on his Sunday television show. Bryant retired after the 1982 season and died only a few months later. Swinney cried that day.

His high school years were hard. His father became violent when he drank and his parents split when he was in high school. Swinney eventually reconciled with Ervil, who died last year at 70 after a lengthy illness.

Just finding a place to live was tough for Carol Swinney, now McIntosh, and her sons. When Dabo Swinney was at Alabama, his mom moved in with him and his roommate. Dabo and his mom shared a bedroom and a bed.

“It was a special time,” Swinney said. “A little small. But we lived in apartment 81. That was my high school number, and I lived in apartment 81, lived there for five years, and my mom lived there with me for three years, my redshirt sophomore, junior, senior year.”

In his first year as a graduate assistant coach, “we got fancy,” he said. “We rented a little house over toward City in Coventry was what it was called. We rented a little house, and we each had our own room. That was big-time.”

Both apartment 81 and that place on Coventry were destroyed by the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa in 2011, and the thought of losing a bit of his past still seems to sadden Swinney.

Swinney was a scrawny wide receiver at Pelham High School. When he went to the University of Alabama it was not with a football scholarship. He sat in the stands at Bryant-Denney Stadium as a freshman and watched games with that girl he met in first grade, Kathleen Bassett. Swinney saw receivers dropping passes and thought he could do better. So he went out for the team and made it as a walk-on. Bill Curry was the coach at the time, but when he left Gene Stallings took over in 1990. Stalling had played for and coached under Bryant.

“We felt like we get the next best thing in coach Stallings,” former Crimson Tide quarterback Jay Barker, who was a couple years behind Swinney at Alabama.

Swinney was never a great player. He caught seven passes in his career at Alabama and played on special teams.

“He tried real hard and he needed a scholarship and I gave him one,” Stallings said.

Swinney’s final game for the Crimson Tide was the 1993 Sugar Bowl against Miami. The Tide upset the Hurricanes to win its first national title since Bryant had stepped down. It was also the last one until Nick Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

When Swinney was done playing, he became a graduate assistant under Stallings and eventually Stallings gave him his first full-time job in coaching.

“I’m going to pay you $38,000 and that’s more than you’re worth but I know you’ll do me a good job,” Swinney said, doing a spot on impression of Stallings’ low, gravelly voice.

Swinney stayed at Alabama even after Stallings was gone, but when coach Mike Dubose was fired after the 2000 season, Swinney was let go, too.

It was then he stepped away from coaching and took a job leasing commercial real estate for Rich Wingo, a former Alabama linebacker who was also Swinney’s strength and conditioning coach with the Tide.

“I would see Dabo periodically at church,” Wingo said. “I always thought the world of him. He was a skinny, wiry, but tough kid.”

Swinney did well in his new job, and visitors to the Patton Creek Shopping Center in Hoover can see the fruits of his work still thriving. Dabo and Kathleen built their dream house in Tuscaloosa and he was standing in the driveway with the builders when then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden called to offer him a job as Tigers wide receivers coach.

“I’m the golden son-in-law because I got all three boys living in Alabama. All of our family’s there,” he said. “I became a goat real quick. I’m going to move all these grandbabies to Clemson, South Carolina.”

At Clemson, Swinney went from wide receivers coach to head coach to one of the top coaches in college football. He is 75-26 in eight seasons leading the Tigers.

For many Alabama fans, he has become their second-favorite coach behind Saban.

“There really is a soft spot for him,” said Barker, who hosts a talk show in Birmingham. “He’s got something that coach Saban will never have. He played at Alabama. He’s got that Bryant influence. Coach Bryant and Coach Stallings influenced how he approaches life and the way he approaches the game. It’s really how they perceived building men more than winning games.”

In some ways, Alabama fans look at Swinney as their coach in-waiting, the obvious replacement for the 64-year-old Saban, whenever he does leave the Tide. For now though, Swinney knows at least a few Tide fans are conflicted.

“I’ve kind of found out where I stand with some of them, but it’s a great match-up, and the two best teams,” Swinney said. “That’s just the way it’s worked out, and I think it’s special.”

‘Match made in heaven’: Deion Sanders to coach Jackson State

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JACKSON, Miss. — Deion Sanders wiped away tears of joy and passion before speaking.

Jackson State’s new football coach then stated “I believe” many times about what he envisions happening on and off the field.

“I have a commitment to excellence in each and every thing I do,” the Hall of Fame cornerback said during his introduction as the Tigers’ 21st head coach, a number also significant because of his jersey number and Monday’s date.

“We’re going to win. We’re going to look good while we win, and we’re going to have a good time while we win.”

Sanders’ introduction followed his announcement Sunday night. The player known as “Prime Time” added: “Isn’t this the time? Isn’t this the moment? Isn’t this what’s needed? It’s a match made in heaven.”

Currently the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School-Cedar Hill in Texas, Sanders is taking his first head coaching job.

“I’ve been offered pro jobs,” Sanders added, “so people know I could be an assistant in any college.”

The Southwestern Athletic Conference school introduced Sanders with the trademark pomp of a historically Black university. Its marching band led a police-escorted motorcade into an arena with a boisterous yet socially distanced audience. “Coach Prime” later opened a blue blazer lined with the JSU logo to much applause.

Acting Jackson State President Thomas Hudson called the hiring “the grace of God” and cited the school’s football history in landing Sanders.

“These things just come together,” Hudson added, crediting athletic director Ashley Robinson and alumni. “We’re just so very fortunate to really be in this space and have a man like this joining us.”

In a statement, Robinson said, “We expect to compete for and win championships at Jackson State, and Coach Sanders will help us achieve those goals.”

Sanders replaces John Hendrick, whose contract was not renewed this summer after going 6-9 and 5-5 in SWAC play. Sanders will begin coaching this spring after the SWAC postponed fall sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigers plan to begin an eight-game schedule in February.

He takes over a Tigers program that has produced fellow Hall of Famers such as Walter Payton, Lem Barney, Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile.

Sanders was a two-time All-American at Florida State before a standout NFL career with five teams including the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, winning a Super Bowl with each. He also earned eight Pro Bowl and nine first-team All-Pro selections during a career in which he also returned kicks and punts and played wide receiver. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

Sanders also played nine seasons with four clubs in Major League Baseball, appearing in the 1992 World Series with the Atlanta Braves.

No. 1 Clemson, Swinney worried about COVID during bye week

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Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has few worries about his football team on the field. Off it? That’s another story.

Swinney is concerned that the top-ranked Tigers’ bye week – especially with players getting Friday and Saturday off – could result in the team having more contact with people and increase players’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“Probably the same primary concern of every coach out there,” Swinney said.

So far, so good.

The Tigers (2-0), like all Atlantic Coast Conference teams, are getting tested three times a week and have had no positives through the first two games.

“Our protocol’s been really, really good,” Swinney said Tuesday. “I trust them. It’s not like we get them all day, every day. We get them for about four hours max. So the other 20 hours comes down to trust, discipline and sacrifice.”

Clemson will practice three days this week and have a team function Tuesday in place of its usual community service day during a week off. The team will reconvene after its break Sunday to get tested and start preparing to face Virginia on Oct. 3.

The Tigers are motivated to do everything the right way as they pursue championship goals they missed out on last year by falling to LSU in the national title game, cornerback Sheridan Jones said.

“It’s having faith over fear,” Jones said. “Faith that we are going to have a season. Moving at that pace with that mindset has helped us to work day in, day out and stay focused on the task at hand.”

Clemson has looked like a team on a mission. The Tigers have had easy wins over Wake Forest and The Citadel, beating the Bulldogs 49-0 this past Saturday for their first shutout in four years.

Their play has been so efficient and effective, Swinney is having difficulty picking it apart.

The offense, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence, has blitzed both opponents while the first-team defense has played at a championship level. Swinney and his staff have been able to play backups for significant stretches.

“We played 13 linebackers (against The Citadel) and about every D-lineman we had,” Swinney said.

On special teams, B.T. Potter has made all three of his field goals and had touchbacks on his nine kickoffs. Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers are helping Clemson average nearly 18 yards on punt returns.

Defensive tackle Jordan Williams said as well as the team has performed, it’s time for a break. The long summer camp with all the questions about whether Clemson would even play football was draining and stressful.

“It’s definitely something we all need,” Williams said. “It’s something that’s going to help us grow.”

The team had a spike in COVID-19 cases when it returned for summer workouts in June (37 of 43 positive tests among Clemson athletes were football players). Since then, Williams said players have bought into doing what it takes to continue the season.

“That’s what’s pushed us,” Williams said.

Clemson has had some issues related to COVID-19. Expected starting defensive end Xaiver Thomas took a redshirt season because he caught the virus in the spring and it took a toll on his conditioning. Swinney said Thomas is getting his fitness back and is preparing to play later this season.

Swinney said the program has planned for nearly every virus-related health scenario, including what it would do if Swinney tested positive.

He not sharing, though.

“It’s top secret. I’ve got it tucked away in a drawer in a glass case that says, `Break only if needed,”‘ he said.