Meet the man who always believed in Dabo Swinney

Swinney: It's a blessing to win championship (2:05)

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reacts to his team defeating Alabama 35-31 to win the College Football Playoff National Championship. (2:05)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Clemson's unsung MVP wasn't even in the house on Monday night when the Tigers reached college football's mountaintop for only the second time in school history.

Matter of fact, Terry Don Phillips had long since gone to bed by the time the final seconds ticked off the clock at Raymond James Stadium and Clemson was celebrating its 35-31 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

"The older I get, the harder it is on my blood pressure to watch the games live," explained the former Clemson athletic director, who will turn 70 in August. "So my wife DVRs the games for me, and I watch them after I know the result. It's a lot easier on me that way, and I didn't see any reason to change the script now, not after the season we've had."

Clemson fans should forever be grateful to Phillips for sticking to his script eight years ago, when he took a chance on a 38-year-old receivers coach, a guy who had never even been a coordinator.

That guy was Dabo Swinney, who was so under the radar at the time as a legitimate head-coaching candidate that Phillips admits some of the Clemson board of trustee members didn't even know who he was.

"It's a good thing that I had a president [Jim Barker] who trusted me and had a wonderful relationship with our trustees," Phillips said. "I'm pretty sure there were reservations, because on paper, Dabo didn't have the credentials that a lot of these other folks we talked to did. But Jim accepted my recommendation, stood behind it with the trustees, and the rest is history."

It wasn't a popular choice with the fans, either, and Phillips took a beating. But he had a chance to watch Swinney work the last half of the 2008 season as interim head coach after Tommy Bowden resigned under pressure, and it also gave Phillips time to do an extended search to see who was out there.

"That's the thing I wanted to make sure of, that we talked to people and did a legitimate search," Phillips said. "I thought Dabo had a real shot, even though a lot of other people probably didn't, but I wanted to have other coaches to compare him to, and so much of it was the fit.

"What I kept coming back to was that Dabo was worth the gamble, if you want to call it a gamble, and I'd been around him enough to know that he was a great fit for Clemson."

Among the coaches Phillips had an interest in were Gary Patterson, Jim Grobe, Brady Hoke, Will Muschamp, Troy Calhoun, Mike Locksley, Bud Foster, Brent Venables and Lane Kiffin.

Patterson told Phillips he didn't have any interest in talking face-to-face unless there were assurances that Patterson would be the Tigers' coach. It never really got anywhere with Muschamp, because Texas put the head-coach-in-waiting tag on him to keep away Clemson and other schools. Phillips interviewed Kiffin, Locksley and Calhoun, among others, and Grobe was also right there at the top of Phillips' list.

"I didn't want to get fired, either, so I wanted to make sure we talked to as many good coaches as we could, and we talked to a number of sitting head coaches and coordinators," Phillips said. "But just because you've been successful in another environment is no guarantee that you're going to come here and be successful."

As an old defensive lineman who played under Frank Broyles at Arkansas, Phillips jokes that he never used to watch receivers in practice until Swinney showed up at Clemson.

"I just kept hearing about this energetic receivers coach we had and found myself wandering over to his side of the field," Phillips recalled. "I liked the way he coached his players, how he was tough on them, but was always teaching them and always there for them outside of football. It's not a facade with Dabo. He genuinely cares, and his players sense that."

So over time, Phillips began making mental notes. He noticed how the players were always milling around Swinney's office when they weren't on the practice field or in class.

"And not just receivers, but players from all positions," Phillips said. "Kids migrated to this particular coach, and that caught my eye."

With Swinney as the point man, the Tigers started signing high-profile recruits, including C.J. Spiller, whom they had struggled to even get to campus for visits in the past. After Swinney took over the Clemson summer camps, the number of players also began to explode.

"Everything he touched was successful," Phillips said. "There was just something about him, and when Tommy [Bowden] resigned, it was the perfect opportunity to let Dabo audition for the job the rest of that year."

Swinney led the Tigers to a 4-3 finish to close out the 2008 season, and despite a loss to Georgia Tech in Swinney's first game as interim head coach, Phillips went with his instincts.

"Long story short, I just had a feeling that Dabo was exactly what we needed at Clemson, even though I knew a lot of others wouldn't share that feeling," Phillips said.

Right away, the waters got choppy. The Clemson fans were already restless about a recently promoted head coach who was selling real estate five years earlier. And not only that, but he had never even been a coordinator.

In his second full season, Swinney went 6-7 and lost to archrival South Carolina 29-7. It was the second of five straight losses to Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks.

Swinney was sure he was about to be fired after that loss. He remembers his wife, Kathleen, being in tears as he walked into his office the next day to meet with Phillips.

"It wasn't a long meeting. He just told me that he had more faith in me and believed in me more than when he hired me," Swinney said. "He gave me a hug and walked out. The thing that meant the most to me is that I could tell he was genuine. He was there to show support but also knew in his heart that it was going to work out."

Phillips also remembers that meeting well, and even though the criticism only ratcheted up after Swinney lost 15 of his first 34 games, Phillips never doubted that Swinney would lead the Tigers back to football glory.

Now, here they are as the 2016 national champions, with back-to-back 14-win seasons, and Swinney owns two postseason wins over Oklahoma, two postseason wins over Ohio State and a postseason win over both Alabama and LSU.

While this is the same school, it's hardly the same program. Clemson had gone two decades without a conference title or a 10-win season before Phillips made his controversial decision to promote a guy who was seen by many as more of a cheerleader than a coach.

Swinney has built a program to last, one that is the envy of schools all across the country. And the guy whose nerves won't even allow him to watch the games live is the one who so brazenly and assuredly tabbed an unknown receivers coach eight years ago to bring Clemson back into the light.

It's a decision that has never looked better -- or brighter.