Clemson promotes interim coach Swinney to permanent job with 5-year deal

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Never bet against Dabo.

"I've never failed at anything in my life," Dabo Swinney, Clemson's new football coach, said Monday.

It's not arrogance, said Swinney, "I'm confident in my abilities."

How else to explain why Swinney was able to get that pretty girl in his Valley Elementary third grade class in Pelham, Ala., -- now wife Kathleen -- to check the yes box on his note asking her to go with him after a few hard-to-get nos.

Or why the walk-on sat in the stands outside an Alabama game with that same girl 15 years later convinced he'd make the catches the Crimson Tide's recruited receivers couldn't.

On Monday came Swinney's latest off-the-charts success -- the 39-year-old with no head coaching or coordinator experience before October had gained the job full-time with a five-year contract agreement.

"I don't think it's a gamble at all," Swinney said. "I think it's a good investment."

One that got started back on Oct. 13 when Tommy Bowden walked away after nine-and-a-half seasons.

The Tigers were ranked ninth this summer and the runaway preseason favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. So when Clemson opened with only one win over four BCS opponents, Swinney was brought in.

"They were down and out. A lot of people had written them off," athletic director Terry Don Phillips said.

Swinney sure hadn't.

Right away, he took steps to heal the troubled Tigers. He fired offensive coordinator Rob Spence and took over playcalling. He opened practice to students and reinstituted a pregame "Tiger Walk" through the parking lot in front of the stadium so players could feel fan support.

At his debut against Georgia Tech, Swinney drew applause from Death Valley fans when he made loafing punter Dawson Zimmerman go back on the field and run hard to the sidelines.

Slowly, Swinney helped the Tigers regain their confidence. After the Georgia Tech loss, Clemson won four of its last five down the stretch to finish 7-5 and qualify for a bowl -- something that seemed impossible seven weeks ago.

The crowning moment came last Saturday when those same Death Valley fans chanted Swinney's name near the end of a 31-14 victory over rival South Carolina and coach Steve Spurrier.

Phillips, who met with several potential coaching replacements such as new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin and Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, said the Gamecocks victory wasn't the deciding factor. "It certainly helped," he said, grinning.

In the end, Phillips said Swinney had built up enough capital in his "six-year job interview" to gain the job.

"I don't have a 'eureka' moment," Phillips said. "He's a young man with special qualities, intangibles you're born with."

Phillips would not outline Swinney's salary or say if it would approach $1 million a season, four times what he made as a Clemson assistant this year. The deal must get approval from the school's Board of Trustees' compensation committee.

"I'd have done this for free," Swinney joked to Phillips. "He way overpaid."

Swinney and Phillips shared the promotion with the Tigers on Monday afternoon.

"We were all so excited when we got the news," Clemson star C.J. Spiller said.

Perhaps excited enough to return for his senior season?

"I look forward to sitting down to talk with Coach Swinney," Spiller said. "I know he's got the best intentions for me and my family."

If Swinney's history shows anything, maybe he can convince Spiller to put off the NFL.

William Christopher Swinney was born in Birmingham, Ala., and got his nickname because an older brother had trouble pronouncing "that boy." Swinney walked on to the Crimson Tide football team and eventually earned a scholarship and a national championship ring with coach Gene Stallings' 1992 squad.

"I could tell there was something special about Dabo as far as being a coach," Stallings said last week when he visited Clemson's practice.

Swinney coached at Alabama through 2000, fired along with coach Mike Dubose.

Swinney, at 30, felt burnt out and hoped to take a year off. But he got involved in commercial real estate, brokering deals for shopping malls.

"I found out I could succeed at something else," Swinney said. "But I also found out I missed coaching."

So when Bowden, his first position coach at Alabama, called in 2003 with an opening at Clemson, Swinney jumped and vowed to work his way back up.

"I'm kind of a bottom-of-the-barrel guy," he said.

It was Bowden back in October who suggested to Phillips that Swinney be the one put in charge. "Listen," Bowden told Swinney, "this is the best thing. This will give you a shot."

Bowden has remained in Swinney's corner since then, often calling or popping into the coach's office to say hello.

Among Swinney's first moves was firing offensive coordinator Rob Spence, almost as big a lightning rod for fans' displeasure as Bowden, and taking over the play-calling.

Swinney was folksy and charming, comparing Clemson's problems to a poorly tuned car that just needed a little TLC.

Swinney's biggest move was rediscovering playmakers like quarterback Cullen Harper, receiver Aaron Kelly, and runners of James Davis and Spiller.

Harper was banged up and ineffective in September before getting benched by Bowden right before the change. Swinney put the ball back in the senior's hands, and he responded with seven of his 11 TD passes the last six games.

Kelly, a senior, was much more effective the second half of the year. Davis and Spiller have combined for 10 scores the last six games.

Swinney held off talking about staff changes. It's too early for that with Clemson awaiting a bowl game.

"We need to finish this thing" with a victory, he said.

With Swinney in charge, you'd be crazy to bet against it.