Defining Dabo: The Clemson coach’s Alabama roots

(Courtesy Paul W. Bryant Museum)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The early morning air at Hoover High School was interrupted by a quiet, yet emphatic murmur. As you move towards the gym it grows louder. When you open the doors, it becomes a full on cacophony of encouragement and instruction. The Buccaneers football team is being led through winter conditioning by head coach Josh Niblett. After eight seasons at the helm, Niblett’s passion and enthusiasm shows no sign of weakening. The same could be said for one of his former teammates at the University of Alabama, Dabo Swinney. “When he talks about bring your own guts, that’s him,” said Niblett. “That’s him.”

Swinney played his high school ball in Pelham, where his name became famous for his play on the field, as well as for its uniqueness. “When stats would come out in metro Birmingham, you’d see his name on there and of course when you see the name ‘Dabo’ it catches your eye any way because it’s a little bit different,” Niblett remembered. Swinney’s play was not enough to earn a scholarship to Alabama, but his talent began to stand out by his senior year. “If a ball was close to him he was going to catch it,” explained former Crimson Tide head coach Mike DuBose, who was an assistant on the 1992 team. “He may not out run many people but he was going to break as many tackles as he possibly could.”

Swinney’s 1992 senior season was Niblett’s redshirt freshman year, and the veteran wide receiver quickly took to the young fullback. “Being that both of us were walk-ons, you have a little bit of deep respect for each other,” said Niblett. “[You] kind of know what each other are going through and he always took me under his wing.”

The grit and determination to overcome the odds of being a walk-on were driven by Swinney’s passion for pigskin. “Dabo played the game because he loved the game,” DuBose stated. “He didn’t play it because he might be going to the National Football League. I really doubt he thought he’d be the head coach at Clemson playing in the National Championship Game Monday night, but he loved the game and he was a competitor.” The competiveness drove Gene Stallings to offer Swinney a position as a Graduate Assistant once his playing days were over. “He’s a guy that seeks to do things better than they’ve ever been done before,” emphasized. “That’s how he’s lived his life.”

Related – PHOTOS: Dabo Swinney’s days at Alabama

When DuBose took over for Stallings in 1996, he offered Swinney the Wide Receivers Coach position. “He didn’t have all the answers,” DuBose reminisced. “He was a young guy that didn’t have all the answers, [but] was eager to learn. He knew an awful lot, but was humble and then did just an absolutely amazing job in recruiting.”

Niblett and Swinney have kept a close relationship through the years. The Bucs coach was even invited to speak at one Swinney’s camps in 2015. “He’s all about family. If you were to go to one of their practices you’ll see all the coaches’ kids running around,” said Niblett. “In today’s game I think that’s tough at times because of whether it be profanity or guys just don’t want kids at practice, i don’t know; but that’s not Dabo.” Despite the fond memories of Swinney that both Niblett and DuBose share, that doesn’t mean their stripes will be changing for the Tigers Monday night. “I’m pulling for Alabama,” DuBose said with a smile. “I’m happy for Dabo, though.” Niblett even got some personal imploring from the top Tiger. “He left me a message last night,” Niblett said. “He’s like, ‘The least you could do is wear some orange underwear or socks under your Alabama stuff while you’re watching the game, you know, for your boy!’”

While Swinney has never faced the Tide as a head coach, he was on Tommy Bowden’s 2008 staff that fell to Nick Saban in the first game of the year, 34-10. Alabama holds a 12-3 advantage all-time over Clemson.

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