Alabama was taken down by one of its own.
The new king of college football was born and reared in Alabama. He dreamed of playing for Alabama. He lived out that dream with Alabama.
Alabama was where Dabo Swinney developed his character, fortified his resolve and figured out how to win as an underdog. What he learned there was embodied by his team Monday night in a 35-31 come-from-behind victory over his alma mater.
A national champion as a player at Alabama, he was now a national champion as a coach at Clemson.
Swinney cried as confetti fell around him. The tears were soon replaced by a smile and he rocked the national championship trophy as if it were a baby.
“Eight years ago, my goal was to put Clemson back on the top,” he said. “And tonight, that’s a reality.”
This was a team built in his image. Clemson trailed after the opening quarter for the first time this season but didn’t panic. The Tigers gave up almost as many rushing yards in the first half as they did in all of the national championship game last year, but that only made them more determined. They were down until the final second of the game but found a way to triumph.
The groundwork for the victory was set over a lifetime in Alabama.
Born in Birmingham, Swinney inherited his passion for Alabama football from his father. He used to watch the “Bear Bryant Show” on television and listened to Alabama games on the radio. He said he would “fight you in school if you talked bad about them.” He had a troubled childhood because of his family’s financial problems and his father’s alcoholism, but that didn’t prevent him from landing a place on Alabama’s team as a walk-on receiver.
“I always tell everyone, I was a crawl-on,” Swinney joked. “I was one notch below a walk-on.”
He was also determined.
“It was surreal for me to finally be in the room and to be introduced to the team,” he said. “So at the time I just wanted to be on the team, and then it was I just wanted to gain some respect. Then I wanted them to learn my name. Then it was, OK, I want to play. Then I want to get a scholarship.”
He did. He lettered three times for the Crimson Tide. And in 1992, he was part of an Alabama team that upset Miami to win the national championship.
“It's not like now, they win it like every year or every other year with Coach [Nick] Saban,” Swinney said. “It had been a long time since Alabama had won a national championship.”
Swinney caught only seven passes over three seasons, but now has the distinction of being only the second national champion coach to also have won a national championship as a player. The first was Bud Wilkinson, who won a national championship as a player with Minnesota in 1936 and coached Oklahoma to three titles in the 1950s.
“He’s an Alabama person,” Saban said.
His coaching career started at Alabama, too, under Gene Stallings. But he was fired in 2004, along with the rest of then-coach Mike DuBose’s staff.
“I wasn’t happy to leave,” Swinney said. “I was mad at the time. But God had a plan for me. He knew what I needed.”
His position coach at Alabama, Terry Bowden, offered him a place on his staff at Clemson. Swinney replaced Bowden as the team’s head coach in 2008.
Swinney has built a miniature version of Alabama, his program recording 10 or more wins in each of the last six seasons. He reached the national championship game last year, only to fall short in a classic game against the Crimson Tide.
Swinney was right. To claim the championship, Clemson had to defeat Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama — the programs that had combined to win the previous seven titles.
Swinney is a vocal admirer of Saban, who had won four of the previous seven national championships. But he couldn’t be any more different.
Saban is serious.
Swinney is constantly smiling. He tells long stories. He doesn’t hide his emotions.
“He cares about the heart,” quarterback Deshaun Watson said.
His program boasts one of the highest graduation rates in the country.
Swinney happened to be on the same dinner cruise with Saban last spring.
“I told him back in March we’d see each other again in Tampa,” Swinney said.
When Clemson walked into a Tampa arena for media day earlier in the week accompanied by a over-the-top highlight video and a U2 soundtrack, offensive lineman Jay Guillermo joked that Swinney must have chosen the music.
He said he told his players before the game that love would determine the game.
“We were going to win it because we were going to love each other,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to win it, but we’re going to win it.”
Now, he’s looking to win it again. And again.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez