There used to be a college football coach in South Carolina noted for his passion for golf, for playing as often as he could in the off-season, who challenged his golf-playing football players to take him on – one time each.
Then there’s Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.
Swinney, who in January 2017 wrapped up his 14th season with the Tigers, his eighth as head coach, by leading Clemson to the 2016 College Football Playoff Championship with a 35-31 win over top-seeded Alabama, will rarely be confused with now-retired South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier -- though now that both men have a national title on their resume, the difference is not as big as it once was.
For one thing, Dabo -- a nickname he acquired as a tot when his older brother called him "Dat Boy" (his given name is William Christopher) -- is younger than Spurrier by nearly two decades, and at one point was the youngest coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Too, he admits his love of golf is dwarfed by his former instate rival’s.
But that doesn’t mean Swinney, a native of Birmingham, Ala., doesn’t enjoy the game he only discovered half his lifetime ago.
“I never touched a club in my life until I was 20,” he said during his recent preseason media golf outing held at The Reserve at Lake Keowee, about 30 minutes north of the Clemson campus. “My father-in-law bought me a set of clubs, and when I was going to college, some of the guys I played with, I’d go out with them.
“I dabbled with it, but I never tried to get better until I was a full-time employee (as a coach). Then I started getting a lot of opportunities to play at functions, and I thought, ‘Golly, I need to work on this a little.’”
Swinney, a walk-on player at Alabama, landed a graduate assistant’s position with his alma mater in 1993. He later became ’Bama’s receivers coach, and in 2003 he joined then-head coach Tommy Bowden’s Clemson staff in the same position. Well-known as a recruiter, he helped the Tigers land C.J. Spiller, who finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2009, and quarterback Deshaun Watson, runner-up for the Heisman in 2016 and third in 2015. and annually reaps top-10 recruiting classes.
Coaching football obviously occupies much of his time, but Swinney enjoys the break that golf gives him. He said he doesn’t play a lot of booster-club golf, though one such outing was memorable.
“I got to play Augusta National the last two years,” he said. “A friend who’s a member there invited me and (basketball coach) Brad Brownell when we spoke at the Aiken IPTAY meeting.” He laughed. “That sort of tops the list.” He and Brownell, an avid player, also got to play Charlotte’s Quail Hollow, site of the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship.
While on vacations, Swinney has played courses in Alabama and Florida. His best score came when he shot 78 at a Florida layout, Lemon Bay. “Most of my rounds are in the 82-96 range,” he said. When he was out of coaching from 2000-03, “I got my (Handicap Index) as low as 12, but realistically I’m a 16-18, something like that.”
And yes, he’s faced off with his counterpart at South Carolina, sort of. Both coaches (and alumni partners) participate in an annual event at Georgia’s Reynolds Plantation.
Swinney and former Tigers receiver Dwight Clark played together last year, and he teamed with ex-quarterback Steve Fuller this year. “The first year we were 10th or 12th; this year, we were fifth or sixth, so we improved quite a bit,” he said.
Football has afforded Swinney singular thrills, including back-to-back trips to the national championship game, but in golf, that trip to the home of the Masters rates as his top experience. “For a guy from Pelham, Ala., to be walking down the same fairways where Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus walked – that’s a pretty special moment,” he says.
While he's won a college football championship, Swinney has never had a hole-in-one. “Never had one, never seen one in person,” he said. “I’ve been close, a foot or so, but no.” That's something he could ask Spurrier about the next time they meet.
Where to play: “I don’t get to play a whole lot, but when I do play, it’s usually at the Walker Course (Clemson’s on-campus course). I like how it has holes on (Lake Hartwell), and I think they do a great job keeping it in good shape. Mostly (I like that) it’s close, it’s right there. I enjoy playing The Reserve because you can come up here and it’s like a resort: beautiful golf course cut through the mountains, lakes. I love coming up here. I’ve played courses in Greenville (such as) Thornblade, Chanticleer and (Spartanburg’s) Carolina Country Club.” Note: Thornblade and Carolina play host to the Nationwide Tour’s annual BMW Charity Pro-Am.
Where to eat: “When we (wife Kathleen and sons Will, Drew and Clay) eat out, we love Calhoun Corners in Clemson. We also love Blue Heron, and I’m a Firehouse Subs guy. We like Mellow Mushroom for pizza and Moe’s (Mexican), and we like this little place, Sidetracked, in Central, a meat-and-three place. There’s Tokyo, a Japanese steakhouse in Clemson. And Chick-fil-A, we keep them in business. That’s it; we rarely venture out of Clemson.”
Where to have fun: “We like to go out on the lake if we get the opportunity. And the boys like to go to Carowinds, but (laughing) we only participate on the South Carolina side. Mostly, (we like) just hanging out, going swimming, playing basketball with the kids, going to movies, doing things with the boys. I’m not a hunter, I fish a little bit, but I don’t have a major hobby. What free time I have, I like to spend with family.”