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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Let’s take a brief look at the personalities of the four coaches in the College Football Playoff.
There is Alabama’s Nick Saban, bloodless automaton.
There is Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, tortured genius.
There is Washington’s Chris Petersen, every bit as loose and jovial as Dick Cheney.
And then there is Dabo Swinney, little league baseball coach.
In a little more than a month, the head coach of the Orange Crush 13-and-under travel team will circulate the practice schedule and start workouts for the spring season. That coach is Swinney, whose day job is leading the Clemson Tigers.
“You’ve got to come see us,” Swinney said with a smile here Thursday. “Great baseball and great coaching.”
Great family man. And so different from the stereotypical stars of his profession.
The next time you hear a story about the all-consuming nature of being a big-time football coach, think of Dabo. He’s at the top of his profession but still makes the time to hit grounders to his son, Clay, and his Orange Crush teammates.
“Any plumber or electrician who coached a team in his spare time would recognize him,” said one of Swinney’s assistant baseball coaches, Paul Anderson, a professor who teaches 19th century American History at Clemson. “He pours just as much energy and heart into doing that as he does coaching football. He looks the same, acts the same and coaches the same as he does football.”
With one exception.
“I’ve never heard him say word one to an umpire,” Anderson said. “Ever.”
Actually, there is another exception. Swinney understands the age and skill level of his players, and can modify his approach to fit the younger audience.
“Oh, my goodness, he is intense,” said another of his assistants, Ryan Heil, who is getting his PhD in Leadership and Organizational Culture at Clemson. “But as intense as he is on the football field, he has a really nice patience and demeanor with these kids on the baseball field. He’s much more patient than Paul or I sometimes.”
Heil was a former minor-league player and coach himself. When he first started working with the Orange Crush, the team wasn’t very good.
“I told Dabo, ‘They don’t need to play, they need to practice,’ “ Heil recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine.’ He was right.”
Understand, Swinney is not some figurehead little league coach who makes a few cameo appearances. He makes almost all the Orange Crush practices – he sets the schedule, and tailors it around his Clemson duties – and devotes several weekends to coaching tournaments.
Anderson has a 5-by-7 note card on his refrigerator from after the team’s first weekend of games. It’s filled with notes on things the Crush needed to work on the next week in practice, and it’s Swinney’s handwriting.
“He’s the head guy,” Anderson said. “He’s the coach.”
At his home, Swinney has a file cabinet that contains every lineup card and every box score from every Crush game. He’s saved them all.
This is actually Swinney’s second Orange Crush stint – he coached his older sons, Will and Drew, a few years ago. Then he got the coaching staff back together and formed “Baby Crush,” as they call the team, or “Crush 2.0.”
Dabo will pitch in elsewhere if needed, too. Just a few days after the Heisman Trophy ceremony – in which Swinney’s quarterback, Deshaun Watson, finished second – he was at the Clemson community rec center helping coach Drew’s basketball team.
As you’d expect, there are some crowd-control issues when perhaps the most famous person in South Carolina shows up at a little league baseball diamond.
“After the game, before the game, there’s your hullabaloo,” Anderson said. “But he handles that with such grace and openness. I’ve never seen him turn down a picture.”
Last year, Swinney and his assistant coaches went to a Dick’s Sporting Goods between games of a doubleheader to get some wiffle balls for the team. That turned into one long autograph and picture line for Dabo. The other guys had to get the balls.
There also was an awkward encounter at a gas station once while on the road with the team. Swinney was putting gas in his Toyota Tundra and went inside the store to buy some sunflower seeds, but the automatic shutoff switch on the gas pump didn’t work. He and Anderson came out to find the parking lot flooded with gas.
“We’re getting ready to blow up a city block here,” Anderson said. “And the owner of the store looks at him and says, ‘Coach, I thought that was you!’ “
But for the most part, Dabo tries to be a regular little-league coach in the dugout during the spring. He does not take himself or his job as seriously as so many others in his profession.
That’s part of the perspective he earned the hard way growing up in Alabama. Swinney’s poverty-stricken upbringing in a broken home has been wel... and it has heavily influenced his adult life. Dabo is deeply religious, and also absolutely intent on squeezing as much silly enjoyment as possible out of relentless pursuit of a national championship.
“I just made a decision a long time ago that I’m not going to be defined by a scoreboard,” he said. “One of our core values is to have a ton of fun along the way.”
Part of that fun is coaching his son’s baseball team. There aren’t many college football coaches like Dabo Swinney, and that’s too bad. The sport could use a few more.