TAMPA, Fla. — Gene Stallings coached his final game 20 years ago in this same city, Alabama players carrying him off the field after a 17-14 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
A young assistant coach named Dabo Swinney was in the middle of the postgame celebration, having just completed his first season on the staff as a full-time coach after two years as a graduate assistant to Stallings.
Stallings, a College Football Hall of Fame member and coaching disciple of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Dallas Cowboys legend Tom Landry, said he saw Swinney’s gift then.
“First of all, he was knowledgeable about the game and he could communicate with the players,” Stallings told SEC Country in an exclusive interview.
“I liked his enthusiasm on the field, and that made for a good combination, and I hired him and gave him a job.”
Swinney’s climb to the top has been well documented, and at 8:17 p.m. ET on Monday he’ll look to lead his Clemson program to victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game at Raymond James Stadium.
Dabo Swinney channels Gene Stallings
The Tigers look a lot more like the “old Alabama” coached by Stallings than the current Crimson Tide do, and it’s not by accident.
“Coach (Stallings) is like a father, he’s a mentor, been a great role model and leader for me,” said Swinney, who walked on at Alabama in 1989 and was a receiver on Stallings’ 1992 national championship team.
The Crimson Tide beat a Miami Hurricanes team that was favored by up to 12 points in what remains one of the most beloved Alabama teams and celebrated victories of all time.
“We all knew that moment right there would be something that would bond us forever,” Swinney said. Stallings “instilled a lot of great qualities and work ethic and toughness, he and Woody McCorvey, two of the most influential men I’ve ever had in my life.”
McCorvey, Stallings’ right-hand man at Alabama and eventual offensive coordinator, now serves as Clemson’s athletic director for football administration.
“Dabo and Coach Stallings are similar in their philosophies,” said McCorvey, who coached Swinney as a player and mentored him as an assistant. “Gene always talked about running the ball and stopping the run, and that you have to be plus in the giveaway, takeaway ratio, and Dabo really believes in that.
“From a structure standpoint, it’s about kids doing things the right away and discipline, and Gene wanted everyone to leave with degrees.”
Clemson assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Danny Pearman was also on Stallings’ staff at Alabama in the 1990s.
“You’ve got to figure, Coach Swinney only worked for Coach Stallings and Tommy Bowden, so that’s what he knows,” said Pearman, whom Swinney hired away from Maryland immediately after being named interim head coach midway through the 2008 season.
“I’d say the majority of what we do, he learned from Coach Stallings, and not only practice setup, but the mentality of his team, the philosophy behind his program, the kinds of people he hires on his staff,” Pearman said. “What he has done is bloom where he was planted.”
Stallings on Swinney
Stallings, who has visited Clemson and attended select games in Death Valley each of the past two seasons, appreciates the comparisons to Swinney.
“I do see similarities in the programs, and they have a lot of people that worked for me and played for me at Alabama on that Clemson staff,” Stallings said Saturday. “You know, there’s only so much you can do in football, and I wasn’t a genius.
“But I wanted my players to play better than your players — not that my scheme was better than your scheme, but I wanted my players to play harder and better.”
And Stallings wanted them to have fun after wins, too, something that has become a trademark for Swinney’s Clemson teams.
“I saw Coach Stallings dance one time,” Swinney said, referring to an early 1990s era before camera phones and social media sharing. “It was a tense moment, and Coach Stallings could kind of sense it, and all the sudden he kind of looked at everybody, and kind of went, like raise the roof.
“I don’t know how he learned that, but Coach Stallings taught me to have fun winning. He’d say ’Hey man, the fun is in the winning.’”
That was certainly the case for the Alabama coaches, players and fans on a sunshine-splashed Tampa afternoon on Jan. 1, 1997, and now 20 years later, Swinney is hoping for more reasons to celebrate.