The epicenter of the Dabo Dilemma is located at 1542 Kent Dairy Rd. in the town of Alabaster, about an hour’s drive from Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
M&M Hardware lives there, in a long, low building that conforms to the Early Nondescript Rectangle architectural style. All the washers and dryers that ring the place remind you that the money these days is in used appliances, not hardware. The big warehouse stores have sucked up pretty much all that business.
Over the register is the funeral program photo of Ervil Swinney, the store’s former proprietor and father of the famous football coach in Clemson, S.C. Nearby is the worn-out office chair where Ervil died last August, shortly after coming home from treating his cancer and spending time with his son. They thought Ervil was just taking another one of his naps, but he never woke up from this one.
Two photos are hung above boxes of circuit breakers and fuses and a nest of vent hoses. Both are of Dabo Swinney, in mid-celebration at Clemson. It is a pose he has perfected these days.
One he signed to his father, with thanks for “showing me the way.”
On the other, Dabo fused the rally cries of the school that educated him with the one that now enriches him, a clever and tricky operation. “Roll Tigers,” it reads.
Monday night, Alabama plays Clemson for the championship of all college football. Roll Tide meets Go Tigers for real. So, what are the fellas at M&M Hardware to do?
Like the coach of Clemson joked this week, when you are born in Alabama — as he was 46 years ago — you don’t leave the hospital until your birth certificate is stamped “Alabama fan” or “Auburn fan.”
Alabaster leans predominantly Crimson Tide; and normally when Alabama is playing for one of its multitude of titles, it is a civic duty to cheer on the team.
But the ownership and staff at M&M Hardware have made their choice. “We are huge Alabama fans but we’re pulling for Clemson. This is family,” declared Ellis Montgomery from behind the counter.
His friend remembers Swinney as an ambitious kid who “always understood that you can get what you’re after if you just work hard enough.” To Montgomery, the big-time coach was the kid who made his spending money cleaning out the neighbors’ gutters.
Such support has come with some curious fashion choices. During the national semifinals, Montgomery paired a Clemson ACC championship cap with an Alabama crimson shirt. Monday, night he said, “It will be all orange.”
Clemson’s return to a national championship platform for the first time since 1982 has provided Swinney the chance to show once more how unusual he is among the fraternity of college football coaches. More proof that he is the cinnamon roll in the basket of dry toast.
Take his opposition Monday. Alabama’s Nick Saban doesn’t exactly do warm and fuzzy. And, yet, while preparing for the largest game of his life, Swinney seemed only too glad to indulge in all kinds of reverie when asked about his deep and tangled Alabama roots.
First of all, Swinney submits that the fact that his Tigers have returned to such prominence after a 33-year hiatus only to meet the program that nurtured him proves without a doubt that “God has a sense of humor.”
Growing up, all Swinney wanted was to go to Alabama and play football for Bear Bryant and be the first in his family to earn a college degree. Bryant died before Dabo came of age, but everything else, after an obstacle course of personal challenges, pretty much came true. A Crimson Tide walk-on, with four career receptions to his credit along with a small slice of the 1992 national championship, Swinney was a completely Alabama-made man.
Rather than shrinking from the prospect of competing against his alma mater — let alone the practical matter of facing Alabama’s NFL feeder program — Swinney wraps it in an enthusiastic hug.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “They represent the best…We’ve got a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case. They’ve got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa, and I’m proud to be a part of one of them.
“This is the way it ought to be. If you’re going to play for a championship and you have the opportunity to play against the team that has been kind of the standard.”
Swinney’s personal Alabama story is a cocktail of both the happy and the forlorn.
At once he can talk about a child’s fixation on a football team that defines a region. About watching the Bear Bryant coach’s show every Sunday with his father. About walking the hall of his elementary school decked out in “my Alabama cowboy hat, my big foam No. 1 hand, my pom-poms.”
And then shift readily to the hardships that followed him to the Alabama campus. As his father’s business began declining, Ervil took to drink. It fractured the family, to the point that by the time Dabo was a senior in high school, he and his mother were broke and a little desperate. Ervil eventually sobered up and reconnected with Dabo, but not without a lot of pain in between.
From the time Dabo was a sophomore at ‘Bama, his mother was actually his roommate, working nights near Birmingham while her boy slept in the apartment. Hardly the ideal arrangement for a college man, but Swinney seems to remember it almost fondly.
It’s what he does with the concoction of his past that matters the most now. Swinney will testify to his less-than-Rockwellian upbringing in the hope that it inspires other youngsters in similar straits.
And he’ll show you how he re-packaged the struggles into an outlook that shapes everything he does at Clemson, from the firm discipline to his locker room dances to his standing as the most emotional and unpredictable post-game interview in sports.
So, here on the week of the biggest game of his life, Swinney took time again to talk about life according to Dabo.
“Just make the best of it,” he said. “that’s what the happiest people in the world do. They don’t have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything. That’s to me what true peace and happiness is all about.”
There will be other big seasons at Clemson, Swinney promised. He promised the Tigers another national title when he was promoted from interim to full-time head coach in 2008. “Hopefully it’s Monday night. If it doesn’t go our way Monday night, we’re not going away. We’re not,” he said.
In the meantime, “I’ve always just kind of had that perspective of let’s make sure we enjoy it,” he said.
Alabama enters Monday a near-touchdown favorite. Dabo’s an underdog again. The management at M&M Hardware will warn to bet against him at your peril.