Bob Gillespie



Home Course: The ‘other’ Head Ball Coach -- Clemson's Dabo Swinney

Posted 7/26/2011 1:36:00 PM

There’s a college football coach in South Carolina who’s noted for his passion for golf, for playing as often as he can in the off-season, who challenges his golf-playing football players to take him on – one time each.

Then there’s Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.

Swinney, heading into his ninth season with the Tigers, his fourth as head coach – he succeeded Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season – will not be confused with that other coach. For one thing, he’s 41, the youngest coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And he admits his love of the game is dwarfed by his 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 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, as well as this year’s top-10 ranked class.

Coaching occupies much of his time, but Swinney – like that guy in Columbia – enjoys the break that golf gives him. He said he doesn’t play a lot of IPTAY 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 some thrills, 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 said.

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.” Something else he could ask the state’s other golf-playing football coach about.

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.”