PELHAM, Ala. — Two autographed photos of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hang on a wall above the used stoves and plumbing hoses in Jason Miller’s hardware store, even though this is the heart of Alabama football country.
Miller is pulling for the top-ranked Tigers against Alabama in Monday’s title game even though he calls himself a “huge” Crimson Tide fan.
Miller is definitely in the minority among Tide fans in rooting for Clemson to beat coach Nick Saban’s team, but he’s hardly alone around here in being a big fan of Swinney, who attended high school in Birmingham’s southern suburbs before going on to play at Alabama and then coach. The matchup between Clemson and No. 2 Alabama in the national championship game is testing ties and allegiances in a way that’s just a little bit awkward for some.
“Everybody talks about it being crazy, me pulling for Clemson, but it’s not for me. This is family,” said Miller, whose M&M Hardware in neighboring Alabaster was once owned by Swinney’s late father. He considers Swinney more a brother than a football rival, texting and talking regularly with the guy everyone around here calls “Dabo,” not coach.
For many Alabama fans, Swinney is their second-favorite coach behind Saban, who’s after his fourth national title at Alabama. Area Facebook feeds, coffee shops and store aisles are full of ‘Bama fans who say they’d be rooting for Clemson if only Swinney’s team wasn’t playing the Tide.
“I’m pretty red-and-white and I want Alabama to win, but I love Dabo and want him to do well,” said Alabama fan Herman Watts, who has known Swinney for decades. “But both can’t win, can they? So we’ve got ourselves a situation.”
Swinney knows he’s got some secret fans. That’s just fine with him.
“There’s a lot of closet Clemson fans at Alabama. They don’t want to admit it, but there’s a bunch of them,” he said. “I think we’ve kind of become a team in that state where people pull for. Kind of gives them another team.”
Swinney, 46, grew up in Pelham and played football at Pelham High School before enrolling at the University of Alabama and joining the football team as a walk-on under then-Alabama coach Bill Curry. Swinney made an impression on Curry assistant Tommy Bowden and eventually earned a scholarship as a receiver under Alabama coach Gene Stallings.
Swinney was part of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team that defeated Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and, afterward, worked as an assistant at Alabama under Stallings and Mike DuBose, recruiting Watts’ son Tyler Watts to Alabama as a quarterback.
When Bowden was hired as head coach at Clemson and needed a receiver coach he called Swinney, then working for a commercial real estate company in Birmingham. Swinney accepted and later replaced Bowden in 2008.
In Pelham, a Birmingham bedroom community of about 23,000 people at the southern end of the Appalachian foothills, Swinney has a reputation as a faithful, determined guy who married his high school sweetheart and hasn’t forgotten the folks back home. When Tom Causey was hired as Pelham’s football coach a year ago, Swinney got in touch.
“He called and wished me well,” said Causey, whose brother played at Alabama with Swinney. “He absolutely loves Pelham.”
“I grew up across the street from him and he’s just the greatest guy,” said Angie Kimbrel. “We’re the biggest Alabama fans you could ever meet. Nick Saban is awesome. But we love Dabo. If we were going to have to lose, it would be nice to lose to him.”
And Pelham loves Dabo.
Dave Smith, who publishes Pelham’s city news magazine, put Swinney on the cover as a hometown hero after the 2012 season, but he isn’t rooting for Clemson against ‘Bama.
Yet like other Crimson Tide fans, Smith sees a time when Alabama might consider Swinney for its coaching job should Saban call it quits.
“I’d say if he continues on that track, he’d be a logical choice to step in and continue the winning tradition at the Capstone,” said Smith.