His alcoholic father had left, but at least some of the chaos went with him. Money was scarce. Hope was even harder to find. His mother, who had grown up in a crippled children’s hospital, lost the house.
Carol and Dabo Swinney stayed off the streets by posting up in cheap motels before crashing on the floor of a family friend's place.
For Dabo, the only thing more terrifying than the thought of everyone at Pelham (Alabama) High School knowing his family situation was the realization that those who did looked at him and assumed he wouldn’t amount to anything.
“I come from the most screwed-up, dysfunctional situation," Swinney said back in 2012. “You've got violence. Police at your house. Your dad's gone. Nowhere to live.
“I was humiliated.”
It was here that Dabo Swinney realized that he, and he alone, was the only person who could change the trajectory of his life. He stopped worrying about what other people thought. He focused on only what he believed.
“You reach a point where you just don’t care anymore,” he said.
Swinney would get into the University of Alabama, walk on to the football team, earn a scholarship and a degree. Carol, with no other options, would join him, sharing a bed at his Tuscaloosa apartment before riding a bus back to Birmingham each morning to clean houses.
He would get into coaching and earn the reputation as a relentless recruiter. He would win the Clemson job on sheer force of will. He would take a program that went decades without a 10-win season and deliver six playoff appearances and two national championships. He would take every opportunity to share his faith.
What Dabo Swinney did at Clemson almost can’t be done. Except he did it.
When you are used to walking a tightrope without a safety net straight out of a poor, addiction-riddled childhood, chasing down the Crimson Tide doesn’t seem so scary.
“I grew up in a world where I was told, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,” Swinney said. “And I had every reason not to believe that I could be successful. And that’s what happens in this world. They buy the lie. They buy the lie that the devil’s trying to sell them.
“I don’t buy that lie,” he said. “I never have and never will.”
On Monday, Dabo Swinney delivered an epic five-plus minute rant/response to the complaints of “Tyler from Spartanburg” on the “Tiger Calls” radio show. Tyler had expressed frustration — in a less-than-polite manner — over Clemson’s current 4-4 record and third consecutive season outside of the College Football Playoff. He repeatedly referenced Swinney’s $11.5 million salary.
Swinney responded passionately by reminding Tyler what Clemson was before he took over and complained that for a segment of the fans “the expectation is greater than the appreciation. And that's the problem.”
It was some colorful theater, a wild diatribe.
Somewhere in the middle though, when Swinney really got heated, he veered to a subject that might, despite the less-than-ideal platform, answer what is a fair question: Can Clemson be Clemson again? He talked about himself.
“I'm 53 years old and there ain't one thing in my life — I have been a part of failure many times — but there ain't one thing in my life that I've ever failed at, Tyler. Never. Ever,” Swinney said, his voice stern.
“I wanted to get an education,” he continued. “I got two degrees. I wanted to be the first college graduate in my family. I did it. I wanted to go play football at Alabama. I earned a scholarship [and] lettered [for] three years. Worked my ass off, won a national championship … I wanted to get married. I've been married for going on 30 years. I wanted to be a father. I've raised three great sons …
"I wanted to get into coaching,” Swinney said. “I worked my way to being a head coach. And when I got this job, and I'm sure you didn't want me to get this job, and 15 years later, I'm still here.”
You come from a background such as Swinney’s and motivation stems not just from a fear of failure, but from a fear that failure is imminent, expected, all but assured. It can be crushing. It can be demoralizing. It can also be powerful.
It is what made Dabo Swinney into Dabo Swinney and in turn Clemson into Clemson. Push. Push. Push. Work. Work. Work. More. More. More. It was balled-up fists and no Plan B.
Now, rich with all that money, set with all his accomplishments, no longer worried where he might lay his head, is it still there?
It’s understandable if it isn’t. Many climb the mountain and then admire, even just slightly, the view. They’ve earned that. It’s a challenge to pretend you are still the doubted.
Swinney sounded more than angry, though, on Monday. He sounded challenged and even a little wounded. In truth, the “problem” with the Clemson program is probably a simple one — it no longer has truly elite quarterbacks. Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence solved a lot of problems. Guys like that aren’t easy to find.
But maybe there is more. Maybe it’s changing tactics or embracing transfers or demanding better or recruiting harder. It's tough to say from the outside. But maybe all the sniping this year — from radio call-ins to online callouts — will return (if it ever left) that fire in him.
Maybe Tyler was just the latest in a long line of “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t” that pushed this guy like no one else.
Maybe all of this — including Monday's radio show — is just what Dabo Swinney needed.