SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Dabo Swinney gritted his teeth. The southern draw with which the Alabama-born football coach speaks fought through an honest and friendly smile.
“This guy has won a million games for a reason,” Swinney said on Friday morning. “I'm no dummy.”
"This guy" is Urban Meyer, the Ohio State head football coach with three national championships and only five losses during his five seasons in Columbus. One was to Swinney in the 2014 Orange Bowl, a feather in the cap of a Clemson head coach who then was still building his program to a level where it would be considered among the nation's elite.
Alabama currently sits as the king of college football. The defending national champions take on Washington in the Peach Bowl in one of two national semifinals on Saturday and have won 25 straight games. The Tide, Swinney's alma mater where he won a national championship as a player in 1992, beat Clemson in Phoenix a year ago to win it all. For Swinney to get another shot at them, he will need to get through Meyer again, only this time his friend and soon-to-be on-field adversary is armed with a more well-rounded football team.
Meyer's second Buckeye squad boasted a potent offense but the other sid of the ball was an entirely different story. He spends a ton of time with Swinney on Nike trips, and their wives are friends. Meyer rarely loses, as Swinney said, which makes that game a few years ago so significant.
Meyer's program is mentioned with Alabama annually as the sport's best. Swinney's is in the conversation but still on the outside looking in without a title in the last 25 years. An undefeated 1981 squad claims the school's only national championship in the sport.
Meyer is elite. Nick Saban is elite. Swinney is too, partly responsible for getting his Tigers back to the final four for the second straight year. But he must solve Meyer and/or Saban to firmly establish himself in their realm.
“I can visualize that. I've been there,” Swinney said about the feeling of holding a College Football Playoff trophy above his head. He felt what it was like to win a championship as a wide receiver at Alabama in 1992.
“When you do something like that together you never forget that. Ever. And we had a reunion back in May. And I mean it's been 20-plus years. But it was just like yesterday,” he said. “I mean, immediately you see these guys, some of them you haven't seen in 10, 15 years, and it's like you were sitting back at Bryant Hall with them yesterday.
“They don't give those things away, man. You've got to go earn it and play well and you've got to beat the best. And that's what we're playing, the best of the best.”– Dabo Swinney
“And that's what an accomplishment like that does. It is a bonding experience. It's an unbelievable pinnacle.”
Meyer outlines his practices and core values in his book "Above The Line," which Swinney joked upon his arrival to Phoenix six days ago he planned to read in the final week before the two met at the Fiesta Bowl. He said Friday that he was able to get through it, ribbing Meyer about the 4-6, A-B mentality the latter preaches as much with the media as he does his own players.
That includes the power of the unit clause each person involved in his program must agree to. It more often than not results in victories of which, like Swinney said, Meyer has a ton.
“The reason we practice so hard is because when your number's called you've got to make that play, and it's not because of the lucky T-shirt or good fortune,” Meyer said. “It's because of practice.”
“You mean the game day underwear, that's not the key ingredient?” Swinney replied.
Meyer laughed and played along with his buddy, adding, “I'm not saying I don't wear them.” Then Swinney got serious and started talking like Meyer does when it comes to preparation. Coaches try to emulate one another, especially when one is trying to reach heights the other has already realized.
“For us it's preparing with purpose every day,” Swinney said. “Because when you do that, then you have a sense of urgency which brings about attention to details. And then from a football standpoint, it's not just great effort. It's great effort with an emphasis on technique. You can run around and give great effort, but if your technique stinks you're not going to have good execution.”
Sounds like a page ripped out of Meyer's coaching manual. The two lock horns on New Year's Eve in the third installment of the College Football Playoff. Both men have gotten their teams into the top four twice. Meyer won it once in 2014, Swinney came up just short last year.
Both yearn to reach the zenith of the sport. Meyer knows what that tastes like. Swinney only knows what is it like as a player. As a coach, that fantasy remains just that—a fantasy.
Saturday presents an opportunity for him to take another step at it becoming reality.
“I can definitely see it and visualize that and hopefully we'll have our opportunity to hold the trophy up one of these days. We're going to keep getting in the batter's box and keep swinging, and hopefully one of these days we'll get it done,” Swinney said. “And we've got a chance this year. But they don't give those things away, man. You've got to go earn it and play well and you've got to beat the best. And that's what we're playing, the best of the best.”