Dabo Swinney and the rest of the coaching staff at Alabama had been fired in 2001, and Swinney was about to go to work for a real estate company.
Who: The Citadel (5-6) at No. 7 Clemson (9-1)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Radio: 1450-AM, 950-AM, 1340-AM
That’s why Gerald Dixon, then a senior cornerback for the Crimson Tide, was surprised when Swinney showed up at Alabama’s A-Day game that spring.
Swinney had recruited Dixon to Alabama. And he even though he was out of coaching, Dabo was concerned about the young man.
“He came up to practice and pulled me aside,” said Dixon, who by his own admission had not played well as a junior. “He looked in my face and said, ‘I told you after your second practice you were one of the best corners to come through here. But what you did last year was not acceptable for this program.’”
Swinney’s words jolted Dixon.
“I’m not an emotional guy. I’ve probably cried a few times in my life, but that brought tears to my eye,” Dixon said. “After that a light clicked on. I put on 10 pounds, made all-SEC my senior year. I needed that, and he was one of the few people who could say that to me.”
Dixon, who coaches cornerbacks for The Citadel, and Dabo will have another reunion Saturday at Death Valley when the Bulldogs take on Swinney’s No. 7-ranked Tigers. It will be a special moment for Dixon, who credits Swinney as one of the major influences in his life.
“I’m the first college graduate in my family, and he’s the guy who believed in me,” Dixon said. “He was one of the first to offer me a scholarship. I owe whatever success I’ve had to Coach Swinney.”
Dabo, who turned 44 this week, was a young receivers coach on the staff of Alabama coach Mike DuBose when he journeyed to Burtonsville, Md., in 1999.
There, a defensive lineman named Darnell Dockett was one of the top recruits in the nation, and Dabo wanted him for Alabama. Dockett went to Florida State, but Swinney also noticed the quarterback at Paint Branch High School, a native of Jamaica named Gerald Dixon.
“I remember walking down the hall, and Coach Swinney finally figured out I was from Jamaica,” Dixon said. “He’s got a big grin and he yells out, ‘Hey, Jamaican mon!” We clicked from then on and have been friends ever since.”
Dixon started as a freshman in 1999 and made the all-SEC rookie team as Alabama beat Florida in the SEC title game. The Tide entered the 2000 season ranked No. 3 in the country, but lost its opener to UCLA. After a 40-38 loss to Central Florida dropped Alabama to 3-4, it was announced that DuBose would not return for the next season. Neither would Swinney nor the rest of the staff.
“That was the low point of my career,” said Dixon, who played in the NFL and CFL and has been at The Citadel for six years. “Those guys got fired, and I always look back and think, what if we had played better and won that year. To this day, it’s a low point that we got those guys fired.”
Swinney, of course, was hired by Tommy Bowden at Clemson in 2003, and succeeded Bowden as head coach in 2008. Dabo’s success since then doesn’t surprise Dixon at all.
“At Alabama, Coach DuBose would let the assistants be head coaches at the spring game,” he said. “When Coach Swinney was the head coach, you could see that he would be a phenomenal head coach.”
And Dixon experienced firsthand Dabo’s recruiting prowess.
“Once you get around him,” he said, “it’s hard to not to say, ‘Yes, I will play for this guy.’”
Swinney talked at some length about Dixon in his weekly news conference this week, and Dixon said Dabo is good about keeping up with former players.
“To this day, he tracks down all the guys he recruited, guys who are in their 30s now, and sends them Christmas cards,” Dixon said. “When I was in his office a couple of years ago, he pulled out a picture we took on my signing day back in 1999. He’s one of those guys who never forgets, and that’s why he can always relate back to us.”
Dixon said Dabo’s always had the exuberance that sometimes spills over after a big win on TV.
“That’s no facade with Coach Swinney,” he said. “That’s the type of passion he brings when he’s around people.”
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc