TAMPA, Fla. -- At 12:15 a.m. ET, they came into the grandstands looking for Kathleen Swinney and Carol McIntosh. "We hate to have to do this," the College Football Playoff security detail told Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney's wife and mother. "But if you want to get out there when the game ends, we need to move you closer to field."
"I know how it works," Kathleen Swinney recalled an hour later. "But man, we were still losing!"
There were five minutes remaining in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, and yes, Clemson was losing to Alabama 24-21, the same score that the wonky, often sloppy, game had been stuck on since early in the fourth quarter.
"Of course just about the time we started moving down to where we could only really see the game on the big TV screen, that's when everything kind of went crazy," McIntosh said. "And it really did go crazy, didn't it?"
Indeed it did. Over the final 4:38 of the game, the teams would score three touchdowns and trade the lead three times, with the Tigers ultimately ending the night and the season on top the sport via a 35-31 final score. That insanity triggered a frenetic schedule that would continue for the coach, his family and his team that would carry on until well after most of everyone else on the East Coast was fast asleep.
At 12:27 a.m., the game finally ended after the game clock hung up on one final second for more than five minutes as officials made a ruling on an onside kick. Finally, after a false start of a celebration, the real championship party could begin. The coach ran onto the field. So, it seemed, did everyone else. Anyone looking closely might have seen the little brunette in the orange skirt and jacket slicing her way through the crowd like Deshaun Watson through the Alabama defense. "I'm not sure how Kathleen got to me so fast, but she had her arm around me before I got to midfield," the coach said, his shirt soaked. "She might have wished she got out there a little slower, because when they dumped the Gatorade on my head I think they might have gotten her too."
Swinney and his wall of handlers went looking for Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Saban and his escort of Alabama state troopers were looking for Swinney. They ran from one sideline to the other and then, slowed by the growing crowd on the field and sky-darkening cloud of confetti, they jogged ... then walked ... and then nearly gave up.
"I felt bad about that because I knew he was looking for me, but it was just crazy out there," Swinney said. "A good crazy."
At 12:39 a.m., with the championship trophy presentation about to take place, the Swinneys were joined by McIntosh.
"I just grabbed him as he got up on that stage and I told him that I loved him," Swinney's mother said. "The way the game actually ended and how they got me across that field to Dabo, honestly that's just one big blur. But you know what I was thinking about? It was clear as a bell. I thought about him as a little boy and then when he was in college and we had to live together. All that hard work we've done and he's done. And there we were with that trophy tonight. I just can't believe it."
At 12:41 a.m., Swinney was preaching. Like full-on Billy Graham Crusade preaching, standing on a stage, his likeness on display behind him on Raymond James Stadium's massive video boards, the orange-clad thousands weeping and hanging onto his every word. "I knew they wouldn't quit," he testified to the masses. "I talked to them about letting the light inside of them always be brighter than the light that's shining on them! If they focused on that, they'd be OK."
He spoke of when he was surprisingly hired as head coach eight years ago. He spoke of his plan to build the program. And he spoke of that plan coming to fruition. "At the top of that mountain, that Clemson flag is flying!" Awash in screams and cheers, he hoisted the trophy.
At 12:50 a.m., Swinney was finally following his team through the western corner tunnel of the stadium and into the locker room. Behind closed doors, the coach preached again. "I told them there will never be anything in their lives that will ever take this moment away. I pointed to my teammate here from our 1992 national championship team (which he played on at Alabama), and I pointed to the former Clemson players who were there tonight, guys who played on the last national championship team (in 1981) and the guys who were on our teams over the last eight years who got us here tonight. This was for all of us. This will always be our bond."
At 1:15 a.m., Swinney emerged from that locker room and crossed the hallway to take a seat onstage in between Watson and the kid who caught Watson's game-winning pass with one second remaining, smallish former walk-on wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who many say reminds them of when Swinney was a smallish former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama. Swinney's opening statement lasts nearly eight minutes, during which he dishes out a sort of "greatest hits" of his Clemson era, mentioning guts ("Bring your own guts!"), disrespect (let's just say he's not a fan of former ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd), and a statistical reasoning of why everyone should stop acting as if Clemson's rise is a surprise ("We beat the last seven national champions this season alone.").
Kathleen slips into the back of the room to sit with their three sons, all of whom have game-day duties with the team. Next year the oldest, Will, will be a wide receiver at Clemson. The coach recalls his lifelong love affair with Kathleen. In the middle of it, he spots her and winks. She jumps up, points, and silently mouths "I love you." Then she weeps.
At 1:35 a.m., Swinney is escorted to a director's chair in the middle of one of the stadium's cavernous beneath-the-grandstands hallways. He dons a headset and is told that SportsCenter has just entered a commercial break, so he will have to wait two minutes before his conversation with Scott Van Pelt. Normally, big-time coaches and sports stars don't like to hear that news. Dabo Swinney smiles big and says aloud, "Oh man, just getting to sit here for a couple of minutes, that's the best news I've heard tonight ... except, you know, winning the national championship." His words to Van Pelt are a new twist on a familiar message. "You know, we weren't exactly chopped liver ... I hope that we have inspired other folks out there, other teams ... Greatness isn't just for the Alabamas and Ohio States. It's for anyone." When asked what was going through his mind before the gutsy pass play that won the game, he credited co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott for refusing to back down on the call. Then he recalled huddling his team and staff, pointing to the 31-28 score with only a handful of seconds remaining and declaring, "Can you believe this? Isn't this fun?"
At 1:50 a.m., Swinney has left the chair and has been greeted by a waiting lineup of news outlets from South Carolina and Alabama. He tells the first group that he can't believe Clemson won a national title on the same day that Danny Ford, the coach who won its first, was elected the College Football Hall of Fame. He greets the second group by saying "I'm running out of words" ... and then proceeds to talk nonstop for six straight minutes.
At 2 a.m., 93 minutes after the game's end, Swinney disappears back into the locker room, but only after hugging Kathleen and McIntosh one more time and telling his mother, "I gotta take a shower. Tell the bus not to leave me." As he cleans up, his coaching and support staff, most of whom are college football lifers and decadeslong Clemson employees, hug and hug and hug some more. Don Munson, the radio voice of the Tigers, says he was congratulated by colleague Eli Gold, voice of the Crimson Tide, who showed Munson his 2016 championship ring, which was won at Clemson's expense, and says to make sure "Dabo designs one as big as possible." Munson doesn't believe that will be a problem.
The bus does not leave Swinney. None of the 10 buses in the orange mechanized army budges until he finally blows back out of the now-empty locker room. He is out of his orange sweatshirt and dressed in a blazer and orange necktie, flanked by staff one side, Kathleen on the other. He is handed a boxed dinner. On Tuesday morning he will officially receive the trophy to take home. For now a chicken sandwich will have to suffice.
He boards Bus 1 to take Seat 1 on Row 1, but not before pausing to acknowledge the two dozen fans camped out by the buses to tell them, "I'll see y'all in Death Valley!" Once onboard, the coach sets his Chick-fil-A down on the seat and stands to address the players and staff who have been waiting on him. Several of the family members riding along have already fallen asleep. After all, it is 2:20 in the morning.
They do not stay asleep for long.
"Hey!" the coach hollers, preaching again. "I don't know if y'all heard, but this bus is only supposed to be used by the national champions. So ... I guess this is our bus!" Once again, there is cheering. The door shuts, a squadron of police motorcycles switch on their blue and red lights, and Dabo Swinney's heroes ride off into the night. Dawn will be here soon, breaking over a new day for Clemson football.