Coach Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to the top spot in the initial College Football Rankings. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

He eases his truck into the garage, and sometimes his eyes can’t help but find the sign on the wall. There it is, white letters on a green background, hanging not far from the box of property files and business plans, and for some reason it never felt right dumping any of it in the trash.

CALL DABO SWINNEY, the sign reads, still an attention-grabber after all these years, but now its purpose is to remind Clemson’s football coach of the two years he left his profession, before an extraordinary collision of positioning and fate changed his life and the Tigers’ football program.

“It seems like forever ago,” says Swinney, who a dozen years ago was the finest shopping center leasing agent in Alabama. “But it seems like yesterday, too.”

In what occasionally feels like a different life, Swinney is in his seventh full season at Clemson — paid about $3.3 million annually, seen at age 45 as one of the game’s most talented and magnetic young coaches, in charge of a program that, when the College Football Playoff committee unveiled its initial top 25 this week, came in at No. 1.

“You’re looking at a coach that has nothing to lose,” Swinney said in November 2008, shortly after Tommy Bowden was fired as Clemson’s coach and Swinney was elevated to interim. He earned the permanent job and has since led the Tigers like a man who has never so much as considered failure.

But that’s not true, and 15 years ago, Swinney was just a man at a crossroads. Mike DuBose was forced to resign as Alabama’s coach following the 2000 season, and his staff left with him. Swinney — a former Crimson Tide walk-on player who by then was a promising young position coach at his alma mater — sought other coaching jobs but kept getting passed over.

Months passed, Swinney still unemployed, and one day his phone rang. Rich Wingo, who had been Alabama’s strength coach while Swinney was a player, was now running a real estate development business called AIG Baker. It built shopping centers all over the country, and the firm was expanding. Wingo wanted Swinney, an optimist never intimidated by hard work, to join him. Swinney insisted that he belonged on a sideline, aware and in pursuit of his calling. Wingo reminded him that a coach without a team is just a man out of work.

How about this, Wingo told him: Give it a year, see how it goes, and learn the property business. While he untangled his future he’d earn an $80,000 base salary plus bonuses. Swinney, 31 at the time, remembered how hard it is to say no to his strength coach.

Swinney, who since his teenage years had worn the sweats and polos that make up the football gentleman’s wardrobe, pulled on a dress shirt one Monday in April 2001 and curled his fingers around a briefcase. His wife, Kathleen, stood in the driveway with their two sons and cried.

“Here I am in the car,” Swinney recalls, “just going off into this world that I know nothing about.”

He made the 60-mile commute from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham and was shown to his desk. There was a phone and a computer, and Swinney sat for a long time and wondered how his path had, of all places, led him here.

Then Wingo approached with a smile and two boxes: files for massive projects in Las Vegas and Olathe, Kan. As Swinney walked away, Wingo told him they were counting on him.

A different form of recruiting

They could hear him across the office after a victory: the phone spiked into its cradle, the voice that carried throughout the open layout, the energy that would someday act as an Atlantic Coast Conference program’s backbone.

Swinney attended business lunches and sent thank-you notes. He pressed business cards into hands at the annual shopping center convention and remembered names and faces. He studied traffic counts and demographics surrounding a project, learning the kinds of customers who’d shop at a particular complex and the kinds of businesses those customers would seek. He discovered the factors that mattered to a prospective tenant and drilled into that topic during his pitch: “You know you’re sitting here with a Super Target and a Bed, Bath & Beyond,” he would say in that mile-a-minute cadence of his, “and this is a space that we’re going to be able to get you a deal on.”

But first, he had to learn the basics: When a shopping center is born, anchor tenants — those sprawling stores, gyms and movie theaters — come first; the leasing agent’s challenge is filling the smaller spaces. It is, Swinney would say much later, a form of recruiting — and, just like assembling consistent top 25 classes, the leasing game is about relationships, persistence and coming through on promises.

“If they’re not successful, it’s your fault,” Wingo says. “Dabo was very good at understanding that. He would try to walk a mile in their shoes.”

Swinney’s early months had come and gone slowly, but Wingo knew Swinney would adapt. A skinny kid had earned three varsity letters at Alabama, one of the nation’s most prestigious football programs, before beginning his coaching career in the Southeastern Conference. Swinney’s work ethic, drive and ability to connect with people would propel him, Wingo believed, no matter his surroundings. Soon he was breaking the office’s silence and pumping his fist after seizing another deal: a smoothie joint in Vegas, a wig shop in Birmingham, a jeweler in Kansas — eventually turning that impossible file in Wingo’s box into an upset victory.

“I thought if anybody could do it, he could,” Wingo says of filling out the shopping center in Kansas. “He never gave up on the deal. He always tried to find another way.”

Swinney’s recruiting pitch became polished and natural, a handy skill he’d employ much later, and he liked to tell prospective tenants it’s easy to stay on the bank and catch the small fish. But if you want to be successful, he’d say, you’ve got to dive in and be willing to take on risk or even failure. More and more often, Swinney’s optimism infectious and his reputation pristine, they told him they wanted to give it a shot.

“Once you got a little momentum,” he says, “it got easier and easier and easier. Just, really, people trusted me.”

His one-year trial as a property developer turned to two, and he stopped telling people he used to be a coach. His previous life was disappearing, though that didn’t sound so bad. He played pickup basketball with co-workers at lunch and did a dead-on impression of Wingo at the company Christmas party. He brought home bonuses that, all told, pushed his annual pay beyond $200,000 — a sum the youngest son of a single mother had once never dreamed possible — and the white and green signs reading CALL DABO SWINNEY popped up at intersections and in storefront windows.

He had weekends free and evenings with his family, a life football had never allowed, and as 2003 began — approaching three years since his last game as a coach — he and Kathleen watched as their 6,400-square-foot dream home was built in southeast Birmingham.

But something was missing. Swinney didn’t tell many people this, but each morning during his 30-minute commute, he prayed and asked for fulfillment, something he hadn’t felt since leaving the Alabama coaching staff. “I didn’t know what the future was,” Swinney says. “But there was no question in my mind, in my heart, that I wanted to coach.”

If he wasn’t meant for the sidelines, he prayed for the thought to leave his mind. But if there was a way back, he asked God to direct the right person toward Swinney, to have that person reveal himself and interrupt Swinney’s path.

A phone call — and a choice

Tommy Bowden was scheduled to speak at a church in Tuscaloosa in early 2003, after he had completed his fourth season as Clemson’s head coach, and so Swinney and his wife drove down to attend.

Long before that day, Bowden had coached wide receivers at Alabama — including a walk-on named Dabo Swinney — in the late 1980s. The Swinneys sat in the pews, and after Bowden’s message Dabo hung around so he could visit with a man from his previous life. After a while the couple headed home, but for some reason the visit left an impression on Bowden.

So on a Friday a few weeks later, a secretary at AIG Baker dialed Swinney’s office line. Bowden was calling. Clemson’s receivers coach had taken another coaching job, and Bowden figured he’d see if Swinney was interested.

Of course, he told his former coach, but why him?

Swinney, having spent the previous two years networking not just with clients but also the individuals the client trusted most, was tireless and opportunistic; he could sell himself and his product. Swinney had come to the church and waited out the congregation just for a few minutes with his old coach. Bowden liked that. “In recruiting, you’d better be the guy who turns over every stone: talk to the pastor, the girlfriend, the mentor, the mother,” says Bowden, who would coach Clemson until six games into the 2008 season. “Whoever, you’d better find out who they are.”

Bowden, who faced heavy criticism for considering a coach who had left the business, invited Swinney to interview for the job. Swinney had met with coaches here and there, but this seemed different; by the time he returned to Birmingham, he had one last deal to consider — this time with his own future in the balance.

Swinney’s family was happy and its future secure; in two weeks they would move into their new home, and Kathleen was pregnant with their third son. Swinney was due thousands in bonuses — “All I had to do was breathe for about two years,” he says, “I had so many things in the pipeline” — and was on the company’s fast track. If he walked away, though Wingo understood the draw of coaching, there’d be no turning back.

This was a gamble like those Swinney had been selling: big upside, massive risk. He considered the numbers, telling himself he’d accept no more than a 50 percent pay cut to coach again. He thought about the ups and downs — Bowden was on the hot seat; if he were fired, Swinney would be a casualty. But this was it: the interruption, for better or worse, he had spent so many mornings praying for.

He was meeting with the builder of the family’s new home when his phone rang, Bowden calling with a job offer. Swinney stood in his driveway and another crossroads — comfort and stability in one direction, ambition and volatility in the other — as the builder and Bowden asked what he was going to do. He thought about the words he had told so many prospective tenants on the verge of a life-changing decision: Success came by going for it, leaving the bank to chase those big fish, even if there was a chance he’d fail.

He’d thought about it enough. Swinney spoke into the phone, telling his new boss he wanted to give it a shot.