The first time Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney met, the Clemson coach recalled this week, was at a high-school all-star game shortly after Johnson took the job at Georgia Tech in December 2007. The second time, the circumstances were considerably different.
It was October 2008. Swinney had just been named the interim coach at Clemson after the midseason firing of Tommy Bowden. His first opponent was Tech.
“Unfortunately, I had to start off with the Yellow Jackets and the triple option, to add a little flavor to that week,” Swinney said this week.
It was the beginning of a friendship that, at least from the outside, would seem unlikely. They represent rival schools and are direct competitors. Johnson is 57. Swinney turns 45 on Thursday. The easiest caricatures of both — Johnson as abrasive, Swinney as offbeat — would seem at odds. But, when the two meet on the Bobby Dodd Stadium field before Saturday’s game between No. 22 Tech and No. 19 Clemson, they will do so as respected friends.
“I just think he’s a good guy,” Johnson said of Swinney. “He’s unassuming, he’s really an outgoing, friendly guy.”
Johnson and Swinney have gotten to know each other through ACC coaches meetings and also on Nike-sponsored trips for head coaches and their wives. At Swinney’s first ACC meeting, between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Johnson looked out for his new friend, a first-time head coach.
“He knew that I was the new guy, didn’t know the lay of the land,” Swinney said. “I think he just kind of really extended a hand and really helped me in kind of navigating that process.”
When Swinney took his first Nike trip, he said, “(Johnson) grabbed me and said, ‘All right, you’re my partner. We’re going to play golf.’” Johnson and Swinney took on Baylor’s Art Briles and TCU’s Gary Patterson.
In October 2012, when Swinney learned that Dan Radakovich was on the move as athletic director from Tech to Clemson, he placed a call to Johnson to alert him and gain some insight.
Their wives, Susan Johnson and Kathleen Swinney, have become friends, as well. The Johnson that Swinney knows is different from the version than the one often portrayed in the media.
“He’s got a good sense of humor,” Swinney said. “He likes to have fun. I think sometimes people create perceptions and things like that, but he’s just one of those guys, he is who he is. But, like I said, when you get to know him, he’s a good guy.”
Both men do seem to share a lack of pretense.
“I think what you see is what you get pretty much,” Johnson said of himself. “I think he’s the same way. We just seem to hit it off.”
Friendship will be put aside Saturday. At 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the ACC, Tech is playing to stay alive in the ACC Coastal Division race and improve its bowl positioning. A win would be the Jackets’ first over the Tigers since 2011, which was also Tech’s last win over a ranked opponent. The Jackets are 0-8 since then. A win would also give Tech its first nine-win season since winning 11 games in 2009, the ACC championship season.
Clemson, which won 11 games in 2012 and 2013, can make it a third consecutive season by winning its final three regular-season games and its bowl.
Swinney won’t expect Johnson to extend a hand Saturday. Friendship has its limits.
“If it’s my brother over there, I’d want to win,” Swinney said.