CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At the conclusion of his news conference Friday at Bank of America Stadium, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney turned to walk away from the podium when he saw North Carolina coach Mack Brown approaching with a big smile on his face.
The two men greeted each other with a huge bearhug.
They exchanged laughs, and posed for pictures ahead of Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, where Swinney’s 10th-ranked Tigers (10-2, 8-0 ACC) are favored over Brown’s surprising No. 24 Tar Heels (9-3, 6-2).
But this game reaches beyond the gridiron.
It's the story of two coaches who formed a tight bond out of one act of generosity.
Back in 2009, Brown, then the head coach at Texas, invited Swinney — who had just been hired at Clemson — and his staff to Austin to observe how he ran the Longhorns' football program.
For Swinney, the lessons learned from Brown over the course of that three-day visit were instrumental in jumpstarting his own successful college coaching career.
And he said he's eternally grateful.
Swinney at the time was craving advice on how to run a high-profile college football program, and the lighthearted, outgoing Brown was more than happy to oblige, even taking Swinney to dinner.
“This is why I love Mack Brown and always will,” Swinney said. “I reached out to four or five coaches ... He was the only coach that would let me come visit.”
Swinney had never met Brown prior to the visit.
But Brown spent a good portion of his free time showing Swinney and his staff around, patiently answering numerous questions and giving insight into the decision-making process at Texas.
“He was so accommodating,” Swinney said. "I couldn’t even hardly get a question out of my mouth and he had all the answers. He’d read my mind. I’ve still got all my questions and all my answers, I’ve got just pages of notes that I took from him.
“It was such a helpful visit for me, and to be able to see Texas and kind of where they were. They were just pretty fresh off a national championship, new facility, you name it, staffing, recruiting. It was like a CliffsNotes version of being a head coach," he added.
Brown said he decided to invite Swinney to Austin at the urging of former Alabama and Texas A&M head coach Gene Stallings, a mutual friend of both men in the business.
Since then, Swinney has won 10 ACC division titles, seven conference titles and two national championships in Death Valley.
“I'm very, very proud for Dabo and all that he’s accomplished,” Brown said. “He’s kind of at the point now where I was at Texas. You win so much that if you ever lose people are shocked, and I can’t believe it and the world is coming to an end. You’re 10-2. A lot of people would like to have Dabo’s problems.
"But he handles it and he handles it right, and he’s just done a great job.”
Brown said recruits often tell him that North Carolina and Clemson run their programs in a very similar fashion.
“It’s not that he came to me and asked me what we did; it’s what he’s developed into,” Brown said. “But we share so many things.”
On Saturday night, they share the quest to become ACC champions when their teams clash in Charlotte.
Swinney is seeking Clemson's seventh ACC crown in the past eight seasons after failing to reach the title game last season.
Brown is looking for North Carolina's first ACC title since 2008. The Tar Heels have never won the ACC championship game, which was created in 2005. They lost in their only other title game appearance in 2015 to Clemson, several years before Brown's return to the school.
“He might not have been so transparent 14 years ago had he known we were going to be facing up one day for a championship,” Swinney said with a laugh, “but that’s kind of how life is, how God works. That’s how things come full circle sometimes."
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