Swinney was raised in Pelham, Alabama, and attended the University of Alabama, where he joined the Crimson Tide football program as a walk-on wide receiver in 1989. Swinney earned a scholarship and lettered on three teams (1990–1992), including the Crimson Tide’s 1992 National Championship team. During his time as an undergraduate at Alabama, he was twice named an Academic All-SEC and SEC Scholar Athlete Honor Roll member. He received his degree in commerce & business administration in 1993. He also received a master’s degree in business administration from Alabama in 1995.
After graduation, Swinney joined the Alabama coaching staff as a graduate assistant, serving from 1993–1995. In December 1995 he received his M.B.A from Alabama and became a full-time coach of the Crimson Tide, in charge of wide receivers and tight ends. He was fired with all of head coach Mike DuBose’s staff in early 2001.
Swinney sat out the 2001 season while receiving his contractual payments from Alabama. His former strength coach at Alabama, Rich Wingo, had become president of Birmingham-based AIG Baker Real Estate and offered him a job. From April 2001 through February 2003, he did not coach and instead worked for AIG Baker Real Estate on development projects in Alabama.
In 2002, his former position coach at Alabama, Tommy Bowden, made an offer for him to join his staff and coach wide receivers at Clemson, and Swinney joined in 2003. He took over as Recruiting Coordinator from popular longtime coordinator Rick Stockstill. Swinney proved to be both an excellent wide receivers coach as well as recruiting coordinator, coaching ACC-leading receivers and being named one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters in 2007 by Rivals.com.
Swinney was named the interim head football coach on October 13, 2008, after previous head coach Tommy Bowden resigned six games into the 2008 season. The Tigers had started the year ranked #9 in the preseason polls, but then went 3–3 (1–2 ACC) in their first six games. Swinney was surprised by his promotion since he had been a real estate developer just a few years before; at the time he was informed he was working with the wide receivers on their upcoming game.
With a reputation as a top-notch recruiter, Swinney was chosen over Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning (former head coach of Wyoming), and associate head coach Brad Scott (former head coach of South Carolina). Swinney’s first actions as interim head coach were to fire offensive coordinator Rob Spence and introduce a new tradition, the “Tiger Walk”, where all players and coaches walk through the parking lot outside Memorial Stadium about two hours before a game as they head inside for final game preparations. On November 1, 2008, Swinney claimed his first victory as the Tigers’ head coach by defeating Boston College, breaking Clemson’s six-game losing streak against the Eagles. On November 29, 2008, Swinney coached Clemson to a 31–14 win over South Carolina in the annual rivalry game, after which Clemson became bowl eligible, and Swinney’s interim status was removed after a vote of confidence by Kirk Fowler. During the 2009 season, Swinney’s first full season at the helm, Clemson finished the season with a record of 9–5, won the Atlantic Division title of the Atlantic Coast Conference, defeated Kentucky 21–13 in the 2009 Music City Bowl, and finished the season ranked in the top 25. On December 1, 2008, Swinney received a five-year contract to become Clemson’s full-time head coach.
In 2010, Swinney came under fire after leading Clemson to a 6–7 season. Of the 7 losses, 6 were by less than 10 points and 5 were by 6 points or less.
In 2011, Swinney lead the Tigers to an 10–3 record that included an ACC Championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl. #15 Clemson would go on to lose to the #23 West Virginia Mountaineers in the 2012 Orange Bowl, 70–33, conceding an all-time record number of points scored in a quarter (35), half (49) and game (70) in the 109-year history of bowl games. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was fired after the game.