Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban are title-game foes, pals on island time

The Clemson and Alabama coaches have summer homes among the rich and famous on Boca Grande, south of Sarasota.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, right, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have a moment together before the College Football Playoff championship game Monday in Santa Clara, Calif. [Associated Press]
Alabama coach Nick Saban, right, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have a moment together before the College Football Playoff championship game Monday in Santa Clara, Calif. [Associated Press]
Published January 8

BOCA GRANDE — The 43rd president might be down the street. Not that anyone would be so tacky to tell you that. It's just implied when someone casually mentions running into Laura Bush the other day.

This is how a lot of conversations evolve around here. You start off talking about the weather or the beaches, and you end up hearing about the bike trail favored by Harrison Ford.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why the butcher at Hudson's grocery store was wearing a Clemson visor on Monday. Northern California had the actual Alabama-Clemson college football national championship game bash, but Boca Grande will soon have the after-party.

This is where Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will bring his family to unwind this summer. So will Nick Saban, though the thought of Alabama's notoriously humorless coach strolling downtown in Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks might be hard to fathom.

Make no mistake, the center of the college football universe for the next year will be a small Southern college town, but Boca Grande will briefly occupy a corner of that world.

Or, more accurately, a corner booth.

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Large homes can be seen off Gulf Boulevard toward Gasparilla State Park in Boca Grande on Monday, January 7, 2019. On the island are the summer homes of college football head coaches Dabo Swinney of Clemson University and Nick Saban of the University of Alabama. (BRONTE WITTPEN | Times)
Large homes can be seen off Gulf Boulevard toward Gasparilla State Park in Boca Grande on Monday, January 7, 2019. On the island are the summer homes of college football head coaches Dabo Swinney of Clemson University and Nick Saban of the University of Alabama. (BRONTE WITTPEN | Times)

To get to Boca Grande, you take the River Road exit south of Sarasota on Interstate 75. You drive mile after mile on two-lane roads past turtles, stop signs, a $6 toll booth and not much else.

When you reach the year 1964, you have arrived.

Boca Grande, a picturesque community on one-mile-wide Gasparilla Island, lacks both traffic lights and pretense. There are no snobby
maître d's, no high-brow shopping. When I ask Siri for the nearest Starbucks, my phone does the digital equivalent of a head-scratch.

Yet this is the place favored by the rich, the famous and the famously rich. Generations ago, the Gasparilla Inn was the ideal vacation spot for the du Pont family, the Astors, the Fords and the Vanderbilts. The names have changed but not the island's reputation as a low-key getaway.

There might be 1,200 year-round residents, but the population swells to at least twice that size in the winter when the CEOs, hedge fund managers and entertainers arrive.

"Growing up around here, you get used to the idea that there are going to be influential politicians and celebrities. You don't see them as being different,'' said Wesley Locke, executive director of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce. "There's an honor code that locals still live by. We know people are coming here to get away from attention, so we don't bother them.''

And so it is with Saban and Swinney, the yin and yang of college football.

Residents tend to refer to Saban as "Coach'' or "Mr. Saban,'' while everyone knows Swinney as "Dabo.'' This is, in effect, a microcosm of the personalities college football fans have come to know.

"People will see them in here and they'll ask me if it's okay to say hi. Of course it is. They're both great guys,'' said Dave Smith, who has worked behind the meat counter at the island's all-purpose grocery store for a dozen years. "Coach Saban is a little more laid back, but Dabo is amazing. As soon as you meet him, you feel like he's been your friend forever.''

Details are scarce, mostly because no one likes talking about them, but the consensus is that Saban bought a summer home on Gasparilla Island a few years ago, and Swinney soon followed. One lives on the north end of the island and one on the south end, and they're rarely in town at the same time.

What they do share is an affinity for a restaurant named Temptation.

A nondescript place behind a screen door on the town's main drag, there is nothing in the dining room that would indicate college football royalty might dine here a half-dozen nights a year. No pictures, no pennants, no trophy case. The bar was showing Monday night's championship game on its one television, but the sound was turned down.

"Any night you come in here, you might see President (George W.) Bush or (Fox News') Tucker Carlson or one of the coaches,'' said Temptation co-owner Jeff Simmons. "Most people just leave them be, and we encourage that.

"One night when President Bush was here, a woman went over to hug him, and the Secret Service was sitting right across here, and they all stood up. Everything went tense for a moment because we thought she was going to get taken down. But George got up and said, 'How you doin'?'' and gave her a big hug.''

Dinner at Temptation turned out to be the side bet when Clemson and Alabama met for the first time in a national championship game, in the 2015 season.

An Alabama victory meant Swinney bought Saban a $250 gift certificate two months after the game. Below the amount, he scrawled the message "C U in Tampa next year!!'' across the bottom.

"Dabo hands it back and says, 'Send this to coach (Saban),' ''  said Temptation co-owner Kevin Stockdale.

When the teams met again a year later at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for the title, the restaurant's owners were guests of the Saban family. Clemson won that game, and Saban upped the bet's payoff to a $500 gift certificate.

So, was there another bet on this year's championship game, won by Clemson 44-16? Simmons and Stockdale said they hadn't heard. Nor had they asked. In Boca Grande, you learn not to be too pushy or nosy.

Eventually, the stars will come to you.

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