By Jack Wilkinson
Not to overstate, but when word came Thursday that Pat Swilling was named to the College Football Hall of Fame, a thought occurred: Swilling was not just a great defensive end who helped resurrect Georgia Tech football, but a four-year starter who helped insure that Division I-A football would continue on the Flats.
“A program changer,” recalled Bill Curry, the head coach for whom Swilling had the good fortune to play for 1982-85, and who was just as fortunate to have Swilling at his disposal.
“He was a dominant force in all the right ways,” said Curry, now the head coach at Georgia State, “at a time when we desperately needed him to be just that.”
In 1981, Curry’s second season as head coach at his alma mater, he sat in his office one day and posed a question to a highly-touted recruit from Toccoa, Ga. “Do you want to do something good,” Curry asked, “or do you want to do something great?”
“Great,” Pat Swilling replied. Better yet, he signed a letter-of-intent to play for the Jackets. This, at a time when Georgia Tech football was not only dreadful, but barely removed from pigskin life-support.
In the late 1970s, under another former Tech star — Pepper Rodgers –, the Jackets were mediocre, at best. Even worse, Dr. Joseph Pettit, then president of the Institute and hardly an ardent football advocate, was considering de-emphasizing the sport. Imagine: Georgia Tech, once the home of Heisman, Alexander and Dodd, in danger of becoming the Princeton of Deep South football? Yes.
Fortunately, Bobby Dodd, as well as Kim King and several other prominent Tech alumni, along with athletic director Doug Weaver, helped dissuade Pettit. Once Rodgers was fired following another losing season in 1979 season, Tech turned again to another familiar figure: Curry, who had no head-coaching experience.
The immediate results were predictably disastrous: a 1-9-1 debut in 1980, then 1-10 in ’81. The very year Curry posed the “good-or-great” question to the teenaged Swilling.
The kid who grew up on a Toccoa farm and starred at Stephens County High started at defensive end as a freshman on the Flats. Tech finished a much-improved 6-5, only to stumble back to 3-8 in 1983 in its ACC debut. Stumble, but not fall.
Not once Don Lindsey came to Tech, and Pat Swilling came into his own.
“The bell cow.” That’s what Lindsey, the architect and orchestrator of Tech’s famed “Black Watch” defense of the mid-`80s, called Swilling. A defensive guru and genius as a coordinator at Arkansas and later Southern Cal, Lindsey was hired at Tech in the spring of 1984. The defensive dividends began that fall, and never abated. Not with Swilling starring as the, uh, “bell cow?”
“No,” he told a reporter in September, 1984, “I don’t care for the bell cow.” But then, neither did Tech’s opponents.
To the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the bell cow is: “A cow, especially the lead cow of a herd, having a bell attached to a collar around its neck so that the herd can be located easily.”
To Tech, Lindsey and his defense, the bell cow was Swilling: A menacing 6-foot-4, 245-pounder with 4.7 speed in the 40; officially listed as an outside linebacker, essentially a ferocious pass rusher off the edge who could also be located easily: In the opposing backfield — specifically, in the quarterback’s face. Just listen for the hit. No clanging bell around the neck necessary.
“I won’t say he’s the most important [defender],” John Guy, then Tech’s assistant coach for linebackers, said in ’84 of Swilling, who had just assumed the position of “Strike” (or strong-side outside linebacker) as a disruptive key to Lindsey’s defense. “But the goal of the Strike is one of the most important in the system.”
Tech opened that season 3-0, including a 48-3 rout of the Citadel in which Swilling literally knocked Citadel quarterback Robert Hill out of the game. Out of his senses, too. Tech finished 6-4-1 that fall, including a 35-18 triumph at Georgia that stopped a six-year losing streak to the Dogs. Swilling struck for five sacks that season. It was merely an appetizer.
“I’ve never been in a game or coached a game where I saw somebody do that,” Curry said the following September, after Tech opened with a 28-18 victory at N.C. State in which Swilling sacked Wolfpack quarterback Erik Kramer seven — count ’em, seven — times. The first came on the game’s third play, when Swilling hit the QB from behind and sent his helmet flying. Kramer, duly cowed, heard bells all right. All game.
“I really don’t know why it happened,” Swilling — who perfectly emulated his idol, linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants — said of his school-record seven sacks. “It just started happening. I’d look up and the quarterback was there. This is the best game I’ve ever played.”
Not that John Guy was overly impressed. Hence, the message in Tech’s athletic dining hall a couple of days later, taped to a table: “Pat Swilling, See Coach Guy Immediately.”
Swilling’s reaction? “Ah, coach Guy,” he said that week, smiling. “My best friend.”
Maybe not. But Guy’s intent was to do what Swilling had done to Erik Kramer all afternoon: Bring him back down to earth. “Not to say he didn’t have a great game,” Guy said the following week, “but he’s better. He’s better than he played.”
That fall, Swilling played better than he’d ever had. In part, he said, because of…aerobics training? Yes. The strenuous, thrice-weekly workouts in the off-season had markedly improved Swilling’s flexibility and strength.
“A lot of people think it’s sissy,” Swilling said of the aerobics two days after creaming Kramer. “That’s bull. It’s as tough as playing football. Aerobics puts you in every possible position like football. It helps with my cardiovascular system and gives me quick recovery after plays.”
The “Black Watch,” the nickname Lindsey conferred upon his defense that fall, glorified big hitters and rewarded them, too. The prize: A thick black stripe painted down the middle of Tech’s otherwise all-gold helmets. It went only to the heaviest of hitters — especially middle linebacker Ted Roof, the heart and soul of the Black Watch; and to No. 99, Swilling, its most talented and dangerous Watchman.
That autumn, the Black Watch enabled the Jackets to go 9-2-1, losing only to Virginia and Auburn, tying Tennessee and beating Georgia for the second year in a row. Behind Swilling and Roof, the Black Watch allowed just 10.7 points per game that year, holding opponents to seven points or less five times.
Georgia Tech finished second in the ACC (5-1 in conference play) and went to its first bowl in seven years. In the All-American Bowl in Birmingham, Tech rallied to beat Michigan State 17-14, finish 18th in the final UPI poll and post its best record since Bobby Dodd’s last team went 9-2 in 1966.
And Swilling? He was merely a first-team All-American selection by the Football Writers Association of America, and an easy first-team All-ACC pick. He left the Flats owning school records for sacks in a game (7) and a season (15, also in ’85), and tackles for loss. He was fifth with 285 total tackles (second-best in Tech annals) and fifth in career sacks (23).
And, it turned out, Swilling was merely beginning.
In 1986, he was drafted in the third round (the 60th overall pick) by New Orleans — the first Georgia Tech defensive player drafted since Al Richardson in 1980. Playing with the Saints from 1986-92, Swilling was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in ’89, when he set a league season record with 16.5 sacks. He broke that mark with 17 in 1991.
In his 12-year career, while wearing No. 56 — a numerical homage to LT –, Swilling was a five-time Pro Bowl selection. He also played for Detroit (1993-94) and had two stints with Oakland (1995-96 and ’98).
Already a member of the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, Swilling was later inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (2004) and the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. More important, he graduated from Georgia Tech in 1991, having taken courses during the off-season. And in 2001, Swilling, who lives in New Orleans, was elected to the Louisiana State House of Representatives.
Come December, in a banquet in New York City, he’ll be officially inducted as Tech’s 17th member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Pat Swilling will also, and always be remembered as one of the key players who not only resurrected Georgia Tech football, but guaranteed its continued success on into the 21st century…and beyond.
“He was a warrior on the field, and he did the work in the classroom,” Bill Curry said. “He was a great player and great leader, and I am very, very proud of him.”