Clarence Swearengen: Keeping it real

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Neighbors

Last Saturday, Clarence Swearengen was helping out at Vine Middle Magnet School for a World Rotary Day Service Project. Knoxville Rotary chose Vine for their work this year. As the assistant principal at the school, he was obviously interested in the goings-on.

“I met with them a couple of weeks ago,” Swearengen said. “We did a beautification of the school – planted some new flowers, cut down some trees, did some gardening and painting. It was a fun activity. They had a huge amount of participation. It was great.”

Clarence Swearengen

Swearengen is now in his 16th year with Knox County Schools, having spent two years at Austin-East Magnet High School before coming to Vine Middle. But his life took a bit of a circuitous route to get where he is today.

Born in Chicago and raised in Memphis, Swearengen was originally slated to attend Murray State University on a basketball scholarship. But then his GPA got in the way. So, he started out at Connors State Junior College instead, later transferring to the University of Tennessee on basketball scholarship in 1987.

“This is why I impress on students the importance of taking care of your academics,” he said. “I got a scholarship, but I didn’t have the GPA to take advantage of it. I did complete my associates degree and moved on to UT.”

He briefly played in the NBA before spending several years playing professional basketball in Europe. He then returned to the U.S. with his eye on finishing his bachelor’s and pursuing his master’s degree, both of which he earned from UT.

“I always had the bug for coaching and wanted to be involved in that or mentoring,” Swearengen said.

His career checklist shows he was director of basketball operations at the University of Memphis, then head basketball coach and athletic director at Melrose High School in Memphis, before being hired as athletic coordinator for men’s basketball at UT from 2003-2005. The year 2005 was a pivotal one for Swearengen.

Without rehashing all of it, life dealt him some bad cards and he came close to throwing it all away. He said he went through some “dark days” following the death of his father and the break-up of his first marriage.

A man of faith, he said when things turn sideways, “the devil gets busier. That’s when things come at you the most, when you’re at your weakest.”

Knoxville Rotary World Service Day at Vine Middle

He credits re-connecting with his college sweetheart (now his wife) for helping him get through those hard times. They live in Hardin Valley and have a 14-year-old son. He also has a 28-year-old daughter from a prior relationship.

Swearengen is an example of an administrator invested in the continued improvement of his school and the young lives that inhabit it. That dark period in his life led him to create a program to help keep kids on the right path.

“I took that moment and that situation and was determined to turn it into something positive,” he said. “I reflected on those moments and wanted to do what I could to make sure these kids don’t go through what I went through.”

In 2008, he founded Real Talk Mentoring Inc., a 501(c)(3) to “encourage, enrich and empower the youth to be successful by keeping discussions real, realistic and relational through shared life experiences.” The program brings guest speakers into 15 Knox County schools weekly for meetings before school from 7:15-7:55 a.m.

“We started with four students at Vine and now we have over 400,” Swearengen said, adding that they also arrange field trips, college tours and internships for participants. He said they can always use additional donations to help fund these events.

“Our goal is to teach them they can be successful,” he said. “You can’t let your current situation dictate your destiny.”

To make a donation or to learn more about Real Talk, go here.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

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