Bowden's future still cloudy

Originally Published: October 2, 2003
By Doug Carlson | Special to ESPN.com

Tommy Bowden probably didn't mean to satirize himself Wednesday morning when he lamented the nature of the coaching business today, in the father-eat-son world of college football.

Maybe it was just a Bowdian slip.

"Some coaches win six games and get a raise. Some coaches win seven games and they're about gone,'' he said.

If you're trying to figure out into which category Clemson's fifth-year coach falls, here's a hint: the only raise he'll be getting if the Tigers win six games this season is up and out of his beautiful Lake Hartwell home.

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  • Just as it has for Clemson in the last few weeks, the game changes suddenly and unpredictably. When the Tigers lost their season opener to Georgia on Aug. 30, by the humbling score of 30-zip, Bowden was the burnt toast of the town.

    Three victories later, he's managed to scrape off most of the burn marks, but he's still not quite out of the toaster.

    Beginning with Saturday's trip to Maryland, Bowden's future at Clemson may well be revealed over a three-game stretch that also includes a home game against Virginia and a trip to North Carolina State.

    Winning two of those games would do wonders for Bowden's tenuous reputation. Would one victory and two close calls be enough to satisfy Clemson faithful that he's still (maybe) the man? Too close to call.

    That was Bowden in 1999 winning Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year honors (and a raise) for leading the Tigers to a 6-6 record. Back then, Tommy was the young and innovative Bowden, or so the story went.

    A banner hanging on a storefront in downtown Clemson for that year's FSU-Clemson game read: "Move over Bobby. Make way for the ACC's new Chief.''

    Bobby's perfect season and national title somehow escaped the voters' attention, just as Tommy's lack of benchmark victories over his first four years in Clemson was conveniently ignored, other than by some snickering Gamecocks.

    Bowden's Clemson teams have gone 1-16 against teams that finished the season ranked in the top 25. The exception was a two-point win over South Carolina three years ago, when the Gamecocks finished 19th following an Outback Bowl victory over Ohio State.

    The lack of meaningful victories has begun to look like a rash on the back of Bowden's résumé. Clemson's only bowl victory on his watch came against Louisiana Tech on a blue field in Boise, Idaho -- exactly one million miles and an eternity removed from the Orange Bowl field upon which the Tigers staked their claim to a national title after the '81 season.

    Bobby Bowden said his son wasn't na´ve when he opted for the family business. In 1974, when West Virginia fans hung Bobby Bowden in effigy during a 4-7 season, an angry and moist-eyed Tommy climbed a tree and cut his father's figure down.

    "Tommy's like me,'' Bobby said. "Any time something bad happens to us, we feel like something good is about to happen to us somewhere else.''

    Which probably explains why Tommy squirmed, but didn't panic, following the loss to Georgia. Since then, the Tigers have shed their clumsy attempt to be a dominant running team and began having fun with a no-huddle, shotgun-formation offense (sound familiar?)

    Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, the son of former Green Bay Packers quarterback David Whitehurst, is second in the ACC and 10th nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown for 897 yards in his last three games.

    Still, those games were against Furman, Middle Tennessee and Georgia Tech. Much more is at stake over the next three games against three opponents perceived to have moved past Clemson in pursuit of the still-chief Seminoles.

    "Our town is only 12,000 and it swells to 85,000 on game day. That right there tells you about the fanaticism of the sport here,'' said Bowden, who turns 50 in July, comparing the Clemson environment to what he witnessed as an assistant at Alabama and Auburn.

    The swelling, of course, will become much more intense if Clemson repeats last year's 0-3 record against its next three opponents. If that happens, look for a tidal wave on Lake Hartwell, and one less Bowden in the ACC next season.

    Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.