Aug. 27, 1999
By Richard Rosenblatt AP Football Writer
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) – Tommy Bowden reached behind his desk, found the cabinet he was looking for and pulled out a thick folder full of papers.
“These are my notes, 25 years’ worth,” he said. “I’m ready for this.”
This is Clemson, and Bowden is bracing for his first season in the land of the Tiger Paw, where expectations are sky-high despite just three wins in 1998.
“I’m familiar with how Danny Ford and Frank Howard are perceived, and that’s with great respect,” Bowden said, referring to Clemson’s two most popular coaches. “Howard lasted 30 years and in the next 25 they’ve had six more – five were fired, the other left.
“I’m the seventh, and that tells me I’ve got about four or five years to figure it out, probably less time than that.”
Since Ford led the Tigers to the national title in 1981 and six Atlantic Coast Conference titles before being fired in 1989, Clemson hasn’t been close to the top of the college football world. After last season’s 3-8 record – the school’s worst since 1975 – Tommy West was fired.
Big changes were needed and Clemson found its man in Bowden, son of Florida State coach Bobby and older brother of former Auburn coach Terry. Tommy Bowden, an assistant under his father and brother, had just guided Tulane to a perfect season, a Conference USA title and a Liberty Bowl berth.
The 44-year-old Bowden could have gone to several schools but chose Clemson because “this is a place I’d like to live.” He brought in eight new assistants, including Rich Rodriguez, his offensive coordinator at Tulane.
When the Tigers open the season against Marshall on Sept. 4, a crowd of 81,473 will pack Death Valley and watch footballs fly all over the place in Bowden’s no-huddle, pass-happy offense. Say goodbye, Clemson fans, to the traditional run-option offense.
Look for Brandon Streeter and Woodrow Danzler to share time at quarterback, with freshman Willie Simmons being groomed for the future. For now, the players are thrilled with Bowden.
“Spring was wild,” free safety Robert Carswell said. “Receivers were diving for balls they couldn’t catch, where last year they would have let them go. They were going over the middle, stretching out. Defensive backs were making spectacular interceptions and linemen were running downfield.
“If that’s any indication of how everything is going to be, we’re going to shock a lot of people.”
Clemson was shocked last season, losing five games by seven points or less, including three in the final minutes.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Bowden said. “All I know is I got to figure out why it happened.”
In his first two years as a head coach, Bowden solved Tulane’s problems and won 18 games. In last year’s unbeaten season, the Green Wave set an NCAA pass efficiency record and were the only team to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing.
Clemson seems to be a good match for Bowden. A walk along College Avenue, where an old Esso sign hangs above the gas station, showed Bowden and his wife, Linda, they needed to be in this old-fashioned, small town with big-time football. The orange Tiger Paws along the road leading to Clemson Memorial Stadium add a nice touch, too.
“Even if I wasn’t in coaching, this is a place I’d like to live,” Bowden said. “I like small cities, fairly conservative, on a lake and in a good location – near my wife’s home in West Virginia, and I can get to Florida. Now if you win, it’s a really good place. If you lose, it ain’t as good.”
Bowden isn’t the only new coach in the state. South Carolina, coming off its worst season in 105 years of football, fired Brad Scott and hired Lou Holtz.
Just after Bowden took the Clemson job, he turned around and hired Scott, a longtime friend, as his tight ends coach. On Nov. 20, Clemson is at South Carolina in the annual showdown between the bitter rivals.
Winning will return to Clemson, Bowden says, but it may not be immediate.
“The perception is Clemson has lost some credibility or whatever you call it,” Bowden said. “All this didn’t happen overnight, and people have to be educated that it won’t be corrected overnight, either.”
Eleven starters are back, including six from a defense that ranked 14th nationally against the run. However, there isn’t a returning starter on the offensive line, and tailback Travis Zachery, Clemson’s leading rusher in ’98, was suspended for the opener for violating team rules.
Bowden will be part of history on Oct. 23, when his Tigers play host to his father’s Seminoles in college football’s first father-son matchup. If Florida State comes to Death Valley undefeated, Bobby Bowden will be shooting for career win No. 300.
The game won’t be a love-in.
“It’s going to be a highly emotional and very intense game from a player’s perspective,” Tommy Bowden said. “FSU is probably the most penalized team in college football. I think there’s going to be some cold-blooded, knockdown hitting. No coach in America speaks in more churches than my father, but his team has to be the most penalized. He’s just cold-blooded.”
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