Aug. 11, 1999
Tommy Bowden is obviously a coach who is motivated by a challenge. In 1997, he took over a Tulane program that had not experienced a winning season since 1981 and had won just five games in the previous three years. In two years he had achieved the miraculous, bringing the Green Wave to a perfect 11-0 regular season in 1998 and a top 10 ranking. His two-year mark of 18-4 brought instant national acclaim to a program that had not been ranked in the final top 20 since 1973.
Last December, Bowden accepted another challenge. Although Clemson has been to six bowl games in the 1990s, he inherits a team that posted a 3-8 record in 1998, the program’s worst overall record since 1976. That included a 1-7 record and last-place finish in the ACC, also the worst conference performance in 22 years. Clemson has not ranked in the final top 20 in either poll since the 1991 season.
Often when a team has a losing season it is due to the presence of youth on both sides of the ball, thereby leading to the return of experienced players the following season. But, Bowden won’t have that luxury in his first season. The Tigers return just 41 lettermen and 11 starters from a year ago. It is just the second time in the last 20 years that 41 lettermen or less return. Only twice in the last 20 years has Clemson returned fewer than 11 starters in any season and that returning starter total is also the lowest in the ACC.
Bowden faces his biggest challenge in the offensive line, where no starters return from a year ago, the first time Clemson as been devoid of returning starters in that important area since 1943. And, it took a World War for that to happen as Clemson’s entire junior and senior classes had been drafted into military service over the summer of 1943.
Defensively, six starters and 23 lettermen are back from a unit that ranked 14th in rushing defense and 25th in total defense. There is much more depth on the defensive side of the ball in comparison to the offense, but the loss of six NFL draft choices, the most in the nation from the defensive side of the ball, will have an adverse effect. Among the losses were first-round draft choice Antwan Edwards and second-round pick Rahim Abdullah.
In terms of the kicking game, the Tigers are starting from scratch. No active player on the Clemson roster has ever punted or attempted a place kick in a Tiger game, as 1998 starting kicker David Richardson and starting punter Kevin Laird have graduated.
Can Bowden bring Clemson back to the level of success it attained from 1981 to 1991 when the Tigers won an even 100 games, ranked in the final top 20 in nine seasons, and posted a winning percentage of .795? He certainly has a proven blueprint for success through his experience at Tulane.
“A coach instills his own personality and temperment when he comes to a program,” said Bowden. “How quickly the players adjust to the system will determine our success rate. That is what happened at Tulane, they bought into the program very quickly. They were willing to do what it took to make adjustments, do what was necessary to win.
“From every indication, these players at Clemson are willing to do what this staff has asked, do what is necessary to be successful. There is a sense of urgency in our program right now. Rebuilding is not a word that the players, coaches and obviously our fans want to hear.
“It is important for these players to buy into the program quickly. The seniors I have talked with don’t want to rebuild, and neither does the staff and administration, they want to do what it takes to win now.”
Bowden will have 80 players on scholarship, but only eight of those are seniors. This will be the smallest senior scholarship class at Clemson since the 1985 season. Bowden does not see that as a negative from a leadership standpoint. In fact, it might accelerate the “buying into the program” process.
“Leadership from a senior class usually comes at a program that has had a head coach who has been with the program for five years or more. In that situation your best leadership comes from the senior class.
“But in a new situation, like we have here, that leadership can come from anyone. A lot of times the younger players who haven’t played that much previously get a new lease on life and are excited about a new way of doing things. I am sure we are going to get great leadership from our seniors, but I think it will come from younger players who are energized by change.”
If Bowden doesn’t have enough challenges in his rookie season, he must face a schedule that includes seven 1998 bowl teams, just the second time in history Clemson must face seven teams that had been to a bowl game the previous season. In each of the first five games in 1999 Clemson will face a team that went to a bowl game last year. Only five of the games are at Death Valley, just the second time since 1977 Clemson will play just five home games.
The season opener is against a Marshall team that has been 22-4 with two conference championships over the last two years and has 100 wins in the decade of the 1990s, more than any other school (yes, even Florida State). The next four games on Clemson’s schedule are against 1998 bowl teams that defeated Clemson a year ago.
The Tigers have just two home games in their last seven contests. One of those is certain to bring national attention to Clemson. Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles, a favorite to win the National Championship in the final year of the millenium, will be at Death Valley on October 23rd. That contest will be the first coaching confrontation between father and son in Division I history.
March 14, 2019