Tommy Bowden speaks (part I)

Former Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden talks for the first time about his coaching career in Tigertown and much more in this two-part interview with CUTigers publisher Roy Philpott.

Tommy Bowden was introduced as Clemson's 24th head football coach on Dec. 3, 1998. He arrived at Clemson having just completed an undefeated regular season at Tulane and had hopes of taking back the ACC back from Florida State and leading the Tigers back to national prominence.

In his first season, he doubled Clemson's win total from the year before and was named ACC Coach of the Year.

In nine and a half years on the job, he compiled a respectable 72-45 record, including a 43-32 mark in the ACC. In addition there were tremendous strides made from a facilities standpoint as the West End Zone project was completed.

Clemson's recruiting also took off during his tenure as Bowden and his staff routinely signed top 20 classes, bringing in future NFL players like Charlie Whitehurst, C.J. Spiller, the late Gaines Adams, Jacoby Ford and more.

The problem was he never led the Tigers to a conference championship nor an appearance in the ACC Championship game. While he was close, including literally being just "one play away" in three seasons, it never happened.

Ultimately, that proved to be his undoing.

Bowden finished his career in Tigertown on Oct. 18, 2008, when he abruptly resigned four days after a 12-7 road loss at Wake Forest. It was Clemson's third loss in a year in which it was picked to win the ACC and perhaps challenge for a national championship after starting the year ranked inside the top 10.

Bowden finished his career in Tigertown on Oct. 18, 2008, when he abruptly resigned four days after a 12-7 road loss at Wake Forest. (Roy Philpott)
Since that day, he's remained out of the public spotlight.

Until now.

This past Friday, Bowden gave his first true public interview discussing his time at Clemson and what went wrong on The Score Sports Talk show, hosted by CUTigers publisher Roy Philpott. Now living in Panama City, Fla., Bowden spends most of his time staying in shape, doing faith-based speaking engagements and waiting for the opportunity, perhaps, to get back into coaching.

He'll also be a member of the ACC media this fall, working for Fox Sports and Raycom on television.

Here is the first part of a two-part series with Clemson's former head coach, highlighting his time since his departure from the Palmetto state and looking back on what went wrong during his final season:

What has life been like for you after Clemson?
Bowden: Well, I've enjoyed my faith-based speaking. I did a lot of that Clemson usually after signing day and I've stayed busy with that. I've done a little bit of work for ESPN and I'm going to do some work now with Fox Sports. They are getting ready to start a one hour ACC/SEC/Conference USA program and I've been doing some things for them. And then Raycom is going to going to start a live studio show for the ACC Game of the Week. We'll go on at 12. Most games used to start at 12:00 but they'll now start at 12:30 and do a summary of the games coming up. And we'll do some halftime work with that as well. That will be live and the other show (for Fox Sports) will be taped.

You know, I did some radio stuff after my first year out. But most of what I've done has been speaking (related). And then I also bought a lot down here 15 years ago when I was at Tulane and we've been building a house. I always wanted to retire down here when I got out of coaching. I just started my house a little sooner than expected. So I've been meeting with architects and builders.

There's a ministry organization out of Nashville that's called Lifeway Ministries and I may do some faith-based speaking for them nationally and internationally. I've flown up to Nashville a couple of times and I'll do some things with them after the football season.

So at this point you won't be doing any work in the booth for games this fall in the ACC?
Bowden: No it's studio work. It's a live studio show live out of Charlotte. The Fox one is taped and they'll show that on repeatedly on Friday and pregame on Saturday. The studio show- the ACC game of the week - they'll have a crew that goes game-site and we'll do a conference pregame show that highlights all the games and then do the same thing at halftime. So I will not be on game site.

Does doing television work like that quench your competitive side as a former coach?
Bowden: I think I'll enjoy it. I've always had an open policy with the media when I was at Clemson. I think I had as good a relationship with the media that you could have in that environment. Now whether it wets my appetite enough, I don't know. I enjoy the faith-based speaking. Like anything else, when you are out of site you are out of mind. So I think me being on television will lead to more faith-based speaking. Whether that leads to another coaching job - I don't know.

I could be happy doing what I'm doing and I could also be happy coaching. From a Christian perspective you kind of see what God has planned and then when the door opens you head into full speed with both feet on the ground. You know I coached 32 years - 12 as a head coach and 11 in the SEC.

"I would have loved to accomplish more at Clemson, but I'm not embarrassed on what we did and how we did it and how we left the program."

I would have loved to accomplish more at Clemson, but I'm not embarrassed on what we did and how we did it and how we left the program. If it ends that way than it does. If it doesn't, I'm 57, just got finished jogging. I'm in really good health and shape. I don't feel 57 so I feel I could go be competitive again on the field if that opportunity comes open.

Do you keep in touch with your former players here? Guys like James Davis, Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller - what is your relationship like with them?
Bowden: You know I do some. But when you make a break ... when I left Clemson I needed to make a break in order to be fair to Dabo. I knew some of the criticism that he was going get immediately was that he was a 'Bowden guy.' So, I said ok, we need to break this and let him make his own identity and coaching style. There was so much negative on me, I didn't want him to be tied to me. So I tried to remove myself as quickly as I possibly could and let him carry on.

But some of the guys text me. Jacoby Ford probably more than any. Scotty Cooper, James [Davis], C.J. [Spiller] and some other ones. I talked to Charles Bennett recently and Jamaal Fudge. But from a professional standpoint, I tried to make that break clean so I get out of there and let the new guy go and let him keep away from the negative of being associated with me bringing him down.

Speaking of Dabo, do you still talk with him? What is your relationship like right now with him these days?
Bowden: Oh yeah we text a little bit and talk. But like I said, I knew it was going to be a negative (when Bowden left). He was out of coaching and I hired him. We had a good relationship and still do. But professionally, for the reasons I just mentioned I needed to let him go. So I said, 'hey let's cut this thing.' I didn't say 'let's cut it' but I did. When we talk we have a very cordial friendship.

How tough is it for you to watch Clemson football right now knowing just how close you were to getting to the ACC Championship Game. The 2007 season comes to mind where one caught pass against Boston College probably gets you there or in 2005 when a couple of missed field goals hurt you. How tough is it for you now to watch this program?
Bowden: As I look at my career there - I inherited a program that won three games and the first three years we had one guy drafted. Our facilities needed a lot of work but I felt like we were getting closer. You know after my first year, Roy, I approached [athletic director] Bobby Robinson and asked him 'can I go and talk to the Board of Trustees about a significant facilities upgrade?' I was talking about a free-standing building and getting serious about catching up with the conference. He gave me permission and so I went and talked to the board and they approved it and we got underway for the West Zone.

And I really felt like, once it started, the closer we got to that building completed the better we were recruiting.

In 2008, we were second in the nation, at least by ESPN, behind Miami and ahead of Alabama. So I felt like we were getting players in place and gosh, three years in a row we were one point away. But we had beaten South Carolina consistently so that was pretty good. So I felt like when the facilities were completed that would elevate it one more notch and hopefully get us that one play to the championship game. Or I should say, get me, because it would have kept me employed had I got there. So yes, that was extremely disappointing.

Being so close the last three years, I didn't think we were that far off. When changes were made I made them. Offensively, defensively and staff changes. Being so close, we weren't far away from getting things done. (Roy Philpott)
Is the West Zone what you are most proud of from your time at Clemson?
Bowden: Actually it was probably bringing at the purple back (laughing). I thought that was a pretty big accomplishment. Well, yes that was (one). I didn't think much about it (at the time) but when you go in to a program you evaluate what the program needs and you work with the administration - Bobby Robinson was really in favor of it and Terry Don Phillips was when he came on board and the Board of Trustees and the President. Then you go out and speak on the IPTAY circuit and the biggest thing is to see if you can increase season ticket sales and attendance up. When I came on attendance had dropped to 68,000. I think the nine years it was always high. Season tickets were high. Money was coming in via season ticket sales where we could put ourselves in a position financially to start that process.

But that's pretty much what you do. I didn't think 'this is Tommy Bowden's building' or 'Tommy Bowden started this.' I always thought, 'Gosh Clemson is going to be a great place once we get this thing going and this building gets finished and we can recruit we can stop using these dog gone cardboard cutouts we used for so many years. I didn't think so much of 'Hey I got that done' because there so many people involved with that decision and getting it started.

If you could look back on your career at Clemson and change one thing, what would it be? Obviously you made a number of difficult decisions in your nine and a half years here.
Bowden: Well I made a several changes while I was there - I made an offensive philosophy change, I made several staff changes and coordinator changes. I felt like when the tough call had to be made, I made it. I was never one to listen to the media or fan base as far as hey, 'run this' or 'play this guy or this quarterback' or 'do this in this field position.' I studied film and had a competent staff that could make decisions. So I made changes that I thought were getting us in the direction of winning a championship.

Being so close the last three years, I didn't think we were that far off. When changes were made I made them. Offensively, defensively and staff changes. Being so close, we weren't far away from getting things done.

And I think, gosh 10 of those guys from that team that played in the (ACC) championship game made NFL rosters. We had one in my first years that made an NFL roster. So I felt like we were doing the things and increasing the talent level to get us where we needed to go. There was tremendous criticism of my staff hires the last couple of years. But you know when [offensive coordiantor] Rob Spence was there we were first, second and third in every single offensive category the three years he was there. Alabama tried to hire him. And Minnesota (Vikings) and Tennessee and the Raiders.

I obviously was evaluating the staff my whole career there. Had a change needed to be made Roy, I would have made it. My background was to make it. I had no hesitation or reservation about making it when I thought it was necessary. At the end of the year (2008) if I thought it was necessary I would have made it at the end of the year. But things just came to a head there mid-season.

Well that brings me to the next question about Rob Spence. The popular consensus around here when you left that you were too loyal to Rob Spence and that he brought you down with him because the offense wasn't consistent and was obviously struggling at that time. Would you disagree with that notion?
Bowden: Well, you know, like I just said I've made pretty tough replacements on the staff. My relationship with the administration - Bobby Robinson and Terry Don Phillips - neither one ever came to me and said you need to make this change or that change. I had the ability to do what I wanted. A lot of people think that wasn't the case but they don't really know. Look at our offensive stats for the three years prior to halfway through that season with that guy, they were as good as anybody's. So I didn't weigh what people were saying at that time.

"But we were probably overrated. If you look at quarterback Cullen had a great junior year but didn't have a solid first six games." (Roy Philpott)
Take us back to the 2008 season for a moment before the Alabama game. Was there anything you saw about that team during preseason camp that led you to believe there could be trouble on the horizon? Were you thinking that team may have been overrated with a No. 9 ranking coming into the year?
Bowden: Well you don't think like the fans do with the ratings and all of that. You prepare your team. The biggest concern we had then was the offensive line. We were extremely thin on the offensive line and we were starting the season with a couple of redshirt freshmen. I forget who they were but I do know in that Alabama game we lost Barry Humphries on the first series and had to replace him with a redshirt freshman. I think we were playing three freshmen or redshirt freshmen once he went down and then Ricky Sapp went down in that first series. And then it looked liked Alabama was pretty good.

You know, that year they had Georgia down 31-0 at the half and Georgia had the No. 1 pick in [Matthew] Stafford and [Knowshon] Moreno, another No. 1 pick, and that was in Athens. So yes, we were probably overrated a little bit. We struggled at quarterback and the week where we parted ways I was going to make a change. I thought we needed a spark. Willy [Korn] I thought could do it with his legs. He was more mobile than Cullen [Harper] was. I had complete confidence we could salvage the year and go to a bowl game because I had done that every year I was a head coach but the disappointment of the Alabama, Maryland and Wake games was why we ended up parting ways.

But we were probably overrated. If you look at quarterback Cullen had a great junior year but didn't have a solid first six games. And I think the draft is a great evaluation of talent. The media, who was picking that poll was probably going off of junior year statistics. A little overrated I would think.

Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Tommy Bowden, to be posted Monday on Top Stories