A year ago yesterday at the 2003 version of the Tommy Bowden Media golf outing Clemson's head man could not avoid the hot seat question. The very first question that July day was about his job security, and just about every other question from that point forward somehow related to Bowden standing on liquid ground.
Last July, Bowden answered the questions, as you would expect a professional to do. But with Bowden, it is not so much what he says as how he says it. Bowden, while calculated in almost every response he gives, is not so good at masking obvious body language signals. A year ago Bowden sat on the edge of his seat and rarely looked at the reporters in the eyes. He was fidgety and at times irritated. He would try to lighten the mood with a few jokes, but he did not get many laughs because the writers were out for blood, not humor.
Last July Bowden lamented the facilities, and it came across as an excuse for the ugly losses and back-to-back 7-5 seasons. Last July Bowden tried to sell us all on how the Power I formation was going to make our team tougher. Last July Bowden squarely placed the responsibility of the 2004 season on his own shoulders all the while deflecting criticism from his coaches. And last July you got the feeling that Coach Bowden wanted to be anywhere in the world than at The Reserve at Lake Keowee answering those questions.
What a difference a year makes.
Bowden eased into the swing on the patio at the clubhouse, quickly downed his hamburger, and took a few minutes to catch the spectacular view of the Appalachian foothills in the distance. When prompted by Sports Information Director Tim Bourret that he had about 10 minutes before he was due to meet with the media, Bowden quickly replied "I'll be ready in 5 minutes". It was almost as if he had been waiting for this moment since the end of the 2003 season.
You would never get the idea that Bowden actually enjoys talking to the media. He looks at it more in the light of a necessity for his job description more than an opportunity to chat with a bunch of friends. It's not that Bowden dislikes the individuals that cover him; he just has so little in common with most of them that it can sometimes create awkward moments.
But as he plopped down in a big leather chair and answered question after question yesterday you could obviously see the change in Bowden's demeanor. Bowden was relaxed, which offered a little more candor than in year's past. Instead of defending his program, Bowden spent more time accurately detailing areas of concern. Bowden freely admitted to his mistakes last year with the running game, something you would have never heard him say a year ago.
Sensing Bowden may be willing to spill a few more beans than normal, the writers pressed Bowden a little more than in the past. Several writers set Bowden up to see if he would admit his two back sets from last year were a failure. Bowden obliged, saying, "You can force feed the issue too much and sometimes you can get into a particular formation and you can get a little too predictable. I think I made the mistake and did that a little too much last year as opposed to going into a one-back offense and let the running game mature out of that."
When asked if he thinks Clemson has a running back on campus that can be a dominant playmaker, Bowden fidgeted in his seat a little, looked off in the distance, and then simply stated, "We'll see". His body language clearly stated that he answer to that question was "no".
Feeling more and more confident, the writers pushed Bowden for a comment on why he decided to stay at Clemson after he was strung along for 4 weeks without a contract extension. Bowden quickly returned to his shell. After spilling out a politically correct answer about how he always wanted to stay at Clemson, Bowden turned to Tim Bourret and asked his SID if that was a proper answer. Some things are still touchy, and the writers finally found that spot inside of Bowden.
Bowden still took time to throw in his jabs at the facilities, something that has almost become a ritual at all his news conferences. While extremely optimistic about the first phase that will break ground after the South Carolina game this year, Bowden still seemed to be lobbying for the other phases as if they are not a certainty. But this year the jabs seemed less of an excuse and more a sales plea to the Clemson faithful.
But more than anything, this year Bowden seemed confident in himself and his program. He felt no need to defend his coaching or his assistant coaches. He felt no need to defend the direction his program is heading. Those are the things that Bowden spent almost all his time defending last year, but yesterday all that was understood. It offered Bowden a chance to critically point out areas where improvement is needed without having to sound like he is a failure for allowing those weaknesses to occur in the first place.
And, to be honest, it was all quite refreshing.
For the first time in two years, Bowden seemed at ease enough with himself and his program that he became human again. And human is what Clemson fans want in a coach. Bowden took the first step in letting his guard down last year in the week after the Florida State game at his press conference when he became emotional. Tiger fans related to that, and it became apparent that Bowden truly wanted to end his coaching career at Clemson. He had told us that before, but it had never sunk in because Bowden's body language suggested he might be just saying it, not meaning it. Almost embarrassed, Bowden spent the remainder of the week saying he did not get emotional. Some bought it. Those in attendance didn't.
And while there were no tears at The Reserve yesterday, Bowden's body language suggested he has a quiet confidence that his program is heading into a bigger sphere. His body language suggested he is at ease with himself. And his body language also suggested there is still a twinge of bitterness at the lack of a public vote of confidence from his Athletic Director down the stretch of the season.
Instead of downplaying optimism, Bowden allowed it to fuel while still getting in his final jab at facilities. Speaking to fans expectations, Bowden said "I think they are high every year, which is good. With Terry Don Phillips coming in and addressing some the things that need to be addressed those expectations will be more realistic. They'll always be high, but whether they are realistic or not is what you try to get a handle on."
Spoken like a man at ease but looking forward with the realization that a 4 game winning streak at the end of a season is not a climax to a career, but a stepping stone for bigger things.
And we all wait to see if Clemson has taken that step…Coach Bowden included.
Bowden At Ease in '04
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