Bowden's first spring practice as Clemson coach was just a few weeks away, and Clemson fans were about to be mesmerized by a completely different philosophy and approach to the game of football…especially offensive football.
Nobody in the Clemson family could appreciate exactly how drastic that change was going to be until the spring game of 1999 when Bowden's fast paced offense was showcased in front of 30,000 sun baked football fanatics in Death Valley.
And I doubt, very few in the Clemson family would have believed that the steps that would be taken those first 4 years under Tommy Bowden would end up being baby steps. No large leaps. No monumental wins. No defining moments.
Tommy Bowden sits squarely at the crossroads of his employment at Clemson University. What lingered only in the whispers of some in 2001 has become common talk after the 2002 football season. A coach and staff, with so much talent and so much promise among their ranks, threaten to exterminate themselves amid a series of blunders both small and large.
This is the saga of Tommy Bowden…his future…and our future.
2002 Season Truly Bizarre
Explaining away the 2002 season in one complete sentence would be like trying to out drive Tiger Woods off the tee. It just can't be done. The wins were pleasurable, but not monumental. Louisiana Tech, Ball State, Duke, and North Carolina were wins that just about every other major college football program would have had if those teams dotted their schedule. South Carolina, at the end of November, was only a notch above those 4 teams in terms of talent (Although beating the Gamecocks never feels like beating a bad team). Wake Forest and Georgia Tech were two solid, if unspectacular, wins against good teams. Both of those wins were at home, and both wins came in the final seconds on big defensive plays.
Three of the losses were nothing to be ashamed of. Losing by three to a very talented Georgia team in Athens left most feeling like the 2002 Tigers were going to be a pretty good football team. The Florida State loss, despite the special teams blunders that made for a frustrating night, showed a Clemson offense clicking on all cylinders with a brilliant game plan. The hangover loss from the FSU game in Charlottesville, at the time, seemed like a mortal failure. But Virginia turned heads all year long and finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the country.
7 wins without anything spectacular and 3 losses that made it hard to fault the players or coaches. Ten games where pretty solid football was played by Clemson and pretty solid coaching was engineered by the staff.
But, those were ten games that hardly anybody now remembers from the 2002 season. Ten games that no matter how hard you try, can't erase what happened the other 3 games.
Those other 3 losses inevitably defined the 2002 Tigers, and possibly derailed the Tommy Bowden era at Clemson.
The Wednesday before the N.C. State game included minor hysteria. The Athletic Department was clamoring and begging for their Tiger faithful to show up on a Thursday night in Clemson with near monsoon rains forecasted. On Thursday night, not only did over 72,000 Clemson fans show up, they roared in near deafening excitement as the Tigers ran down the hill. Then poof, N.C. State made Clemson look like a high school team on their way to a 38-6 win that could have been worse.
The Athletic Department was embarrassed, and rightfully so. Such a driven effort to encourage Clemson fans to travel on a weeknight gets "rewarded" with a blowout. Never mind most fans killed two personal workdays by taking off Thursday and Friday. A competitive game would have been a solid remedy for the missed work time. The game against the Wolfpack was not competitive, and the Clemson Athletic Department (Terry Don Phillips included) heard the outcry loud and clear on Monday morning. Those type of frustrations leave scars, and Monday morning in Clemson was borderline meltdown.
Three weeks later Maryland came to town on for a nighttime showdown with a Clemson team that had won back-to-back games behind the arm of newly instated freshman quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Optimism was high, and even Bowden himself was quoted all week long on how this was Clemson's last chance of beating a ranked team in 2002. He was right. It was their last chance. But the 30-12 drubbing illustrated only how much better Maryland was on this particular night than Tommy Bowden's Tigers. Another embarrassing evening in Tiger Town while the entire Nation watched.
The Tangerine Bowl offered one last shining opportunity for the 2002 team. Clemson had just beat up on a bad South Carolina football team to earn a spot in the Orlando-based bowl. Problem was, the December 23rd date for the game was a scheduling nightmare. It forced Clemson fans to choose between watching their beloved Tigers play near Disney World, or spending Christmas Eve with family and friends. To their credit, and with the plea of the Athletic Department and Clemson ticket managers, over 10,000 Clemson fans made their way to Orlando. Some even made it a day trip in order to avoid conflict with family Christmas schedules. 50-something points later, Texas Tech walked out of the Citrus Bowl with a humiliating defeat against Clemson. A third such humiliation in a 6 game stretch.
The three losses were devastation to the program…each in their own unique way. Two of the three left Terry Don Phillips, and the entire Athletic Department, holding the bag after public pleas for fans to show up.
If you don't think those three games turned a few heads within the Athletic Department and IPTAY higher-ups…you are kidding yourself. Everybody, even Tommy Bowden, understands the damage those three games had and continue to have.
The Blame Game
Obviously, the weakness of the 2002 Clemson football team was a depleted offensive line. A line that was not overly talented to begin with suffered crushing injuries to Derrick Brantley and Nick Black before the 5th game was played. The one position that could not afford to be beset with injuries was. There were times that leaving a tight end in to block, along with a running back, still could not stop the pocket from collapsing.
The offensive line is an easy scapegoat to the problems suffered on offense in 2002. But Bowden has nobody to blame except himself with the lack of depth at the offensive line position. In Bowden's first 2 recruiting classes, offensive lineman were signed in limited numbers and even more limited talent. While the 2000 recruiting class was regarded as a Top 10 class nationally, it lacked offensive lineman to anchor the ship. Bowden and the Clemson staff have succeeded in upgrading the talent level at every single position on the depth chart…except offensive line. And it has bit them right in the butt.
Compounding the problem for Bowden was a move that probably was in the best interest of the Clemson football program. Bowden chose to red-shirt three offensive linemen that could have cracked the two deep in 2002 (Dustin Fry, Roman Fry, and Nathan Bennett). While this move will most likely pay off in 2003 and beyond, everyone is still left to wonder if any of these three could have impacted the outcome of a couple of the games in 2002.
Black (and Garnet) Wednesday
February 5, 2003 will not go down as one of the most remarkable days in the history of Clemson football. Signing Day 2003 was forever branded a disappointment by last second defections and near misses.
Any spin can be placed on any situation to paint whatever picture you want to paint. Anybody that can honestly say that the 2003 Clemson recruiting class (at least on paper) was a thunderous success is simply flying blind.
On the other hand, a great deal of the frustration from the 2003 recruiting season was fanned by the outstanding class Lou Holtz put together in Columbia. Most of the states top players (as listed by the various recruiting services) ended up in Columbia. Signing Day 2003 was eerily reminiscent for the Gamecocks as Signing Day 2000 was for Clemson. How all that will translate into the next couple of years is anybody's guess. After signing a great class in 2000, Clemson stumbled to back-to-back 7 win seasons.
Some have suggested that Bowden is not extremely well liked among the high school coaches in this state, and for various reasons. The theory that Bowden's arrogance has somehow offended the high school coaches to a point where he has a hard time signing the big instate kids is way overblown.
Most head coaches, Bowden included, do not do the grunt work associated with developing relationships with the high school coaches. Rick Stockstill and Brad Scott are the coaches that spend most of the time in small talk with the high school coaches, not Bowden. That is not unlike what goes on at South Carolina, where Lou Holtz spends his off-season in Florida while his staff continuously develops relationships with the high school coaches.
So what gives with recruiting? Was 2003 a turning point for the Gamecocks and the fall of the Tigers?
Not really. South Carolina enjoyed a great year and will reap the benefits of this year down the road. The Gamecocks had more obvious weaknesses at the skill positions that allowed them to sell early playing time as a reason to go to Columbia. And Lou Holtz is a household name with a cartoonist persona that has obviously benefited the Gamecocks on the recruiting trail.
The recruiting worries from the 2003 season have been a little overblown. Especially considering the amount of talent that was brought in the previous 2 years and the fact that the 2003 class did sign some much needed offensive lineman. We can revisit this topic a year from now, and if the recruiting crop is below standards once again, then we can start to worry.
Scott Rhymer will conclude his second part of the "Bowden at the Crossroads" series later this weekend.
Part I: Bowden at The Crossroads
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