Part II: Bowden at The Crossroads

A fact that remains part of the Bowden-at-Clemson puzzle is the tremendous improvement of the Atlantic Coast Conference in football. I doubt very seriously Bowden knew that the ACC was about to turn the corner in regards to being a football conference when he took the job back in late 1998.

A Football Conference
A fact that remains part of the Bowden-at-Clemson puzzle is the tremendous improvement of the Atlantic Coast Conference in football. I doubt very seriously Bowden knew that the ACC was about to turn the corner in regards to being a football conference when he took the job back in late 1998. Since Florida State's inclusion into the conference in 1992, people have been saying that the ACC would improve the talent level overall on the football field. But, for almost 10 years, that improvement was sketchy at best.

It now appears that 7 of the 9 schools in the conference are going to be consistently Top 40 football programs on a year in year out basis. With the exception of Wake Forest and Duke, the seven remaining schools are pumping adequate money into facilities and coaches that will allow any of these seven schools to compete for BCS Bowl Bids and ACC Championships on any given year in football. Wake Forest, despite less funding than the other seven are getting, has hired a coach that will make the Deacons a good enough football team to challenge for a bowl game every year. As for Duke…well they are most certainly in a class all their own in football.

Clemson fans moan the fact that other teams are building their programs quicker than Clemson has under Bowden. Maryland, NC State, and Virginia have all leaped over Clemson in terms of wins and national prestige. They all did it in relatively quick time frames, hence causing the frustration.

There is no arguing the success of those three teams as well as the steady improvement of Georgia Tech and North Carolina. The ACC, for the first time in its history, is a conference that only good football teams are going to win games on any given Saturday. The days of being average and beating up on bad teams half the year in the ACC is OVER.

Is that Bowden's fault? Most certainly not. Will Bowden still be held accountable to wins and losses regardless of the improvement of the conference? You better believe it.

3-1 Vs. Their Legend
Bowden does have a few cards in his hand that ultimately help him. At the forefront of those positives is Bowden's success against archrival South Carolina.

Despite winning 2 New Year's bowl games in 4 years, the Gamecocks have remained the second fiddle when playing the Tigers in November. All 4 games have been extremely competitive, but the Tigers have been able to out play and out coach the Gamecocks three of the four years.

Beating South Carolina, by itself, does not offer a coach at Clemson a free pass to stink it up the remaining 10 or 11 games a year. But downing the Gamecocks 75% of the time will give a little latitude that winning only 25% of the time would not.

Bowden has shown a good appreciation of the rivalry, stating before the game this year he now realized the importance of winning every year after losing in 2001. Holtz and his staff have yet, at least publicly, to embrace the rivalry with the passion that folks inside this state have. You almost get the impression that Holtz would rather beat Tennessee or Florida just as much as he would like to beat Clemson.

As long as Clemson beats South Carolina, there will at least be cards in Bowden's hand that he can play when backed against the wall. Cards Bowden most certainly needs.

Its Go Time On Facilities
One thing that Clemson needs to do in the next few years is win football games for the fans. But, Clemson needs to win football games to also appease the business/industry clients that Terry Don Phillips envisions spending money on Clemson's proposed West Endzone renovation.

The renovations that have taken place at Death Valley the past 2 years have been mostly aesthetic. Don't get me wrong; it was a much-needed face-lift to the exterior and underbelly of the stadium. But the changes were the type of changes that don't generate dollars to the Athletic Department and IPTAY.

Phillips brilliant and bold plan for the West Endzone is an entirely different beast. A main purpose of the West Endzone renovations will be to cater to a clientele that will spend big bucks to earn the right to sit in the box area. The West Endzone has the potential to be a cash cow during the season as well as during the off-season…something that is not currently available anywhere in Death Valley.

People won't pay big bucks to sit in the West Endzone if the product on the field is not winning and winning with excitement. When you pump the kind of money into a project like Phillips is pumping into the West Endzone, you want to maximize the return you get on it. If losing football games is stunting that return, you can easily see that Phillips will be forced to make changes and make changes quick.

Terry Don Phillips—Washing His Hands Clean An Athletic Director admits he made a mistake hiring a coach when he has to fire that coach he hired. That is why, many times, you see coaches get extra years to coach a team, even when the results on the field don't warrant those extra years. An AD has a hard time, rightfully so, firing a guy that he praised so highly just years before.

Terry Don Phillips has walked into a unique, if not out of the ordinary, situation. Phillips was not at Clemson when Tommy Bowden was hired back in 1998. Former Clemson Athletic Director Bobby Robinson sought after and got Bowden when Tommy West was fired. And in 2000, when Alabama was courting Bowden, Robinson is the guy that anteed up and gave Bowden a raise.

Phillips walks in last year with a head football coach under his watch that gets paid 1 million dollars and had just won 7 games. In Bowden's first year under the reign of Phillips, that same 1 million dollars got the Tigers another 7 wins.

Phillips is standing here wondering the same thing most of us are. Is Clemson getting what they are paying for with Tommy Bowden? That answer cannot be fully answered until the 2003 season plays out, but you can bet that Phillips expects more from his football program than 7 wins.

Add to Phillips decision-making is the fact that Bowden allows teams to court him. Alabama did it in 2000, and Baylor did it in 2002. Bowden has the right to listen. If I were in his position, I would listen too. But, I do wonder the patience level Phillips has in having a coach he did not hire listening to every overture that comes his way. Does this bother Phillips? Yes. Is it unethical of Bowden? No. Will this dating game of Bowden wear thin with Phillips? Probably…especially if the 7 win seasons continue.

What it all boils down to is that the chain for Bowden is going to be shorter with Phillips because Terry Don has no personal investment in Bowden. Bowden is not Phillip's guy. Whether they get along well or not is banter for message boards and chat rooms. But, there is no doubt that Bowden is NOT Phillip's coach. He is Clemson's coach.

Terry Don would love nothing more than to extend Bowden's contract after a 10 or 11 win season. But Phillips is not going to bend over backwards for Bowden because Phillips did not hire Bowden. That mantra falls on Bobby Robinson…for better or for worse.

2003-The Defining Year
Throwing all of the above into an imaginary database, you get the impression that the 2003 year will either make or break Tommy Bowden and his staff at Clemson. Exactly one year from now, Clemson will either have turned the corner and Bowden will still be coach or another underachieving year will have spelled Bowden's doom and we will have a new coach.

A quick scan of the schedule offers hope and dread all wrapped in one. The non-conference games offer two gimmies (Furman and Middle Tennessee State), and two tough rivalry games (Georgia and at South Carolina).

Most of the ACC will be improved, but the ACC home games are all games that Clemson could…if not should…win (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida State, Duke). Clemson most likely will be favored in at least 2 of the 4, but expecting them to win 3 of the 4 would be realistic in my opinion.

The road ACC games, at least on paper, are pretty tough. The Tigers travel to Georgia Tech, Maryland, N.C. State, and Wake Forest. Clemson may be favored in 2 of the 4 games, and earning a split would be a pretty solid accomplishment.

So, how many games does Clemson have to win in 2003 to ensure a safe off season for Bowden and his staff? Even the past 2 years, which have both been disappointing, saw the Tigers go 4-4 in conference play. No question that needs to improve, but not by as much as some may think. Clemson can make a nice step forward by simply going 5-3 in the ACC next year. With 2 of the 4 non-conference games being automatic wins, splitting the other 2 would be considered a pretty solid year. Based on those numbers, I think it is safe to expect 8 wins and 4 losses next year.

Cutting to the chase. 9+ wins next year obviously solidifies Bowden at Clemson. 8 wins next year (regardless of who the wins are against) most certainly ensures a return for Bowden and his staff. Below that, it gets blurry.

7 wins (if one of the wins were against South Carolina) puts Bowden on the bubble. I think he would be safe with 7 wins (one against the Gamecocks) if the losses were all respectable, and not embarrassing (ala N.C. State, Maryland, and Texas Tech).

7 wins with a loss to South Carolina would give Terry Don Phillips a very tough decision. I would imagine a lot of the decision would have to do with the way the games were won and lost, the morale of the team, Bowden's relationship with Phillips, etc.

Anything less than 7 wins almost certainly means the end of the Bowden era at Clemson. You hate to put a number on it, but why write an article about Bowden and the Clemson program if you are not going to quantify it.

At Peace
Many Clemson fans are stressed out about the 2002 season, the recruiting, and the uncertainty of the Bowden era. I take the complete opposite approach.

Tommy Bowden is no doubt at a crossroads as the head coach at Clemson. He will either get the job done in 2003 or he won't. If he does, he will remain as the coach. If he does not, he will be gone.

I want Bowden to succeed because I want Clemson to succeed. I also happen to think that Bowden and his staff are good coaches that only need a break or two to turn the corner here at Clemson.

But I don't lay awake at night worrying about it. It will either happen, or it won't. Success would be great, but hiring a new coach offers its own excitement. There is a good deal more talent here at Clemson than in 1998. If Bowden can maximize it, then great. But, if he can't, there is a coach out there that can.

Either way, Clemson is headed for better days soon. The next 4 years will provide substantially more wins than the last 4 years…I truly believe that.

The mystery lies as to who will be coaching those wins…

Scott Rhymer can be reached at Top Stories