CLEMSON - No pun intended, but the hottest topic at the
ACC Football Kickoff at Pinehurst was this: Is Clemson coach Tommy Bowden on
the hot seat?
EXTENDS BEYOND 2002
Even Bowden said his nieces and nephews were calling him "the hot coach" during the family's July vacation, and that he had to explain the difference between "hot coach" and "hot seat."
Important fact No. 1: In three years, Bowden has won one more game than Tommy West won in his first three years with the Tigers. Important fact No. 2: Bowden has been paid about $1.4 million annually, more than three times what West was paid. Bowden took the lead over West in the Humanitarian Bowl, which Clemson purchased with the help of the ACC office. Bowden must win six games this season to reach West's four-year total of 28 victories.
The Sporting News got the criticism of Bowden started earlier this summer when it called him "the dot com of coaches." All style, no substance, etc. That article sure got the regional media all cranked up.
So is Bowden really on the hot seat? Most Clemson fans say no, and that's probably correct. The general belief is that Bowden has at least two more years, probably three, to produce a big winner. If he can't get it done in that time period, then he'll have a problem.
Of course, any more performances like the horrid effort against North Carolina last season could knock some serious chunks of time off Bowden's clock. Clearly, there are some people within the Clemson athletic department who have cooled on the coach.
One source of frustration for some administrators and many fans is the style Bowden's teams play. The offense is not smash-mouth, and the defense has lost its physical edge. (Funny how West was vilified for being too smash-mouth.) Bowden hopes to solve both of those problems this fall. Quarterback Willie Simmons is expected to kick-start the offense by improving the passing game, while new defensive coordinator John Lovett is expected to put the teeth back into what was a woeful defensive unit last fall.
Bowden said Simmons will start in the opener against Georgia, but he stopped short of giving the redshirt junior the "he's my quarterback" endorsement he offered to Woodrow Dantzler. Instead, if Simmons struggles early, Bowden has promised a quick hook. Charlie Whitehurst, a redshirt freshman who has been very impressive with his grasp of the offense and his decision-making skills, is waiting in the wings.
One of the behind-the-scenes criticisms when Bowden was hired was that his wide-open offense, successful in Conference USA, would fall flat in the ACC. Offensively, Clemson was one-dimensional last season thanks to Dantzler, who was a thrilling athlete but just couldn't pull the trigger in the passing game.
Clemson's four ACC losses in 2001 were to Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. FSU has a veteran defensive coordinator in Mickey Andrews. The other three schools have head coaches with pro football experience at the coordinator level or above. None of them had any trouble figuring out how to handle the Tigers.
Early Schedule Doesn't Help
The direction of Bowden's fourth season at Clemson may be determined early. In the first five weeks of the season, the Tigers face Georgia (Aug. 31) and Florida State (Oct. 3), both on ESPN, and Georgia Tech (Sept. 14) at home. With three losses in those games, there will be a mass exodus off the bandwagon.
The Georgia game is an interesting opener because of the history between the two schools. Georgia used to kick Clemson around as a warm-up game before entering SEC play. But Charley Pell changed all that in 1977. From 1977-87, Clemson and Georgia had the fiercest rivalry in college football. Clemson fans remember those great games, but times have changed.
After a dip during the Ray Goff era, Georgia is on its way back. The Bulldogs, who have won the last three meetings against the Tigers, have a veteran offensive line, depth at quarterback and enough experience on defense to make things difficult on the Tigers. The Tigers have a quarterback with limited experience, an untested offensive line and a defensive unit full of question marks. Most signs point to a loss between the hedges for the Tigers.
Bowden already is in his excuse mode. He said during his first media day at Clemson in mid-July that no Clemson coach ever won the ACC title by beating Georgia and then losing to N.C. State. In other words, don't be too disappointed if the Tigers get drilled in Athens.
After whipping Louisiana Tech for the second time in 10 months, the Tigers will welcome Georgia Tech to Death Valley. The last six games between Clemson and Tech have been decided by three points or less. The Tigers snapped a four-game losing streak to the Yellow Jackets last season, thanks to a super-human effort by Dantzler and a Tech defense that lost all concept of tackling. Lose to Tech, and the Tigers can kiss any their already faint hopes for the ACC title goodbye. A home win over Ball State won't change that.
The last time the Tigers traveled to Tallahassee, Daddy ran it up on Tommy 54-7, then met him at midfield and told him to go recruit. If Daddy hammers Tommy that bad again on national TV, Daddy might have to help Tommy find another job. The trend for several years now has been for Clemson to play FSU close at home and get hammered in Tallahassee. In their last three trips south, the Tigers have been outscored 136-10. They desperately need to reverse that trend this season, but the odds are against it.
It would be unfair, even by Clemson's lofty standards, to expect the Tigers to come out of that opening stretch with a 5-0 record. A 4-1 mark would be wonderful, and even 3-2 would keep alive the possibility of a nine-win regular season. With anything less than 3-2, however, any hopes of a special season will be down the drain.
Coach Records First Fumble
At his outing for the Clemson media in mid-July, Bowden said he hired new defensive coordinator John Lovett even though Lovett is "a Yankee and a Catholic."
It took about a week, but one media outlet finally wrote a story about the quote. Bowden explained himself by saying it was an inside joke, and that Southern Baptists think they're the only ones who are going to heaven. It was interesting to note that several of the journalists in attendance were Catholics from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, as is Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret.
There's no doubt that Bowden learned the hard way that he is now under a microscope like never before. His future attempts at humor probably will be politically correct, and that's probably good news to some in his audience and bad news to others.
Littlejohn Closed For Season
As the Sports Journal reported in an earlier edition, both Clemson basketball teams will play their entire schedules at Anderson's 5,000-seat Civic Center this season.
Shortly after the 2001-02 campaign, Clemson officials said they expected to be back in Littlejohn by January 2003, but that's not going to happen. Men's coach Larry Shyatt has been quoted as saying that the home slate will be played in Anderson, and schedules are now starting to circulate with Anderson listed for all home games.
The Anderson facility might be a blessing in disguise for the embattled Shyatt. For the first time in several years, Clemson will have a true home-court advantage. The Civic Center of Anderson will make Cameron look like the Dean Dome. It will be a tough ticket for any visiting team, because of the students and the team's 4,500 season-ticket holders.