July 26, 2004
CLEMSON At this time last year, Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden was talking about the fiery furnace. He was squarely on the hot seat, and his job was on the line.
One year later, after a remarkable four-game run that Bowden refers to as "divine intervention," the coach is talking about Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead.
"Lazarus was dead, and he lived a long time after he was brought back to life," Bowden said. "It was a miraculous turnaround. Divine intervention, as I like to say."
After Wake Forest whipped the Tigers last season, some media outlets wrote Bowden's coaching obituary. Reports swirled that he was going to resign. Of course, he survived. He will enter the 2004 season with a new contract and the promise of a new football-only facility that will begin construction after the season.
"I'm not naive about the pressure and all of that, but it doesn't bother me because I know it's part of the profession," Bowden said. "The fact that I've got a father and a brother in the profession who have experienced similar circumstances. I don't dwell on it a lot. My mental preparation for the preseason events this year is really not any different. I know I'm going to face a different line of questioning this year than I did last year. It's a lot easier. There's no doubt it's a lot easier."
Looking back at what many observers refer to as the turning point in Bowden's career at Clemson the consecutive victories over Florida State, Duke, South Carolina, and Tennessee last fall Bowden credited his staff for helping hold the team together.
"I give the staff a good bit of credit," he said. "Once I meet with the staff, I disperse. When we break for second meetings, it's pretty much the assistant coaches selling the state of the program and that it wasn't a lost cause. I tried to give most of the credit to the players, but the role of the assistant coaches has been underscored a little bit. The staff deals more on a one-on-one basis with the players than I do. They were responsible more than anyone else for holding the ship together during that last stretch."
Thanks to his first victory over the Seminoles, Bowden said the family vacation in Florida this summer was much more pleasant than usual. Even though he had bragging rights for the first time, he said it was still difficult to talk trash to his father.
"He's (Bobby Bowden) still the king in Florida," Tommy said. "I would have had to bring him up here to really appreciate it and rub it in. We had a good vacation, but the subject was never brought up."
Everyone knows that's not true. Everyone knows that Bobby got an earful, especially after that "go recruit" comment at midfield a few years ago, after he beat Tommy 54-7 in Tallahassee.
Even though the 2004 schedule is one of the toughest Clemson has faced in many years, the ACC did give Bowden a big carrot when it scheduled Wake Forest for the Tigers' home opener. The team will have three weeks instead of three days to prepare for the Demon Deacons' motion-filled offense, which rushed for almost 700 yards in the last two games between the two schools.
"You can get in more reps in three weeks," Bowden said. "It's more time to see that particular formation and that motion and adjust to that. I'm hoping the three extra weeks gives us more repetition to focus on their schemes."
The last time Bowden produced a nine-win season at Clemson, he followed it up with two seven-win seasons. Is the program is better shape now that it was then?
"For the program to reach its full potential, there are some facility issues we have to address," Bowden said. "So, are we in better shape? No, not really, because nothing has been done yet. We've got a commitment to start after the season, but the expectations are the same. We have to be realistic with the expectations."
The questions about his job security have been answered, but Bowden knows the pressure is still on. Because of last season's fast finish, the expectations of the Clemson fans are almost as high as they have ever been, even though the schedule is a real gauntlet.
"It's possible this team could be better than last year but not have a better record because of the schedule," Bowden said. "That's entirely possible. I would say the last 15 years in terms of national championships won and games won, both Miami and Florida State would be up there. And we play both of them on the road. I don't know if Clemson has ever faced a tougher schedule."
Bowden knows as long as he's the head coach at Clemson, he's only as good as his last game.
"They (the negative reports) will surface again as soon as I lose," he said. "It's a cycle in this profession. At some point in time, we will lose another game. At some point in time, there will be another Wake Forest."
Non-Qualifiers: Ugly But Expected
When Alabama defensive tackle Jacquez McKissic announced in mid-July that he had failed to qualify academically, he became the seventh player from Clemson's 2004 signing class who will be unable join the Tigers this season.
While the academic news was both ugly and embarrassing veteran ACC observers couldn't remember a conference team ever losing seven signees in a single year the situation isn't quite as desperate as it may look on the surface.
Clemson signed 26 players in February, but the Tigers knew all along that they had room for only 22. The seven who failed to qualify were McKissic, defensive end Durrell Barry, defensive tackle Elsmore Gabriel, offensive tackle Cory Lambert, defensive end Phillip Merling, defensive tackle Rashad Jackson and wide receiver Phillip Morris. An eighth signee, defensive end Xavier Littleberry, faced NCAA Clearinghouse complications entering August but said he expected to be approved as soon as a question about his high school transcript can be resolved.
Several sources close to the program said the only player Clemson might miss this season is Lambert, a 6-7, 300-pounder who was the only consensus All-American in the Tigers' disappointing 2004 class. Bowden was thinking about putting Lambert into the mix this fall, mainly because the Tigers desperately need help at offensive tackle.
When asked about the non-qualifiers, Bowden said it was a good thing they didn't qualify, because of the numbers game. The coach also noted, correctly, that it's not unusual for schools to sign more players than there are scholarships available. He said a much bigger problem would have occurred if the Tigers had signed only 22 prospects, then lost seven or eight to academic shortcomings.
Season Tickets Sold Out Early
Clemson fans are hyped and ready for the 2004 season.
The school announced during the second week in July that there are no more season tickets available for the upcoming season. Although no number was announced officially, insiders said it is in the neighborhood of 58,000 tickets.
The Tigers' home schedule, highlighted by Georgia Tech and South Carolina, is attractive but not electric. Some fans may be getting in the door this season so they can get tickets for the 2005 home schedule, which will include Florida State and Miami.
Single-game tickets are still available for every home game except South Carolina. Of course, if the Tigers get off to a good start, those single-game tickets also will disappear.
More Cash For Bowden, Purnell
According to published reports, both Bowden and basketball coach Oliver Purnell received bonuses for their work during 2003-04.
Bowden received a bonus of almost $41,000 for winning eight regular-season games and earning a bowl bid. Purnell picked up a check for $15,000 for beating four teams that went to the NCAA Tournament.
Purnell also got one of his assistants a healthy raise. Ace recruiter Kevin Nickelberry received a $30,000 raise, increasing his annual pay to $100,000.