By Bob Spear, Columbia (S.C.) State
August 23, 2004
CLEMSON Where there had been despair, there is hope. Optimism replaces grumbling among the orange-clad faithful, and cohesiveness takes over from selfishness in the locker room.
The metamorphosis that described Clemson's Tigers on the eve of the 2004 football season ranked among the most remarkable in college football, and great expectations realistically take their place in Tigertown for the first time in a long time. Perhaps the outlook has not been this rosy since Danny Ford prowled the sidelines 15 years ago.
Of course, Tommy Bowden sends out a coach's warning: We could be a better football team with a worse record. The expanded and strengthened ACC validates his point; the schedule sends the Tigers to Miami, rather than North Carolina, this season.
Even so, who would have believed this unbridled enthusiasm? Who would have envisioned the Tigers looking forward with anticipation after their debacle an embarrassing 45-17 loss to Wake Forest in the ninth game last year? Who would have envisioned the school selling out its 2004 season tickets, more than 57,000, with its biggest conference games on the road?
If ever a program executed an about-face over night, Clemson's did. The team stampeded by Wake one week routed third-ranked Florida State the next. The Tigers then put an exclamation point on their flying finish with a thorough thrashing of No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
We played like one of the best five or six teams in the country over those last four games, assistant head coach Brad Scott said, looking back to the 4-0 streak, which also included one-sided victories over Duke and South Carolina.
His days on the FSU staff, and his five years competing against SEC heavyweights during his head coaching stint at South Carolina, qualified Scott to pass judgment. The unanswered question: What took the Tigers so long to change from king of the underachievers and shed the shackles of mediocrity?
The players will talk about the 2003 problems, but they prefer to look ahead. Defensive end Moe Fountain cited the Tigers' theme for 2004: Let's start the way we finished and finish the way we finished.
If they put their theory into practice, the Tigers can contend even in a stronger ACC. If not, well, they don't want to think about an encore of their nine weeks in turmoil.
The Tigers made their triumphant exit from the Georgia Dome in January with cries of We're back! We're back! echoing through the arena. But in the sobering daylight of another day, Bowden cautioned, (The strong finish) shows we're headed in the right direction, but we have just started. It's a long road.
The thing is, the ACC that Ford's Clemson teams dominated in the 1980s is not today's ACC. First, Florida State seized control, and now Miami provides a second national power. Also, others in the league have emerged with ambitions similar to the Tigers'.
Beating FSU so convincingly might be the vital building block. The Tigers had not whipped the Seminoles in 14 seasons, and Clemson had never defeated a team that highly ranked. The decision just might provide added dividends for the conference, ending the father-son hoopla and establishing a rivalry on merit.
Let us beat them again before we start talking rivalry, Bowden said. If we could, I expect that third game would be pretty cold-blooded.
To reach that goal, the Tigers will have to deliver on their theme: Start and finish strong. And to do that, Bowden knows his defense holds the key. His Clemson teams thrive on offense, and points should come in abundance again this season.
What we need to succeed, the coach said, is to play defense like we did in those final four games.
Ah, yes, those final four games will be the measuring stick for 2004. In that streak, Clemson bounced back from the Wake debacle to overwhelm Florida State 26-10, limiting the Seminoles to 11 yards on 17 rushing attempts. In the bowl game, Tennessee finished with 38 yards on the ground.
Look at the teams that play for championships, Bowden said. Those teams can score, but defense separates them.
In those final four games, Clemson yielded only six touchdowns, but Bowden demands more.
We have to get to the point where we are getting more turnovers, he said. To play at a high level and win championships, you have to be an outstanding defense and create opportunities for your offense. Most of the time, you do that by creating turnovers and giving your offense a short field.
We can do that, said Leroy Hill, the Tigers' latest secretary of defense. Hill came out of nowhere to become the latest outstanding performer in a long line of Clemson linebackers. A player who had never started a game prior to 2003, he ranked among the national leaders in tackles for loss (27) and first hits (145). Defense, Hill said, is a matter of attitude, and a change in attitude fueled the Tigers' late-season surge.
There were more people out for themselves than the team, cornerback Tye Hill said. It was more off the field, guys not taking it seriously, not trying to improve themselves, and that's being selfish when you're part of a team.
Fountain tempered the thought, saying, We might have just had a little more individuality.
But no one disputes the turning point. After the Wake game, in which Clemson trailed 45-0, Bowden told the team he expected to beat FSU the following Saturday. Perhaps the players thought their coach had lost his sense of reality, but they responded. A players-only meeting helped, and the Tigers assumed a revitalized attitude.
Sure, they had heard the rumors that Bowden would be fired. Indeed, the coach had to deny an internet report that athletic director Terry Don Phillips had asked for his resignation.
All that was kind of motivation for us, Fountain said.
That the Tigers had become a different team became obvious quickly against Florida State. Clemson led 13-0 at the half and 26-3 before the Seminoles tallied a late touchdown. FSU never had a chance, and Bowden passed on his opportunity to snap back at his critics. Later, he talked about the range of emotions he felt during the final minutes: family, fans, job security, Clemson.
I'd like to retire at Clemson, Bowden said, and I know the school we have to beat to establish credibility, and we had done it.
Defense might be the ingredient that must deliver to a high degree if the Tigers plan to reach the so-called next level, but no matter what, all eyes will be on the offense in general and quarterback Charlie Whitehurst in particular.
Whitehurst, a junior, is mentioned in preseason Heisman Trophy speculation, and he has attracted attention from the national media. No wonder; he already holds 33 school records after 18 starts, passing for 5,115 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Bowden remembers wrestling with the decision to change his starting quarterback during the 2002 season. Willie Simmons had waited three years for his turn, but the Tigers had struggled to a 4-3 start, and the coach looked for a spark after a 38-6 drubbing from N.C. State.
You want to give your (upperclassmen) every chance, but the team comes first, Bowden said. Some quarterbacks have what I call ëit,' and Charlie does. I can't define ëit,' but he is a guy who makes everyone better.
For the offense to sizzle again, Whitehurst will focus on cutting down on his 13 interceptions, and he must adjust to a new set of receivers. Derrick Hamilton, who went to the NFL after his junior season, particularly will be missed.
Who does more for his team than (Clemson's) No. 21? a rival coach asked last season.
The numbers do not begin to tell what he means to this team, Scott said. He makes the defense protect the perimeter, and that's why we had so much success running inside in the Peach Bowl. Just the threat of him (on end-around plays) opens the middle.
Look for receiver Airese Currie, an All-American sprinter in track, to stretch defenses this season. Chansi Stuckey, a converted quarterback, is another shifty playmaker at wideout. Their potential became more important after starting tailback Duane Coleman broke his right foot in preseason workouts. He's expected to be sidelined through the first four games a stretch that includes the return match against FSU.
(The injury) is like losing Derrick Hamilton unexpectedly, offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain said. I don't know what the impact will be yet. Obviously, we're not nearly as good a football team without him.
Nevertheless, a quarterback of Whitehurst's talents can cover a multitude of shortcomings, and the Tigers started fall practice with a totally different outlook. Positives have replaced the negatives. No questions are asked about the coach's future; Bowden received a raise and a three-year extension. The players talk about starting fast and contending for the ACC championship and beyond.
I think we can compete with anybody, Whitehurst said. To beat the No. 3 and No. 6 teams (in 2003) I don't know that we're at that level yet, but we're pretty close.
Bowden sees complacency as a potential enemy, thus he juggled his coaching staff and harped repeatedly on team leadership in looking toward the opening game against Wake Forest. He pronounced himself satisfied with the Tigers' strong finish, then threw down the gauntlet to his team.
We have higher goals for this program, Bowden said. We want to play in BCS bowls, we want to earn higher national rankings, and we want to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. To do those things, we have to be more consistent from one year to the next. Some people say we're back, but we won't be back until we show more consistency.
The fans expect that consistency to be on display this fall, even against what Bowden said might be the toughest schedule in school history. Those great expectations, Leroy Hill said, are welcome. How long will the euphoria last?
Bowden pondered the question and decided, Probably until we lose a game.
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