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Through Wins, Losses, Purnell Raising Bar

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff


January 17, 2005 CLEMSON — After watching his young team get drilled at home by Wake Forest 103-68 on Jan. 8, coach Oliver Purnell stewed for a little while. Then he got mad. Purnell praised Wake after the Demon Deacons handed the Tigers their worst loss ever in Littlejohn Coliseum and their worst home loss in 50 years. But he was upset because his team didn't play its normal aggressive style. Wake's 103 points were the most scored against Clemson since Purnell became the head coach. Purnell was so upset by the loss that he wanted to practice his team on Sunday. But because of the weekly off day required by the NCAA, Purnell had to wait until Monday. So he made up for the off day by holding two practices on Monday. "We wanted to deliver the message that what happened in the Wake game was unacceptable," Purnell said. "I gave Wake credit after the game and publicly. But we didn't play Clemson basketball. We don't have to play perfectly, but we do have to play aggressively." Purnell described Monday's two practices as "physical." On Tuesday, Purnell held one short practice that was more than just a walk-through. "We were flying around, and we had some guys with some blurred vision," Purnell said. "If we don't play that way, we can't hang in there." Purnell said he believes his team responds better to tougher practices, so the Tigers probably will be getting after each other for the rest of the season. The buzz word here is confidence. After battling Duke and getting hammered by Wake, Purnell was worried about his players losing confidence. So he got after them, made them tougher, and made them meaner. The most immediate results were a road victory at Florida State, then a near-miss at Virginia Tech. Prior to the road victory at FSU on Jan. 12, the Tigers had won only three of their last 49 ACC road games. Clemson's 56-54 victory over the Seminoles was just its third victory ever in Tallahassee. "This was important for us, especially since we were coming off our worst outing of the season," Purnell said. "It's so difficult to win on the road in the ACC, but we've played good on the road this season — Boston College, South Carolina, Duke." The victory at FSU also was Clemson's 10th of the season, tying the Tigers' victory total in Purnell's first campaign. What type of mental and physical toughness has Purnell brought to town? The team got out-shot by Florida State in all three areas and still won. At Virginia Tech, the Tigers should have made it two road victories in a row. But some awful execution on the offensive end in the second half and two late turnovers — the first on an inbounds pass after a made basket — doomed them to yet another ACC road loss. With the game tied at 57, Clemson, which blew a seven-point halftime lead, had the ball with a chance to win. But sophomore guard Vernon Hamilton threw a sloppy pass that led to the Hokies' winning basket, a dunk by Carlos Dixon with 6.9 seconds remaining. If the Tigers learned one thing during the second week of January, they learned that not playing all-out will get an instant reaction from Purnell every time. Bowden Hires Filled With Subplots When last we left Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden, he was fussing and fibbing with the media during a December press conference. After the great coaching purge of 2004, Bowden took his time filling the three vacant positions on his staff. But he finally got it done in early January, so his new group was in place for the first big recruiting weekend on Jan. 15-16. Clemson's new coaches are:

  • Rob Spence, offensive coordinator. Called the "Mad Scientist" at Toledo, Spence is a strong proponent of the one-back offense. In his four years at Toledo, the Rockets were in the top 20 in total offense every season.
  • Vic Koenning, defensive coordinator. A flop as a head coach at Wyoming (5-29), Koenning developed a defensive unit at Troy that was 16th in total defense, eighth against the run and second in turnovers gained in 2004.
  • Marion Hobby, defensive assistant. Hobby, who played college football at Tennessee, most recently coached defensive ends at Mississippi.

While Bowden remained silent, all three hires were announced by every major news outlet in South Carolina, along with every unofficial Clemson-related website. The reason given for the lack of an official announcement was some delays in the required background checks. Spence finally was announced on Jan. 13. As of Jan. 16, Koenning and Hobby still had not been officially introduced. The three hires left many Clemson fans wondering. Who are these guys? Why is Bowden raiding mid-majors for coordinators? Can't he hire anybody from a major Division I-A school? Perhaps not. The Tigers missed out on LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher (stayed at LSU) and former Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora (Oklahoma State), among others, during the annual December-January coaching carousel. During his search, Bowden even talked to Bobby Bentley, the head coach of perennial state Class 4A power Byrnes in Duncan, S.C. Bentley runs a wide-open offense and has sent several wide receivers to Division I colleges. But insiders said the talks broke off when Bentley decided he had more security at Byrnes than he would have had at Clemson. The biggest question is this: Are Bowden's new coordinators ready for the prime time? After Bowden went undefeated at Tulane and brought his gimmicky Indy 500 offense to Clemson, more than one pundit speculated that the coach would have success until the defensive coordinators in the ACC caught up with him. That speculation has become reality. Bowden often blames rules changes for forcing him to make alterations in his offensive approach, but that can't explain everything. Anyone who has watched Clemson's offense for the past two seasons will tell you one thing: It's a mess. It doesn't need an oil change. It needs a new engine. Perhaps Bowden finally has realized that he can't fix it on his own. He admitted after Spence was introduced to the media that he had lost his way offensively, that Clemson had fallen behind the times. "We were ahead of the curve, but I didn't do a good job of keeping up with the Joneses," Bowden said. "(Spence) has done a better job than I have. He has a track record that is pretty impressive. He had the productivity that I have messed up. I have hired a guy to fix the machine." The Tigers will be different under Spence, who has said he doesn't mind taking chances. Spence, who has worked numerous summer camps with Bowden, should not waste any time watching last year's game films. He should just start from scratch. He inherits a one-back offense with a veteran quarterback (Charlie Whitehurst) who is not a running threat, who completed just 50 percent of his passes last season. Whitehurst's confidence will have to be rebuilt in 2005, along with the offense. One interesting subplot in the hiring of Koenning to run the defense involved linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator David Blackwell. One of Bowden's top assistants since coming to Clemson from Pittsburgh, Blackwell doesn't have any hobbies. With him, it's all about coaching football and recruiting. Blackwell was considered a strong candidate for the coordinator role until Bowden hired Koenning, who also coaches linebackers. After Koenning was hired, reports started swirling that Blackwell was going to leave Clemson. National champion Southern California, South Carolina and a couple of pro teams supposedly called. But as of mid-January, Blackwell was still on the Clemson staff. Koenning even tried to smooth over the situation by saying he would coach the secondary and keep Blackwell on linebackers. There are at least two positives about Koenning. His Troy defense forced 35 turnovers (25 interceptions) last season, and he played in the NFL. Clemson forced just 16 turnovers last season, its lowest total in more than 40 years.