THE CHICK-FIL-A BOWL:
Clemson (9-3) vs. Auburn (8-4), Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier
December 18, 2007
CLEMSON As Tommy Bowden struggled to make up his mind on the morning of Dec. 4, he knew a plane from Arkansas was ready for him.
If Bowden decided to accept a lucrative offer from Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long, he would be whisked away to a press conference in Fayetteville, Ark. If he accepted a counteroffer from Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips, he would remain the leader of a program that appears on the cusp of something special.
The 53-year-old Bowden chose the latter option, after what had all the appearances of a wrenching decision-making process. And it could be convincingly argued that, at least for the near future, keeping the ninth-year coach is the best thing for Clemson.
"It's a contract that recognizes the position our program is in with regard to going to the next level," Phillips said later that day, at a press conference announcing the new deal he struck with Bowden at the 11th hour. "The ability to keep Coach Bowden as our head football coach, and our assistant coaches, provides us the very best opportunity to make that move."
Bowden has yet to usher Clemson to the championship level, and that fact undoubtedly wears on fans as the program drifts farther and farther away from its glory days under Danny Ford. The Tigers' last ACC title was in 1991, and the past three seasons have seen them fall agonizingly short of ending that drought.
They had their best opportunity this year, when Florida State's stunning late-season upset of Boston College put Clemson in the driver's seat of the Atlantic Division. But before a winner-take-all backdrop at Death Valley, the Tigers gagged in a 20-17 defeat to BC and watched the Eagles celebrate their first Atlantic title.
Clemson recovered the next week in a 23-21 victory at South Carolina that put Bowden's No. 15 team in a desirable bowl, the Chick-fil-A against No. 22 Auburn on New Year's Eve.
The Tigers finished the regular season 9-3 and have a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1990. Yet the sour taste of the BC loss still hasn't completely washed away. And it would be a vast stretch to think that Clemson fans unanimously rejoiced when Bowden chose to remain.
But most rational supporters probably realize that Bowden's staying gives the Tigers their best chance to return to the elite level as soon as possible.
"We can achieve the goals of a championship," Bowden said, after he agreed to a raise and an extension through 2014. "I wish I could sit here and tell you when. I don't know when. But I do know it's possible and it will happen."
It could happen next year, when Bowden should welcome back his deepest and most talented team yet. Had Bowden departed, the next guy would have inherited a stocked cupboard but perhaps not as stocked as some would have thought.
Let's start with the players. Three juniors defensive end Phillip Merling, tailback James Davis and safety Michael Hamlin have said they plan to return for their senior year instead of bolting for the NFL. Had Bowden left, all three would have been a good bet to forego their final year of eligibility.
Another junior, quarterback Cullen Harper, also might have left early, depending on what happened to offensive coordinator Rob Spence. And speaking of the assistants, a multitude of strong recruiting ties would have been lost had Bowden taken most if not all of his staff to Arkansas.
For the first time in a long time, rival South Carolina might have gained an advantage on the recruiting trail. The Tigers have dominated the Gamecocks on the field in Bowden's tenure, winning seven of nine. And they have enjoyed a pronounced advantage in in-state recruiting as well.
Phillips probably considered all of those things when he realized that Bowden's leaving for Arkansas was a real possibility. After some snags in negotiations, Phillips came back with an offer Bowden liked: $1.75 million per year, with a chance of exceeding $2.2 million if a plethora of incentives are met; adding four years to a contract that had three remaining; pushing the buyout to $4 million for the first year, $3.5 million for the second, and descending incrementally; and a pledge to strongly consider multi-year contracts for Bowden's assistants.
"Anytime you sign a new contract, you always feel a little better," said Bowden, who is 69-41 with the Tigers and 42-30 in the ACC. "It's kind of like Christmas."
Clemson won five of six games after back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech left the Tigers 4-2 and unranked. A look back at Bowden's tenure shows that this isn't the first time he has parlayed a strong stretch into a lucrative contract.
In 2000, Bowden flirted with Alabama as Clemson rolled to an 8-0 start and a No. 5 ranking in his second year. He was promptly given a new seven-year contract, pushing his salary past $1 million at a time when that distinction wasn't given to many coaches. The Tigers lost three of their last four games to finish 9-3. They followed that with mediocre years in 2001 (7-5) and 2002 (7-6).
In 2003, a horrifying 45-17 loss at Wake Forest left Clemson at 5-4 and produced rampant speculation that Bowden was on his way out. The Tigers responded with four straight victories, including a 26-10 triumph over then-No. 3 Florida State and a 27-14 Peach Bowl victory over then-No. 6 Tennessee, to finish 9-4. Phillips gave Bowden a long extension and a huge buyout that accorded the coach almost impeccable job security. The Tigers then took another dip, losing four of their first five games in 2004 and finishing 6-5.
A similar slide in 2008 doesn't appear likely. This program is in much better shape, thanks to three straight years of solid recruiting, with a fourth good class on the way in February. If everyone returns on defense, Clemson will have 20 of its top 22 players back from a unit that finished the regular season sixth nationally in total defense, 10th in scoring defense and 13th in pass defense.
If the offensive line gets squared away four starters depart again this year, including tackles Barry Richardson and Christian Capote Clemson's offense should be dynamic with the return of Harper, Davis, C.J. Spiller and receiver Aaron Kelly.
The coaching staff should remain mostly intact, bolstered by the head man's newfound job security.
The future looks bright at Clemson, and it seems to look brightest with Bowden running the show.
"We're turning the corner ... to winning eight, nine, 10 games a year," Bowden said. "Your championships are more likely to come when you get to that level."
LB Tramaine Billie, RT Christian Capote, LG Chris McDuffie, RG Brandon Pilgrim, LT Barry Richardson, LB Nick Watkins
WR La'Donte Harris, DS Colin Leonard, S Chris Russell
2008 RETURNING STARTERS^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2008 Class
QB Cullen Harper 6-4/220 Sr.
RB James Davis 5-11/210 Sr
WR Jacoby Ford 5-10/185 Jr.
WR Tyler Grisham 5-11/180 Sr.
WR Aaron Kelly 6-5/190 Sr.
TE Michael Palmer 6-5/245 Jr.
OC Thomas Austin 6-3/315 *Jr.
DT Rashaad Jackson 6-2/280 Sr.
DT Dorell Scott 6-4/320 Sr.
DE Phillip Merling 6-5/280 Sr.
DE Ricky Sapp 6-4/240 Jr.
LB Cortney Vincent 6-0/225 Sr.
S Chris Clemons 6-1/210 Sr.
S Michael Hamlin 6-3/205 Sr.
CB Crezdon Butler 6-0/185 Jr.
CB Chris Chancellor 5-10/170 Jr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Mark Buchholz 6-1/205 Sr.
P Jimmy Maners 6-1/190 Sr.
- has utilized redshirt season
^ - six/more 2007 regular-season starts
- has utilized redshirt season
OTHER TESTED RETURNEES
RB Sadat Chambers, OT Chris Hairston, OG Barry Humphries, OG Bobby Hutchinson, OT Cory Lambert, TE Brian Linthicum, TE Akeem Robinson, RB/KR C.J. Spiller, WR Rendrick Taylor
DE Kevin Alexander, DE Kourtnei Brown, LB Antonio Clay, LB Kavell Conner, LB Scotty Cooper, DE Jamie Cumbie, CB Marcus Gilchrist, DT Jarvis Jenkins, CB Haydrian Lewis, CB Byron Maxwell, S DeAndre McDaniel, DT Jock McKissic, DT Antwon Murchison
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 5-3 (2) 6-6 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (L)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Tangerine Bowl (L)
2003 5-3 (3) 9-4 Peach Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 6-5 None
2005 4-4 (3A) 8-4 Champs Sports (W)
2006 5-3 (2A) 8-5 Music City Bowl (L)
2007 5-3 (2A) 9-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl
ACC: 43-37 (.538)
Overall: 72-49 (.595)
Team 2007 Record^
Duke 1-11 (0-8)
Georgia Tech 7-5 (4-4)
Maryland 6-6 (3-5)
N.C. State 5-7 (3-5)
Central Florida 10-3 (7-1)
Citadel 7-4 (4-3)
South Carolina 6-6 (3-5)
Boston College 10-3 (6-2)
Florida State 7-5 (4-4)
Virginia 9-3 (6-2)
Wake Forest 8-4 (5-3)
Alabama? 6-6 (4-4)
^ - before bowl games (conference)
Note: Finalized times/dates TBA.