May 2, 2006
CLEMSON -- Since Tommy Bowden arrived at Clemson in December 1998, his ultimate goal has been guiding the Tigers to the Bowl Championship Series.
More often than not, that has seemed somewhat of a hollow aspiration in the short term. Bowden and his assistants always have talked about claiming the school's first BCS bid, but the talk mostly has seemed fanciful because the Tigers seldom have been realistic contenders to reach college football's lucrative promised land.
This year, heading into Bowden's eighth season, the vibe seems different. His coaches are talking BCS, and they're doing so with conviction. It's hard to blame them, because this seems the closest Clemson has come under Bowden to challenging for its first ACC title since 1991.
With 15 starters returning, greatly improved talent and impressive depth, the Tigers are a hot name in the ACC after winning six of their final seven games to finish 8-4 in 2005. There's no doubt that the coaching staff senses that this group could be on the verge of something special.
For Bowden, it seems like just last week that his team was struggling to establish itself in the middle of the ACC pack. As recently as 2004, a perception existed among the fan base and elsewhere that Clemson was being passed in the pecking order by teams it was accustomed to beating.
Back then, the Tigers weren't aiming for the BCS as much as they were shooting for Virginia, Maryland and N.C. State. Those three teams had begun to elevate their profiles with improved coaching, facilities and talent. Under coach Ralph Friedgen, Maryland had beaten Clemson three straight times entering 2004. N.C. State hammered the Tigers in Death Valley in 2002 and won again in 2003 in Raleigh. Virginia thrashed Clemson in 2004, for its third win in four tries against the Tigers.
If Clemson couldn't consistently beat the Terrapins, Wolfpack and Cavaliers, how did the Tigers plan to contend with ACC newcomers Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College? That's the way the thinking went back then.
A year and a half later, Clemson suddenly is sitting pretty. Maryland is trying to recover from back-to-back losing seasons. N.C. State is picking up the pieces on defense, after losing its best players to the NFL. Virginia, by coach Al Groh's own admission, is in rebuilding mode.
After Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami, Clemson appears closest to the upper crust. In the past three seasons, the Tigers are 2-1 against FSU, 1-1 against the Hurricanes.
How have the Tigers moved toward the front of the pack so quickly? By using the same script (better coaching, better facilities, better players) that the Terrapins, Wolfpack and Cavaliers used a few years ago.
Giving total control of the offense to coordinator Rob Spence might have been the smartest move Bowden has made at Clemson, if not in his career. And putting a stronger recruiting emphasis on most of his hires dating to 2003 has paid dividends. So has a substantial upgrade in facilities with the WestZone Project.
Compare the talent, depth and coaching ability of this team with some of Bowden's earlier squads -- say, 2001 or 2002 -- and there's no comparison. What's more, the depth Bowden is accumulating at most positions probably will keep the Tigers from taking a dip similar to those being experienced at Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia.
Rest assured, Clemson still has plenty to prove before it starts looking for hotels in Jacksonville, site of the ACC title game. The Tigers will struggle to contend if their offense settles for as many field goals as it did in 2005. And they probably can forget it if they stub another toe against Wake Forest, a team that has beaten them in two of the past three years.
Keep in mind, this is a team that's only a few ill-placed injuries away from 6-6. That kind of record would plant Bowden squarely on the hot seat, a perch he became well acquainted with in 2003 before a stunning turnaround left Clemson with a 9-4 record.
But this appears to be a program that's capable of winning the Atlantic Division and landing in the BCS. Finally, even the coaches are discussing that capability with confidence.
DRAMA CONTINUES WITH WESTZONE
Until a few weeks ago, the WestZone Project at Memorial Stadium seemed to be moving along smoothly and peacefully. On the rare occasion that athletic director Terry Don Phillips was asked about the project by the media, he said everything was fine and on schedule.
The first phase of the project, which will provide the stadium with almost 1,000 club seats and other amenities, is projected to be completed by June and ready for action by the Sept. 2 opener against Florida Atlantic.
Everything was hunky dory until reporters started digging around and unearthed some interesting revelations. First off, the anticipated cost of the entire project -- projected at $54 million in 2004 -- almost assuredly will surpass $70 million.
Clemson had to borrow $30 million for the first phase, whose cost ($40 million) is $13 million more than originally anticipated. The school also had to take $6 million that was intended for the second phase just to finish off the first phase.
Now no one seems certain when work will begin or end on the second phase, which will move Clemson's entire daily football operations to the stadium. The Tigers cannot start building until they have the money in hand, and the money probably won't be in hand until late 2007 at the earliest.
That means the new coaches' offices, the new weight room, the new training room and other amenities might not be ready until 2009. And a much-hyped museum, planned to celebrate Clemson's athletic success and university heritage, probably won't come until well thereafter.
The news about the escalating costs and the seemingly extended timeline steamed fans who have been told since 1999 that Memorial Stadium was getting a much-needed upgrade. Clemson reacted to the reports by issuing its own report to fans. The heavily spun update was almost all positive, while subtly admitting to the rising costs of the project.
One can only hope that the sequence of events taught Phillips and Clemson to be more forthcoming to supporters who have been left largely in the dark when it comes to the project. Had Clemson provided regular reports detailing the WestZone's progress -- and lack thereof, in some cases -- fans would have been informed. Then, last week's news wouldn't have been nearly as big of a bombshell.