June 30, 2003 CLEMSON Some observers say it's a mistake to take an all-or-nothing approach to the opening game Aug. 30 against Georgia in Death Valley. But to have a good chance to survive for a sixth season, Bowden needs to beat the Bulldogs. A victory over Georgia would put the brakes on the rampant negativity that now engulfs the Clemson program and would give the Tigers something they haven't had in two seasons: credibility. A victory over Georgia would send some of the orange-clad wolves, who currently are howling for Bowden's job, back into the hills.
Of the many raps against Bowden, the one that sticks the most is that in his four seasons at Clemson, he has yet to beat anybody he wasn't supposed to beat.
Bowden points to the overtime victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta in 2001. Tech was a top-10 team at the time, but critics will point out that the Jackets turned into a mediocre team after that loss. Bowden has yet to beat Florida State, and he's extremely lucky to be 3-1 against South Carolina. Rod Gardner should get a small portion of Bowden's paycheck every year for the catch he made against the Gamecocks in 2000.
Last year's game in Athens was supposed to be a blowout the Bulldogs were heavy favorites against the Tigers but that wasn't the case. Clemson's defensive unit held Georgia's offense in check and kept the Tigers in the game. But shoddy special teams and several dropped passes cost Clemson the opportunity to pull off the upset. Georgia converted a fourth-and-inches play in the final minute to hang on to a 31-28 victory.
This year, both teams have lots of questions. Clemson has a new offensive line, no depth at quarterback and holes at linebacker. Georgia has a new offensive line, new running backs and inexperience at linebacker. The noon kickoff on the last Saturday of August should seriously stress the depth of both teams. With temperatures likely to reach 100-plus on the field, it should be a cramp-fest.
Because of bigger conferences and mutual fear of each other, this is the final regular-season meeting between Clemson and Georgia for the foreseeable future. It's a shame the two schools can't play every year, because it's a money game with low travel costs.
In any event, Bowden needs this game. Georgia, coming off a 13-1 season, is in prime position for an upset. A Clemson victory could be a springboard to a possible 4-0 start. A loss would make it extremely difficult for Bowden to reach the magical eight victories he has been asked to reach this season.
If the Tigers pour their heart and soul into the Georgia game and still lose, they certainly will have a chance to recover against Furman and Middle Tennessee State and depleted Georgia Tech before hitting the teeth of the schedule in October.
But a loss to Georgia also means the Tigers will have to beat one of the ACC heavyweights to have a chance for eight victories. The three-game stretch beginning Oct. 4 at Maryland, Virginia, at N.C. State will combine with the Georgia matchup to determine both Clemson's season and Bowden's future.
New Announcer Bleeds Orange
Bowden is sure to get support in at least one place this season the radio booth. The Clemson radio network announced in June that former Clemson offensive guard Will Merritt will be the new color announcer on the network.
Merritt played at Wren High School near Easley and was one of the last players signed by former head coach Tommy West, mainly because Merritt's father is a big supporter of the Clemson athletic program. But the undersized Merritt flourished in the fast-paced offense Bowden ran during his first two seasons at Clemson, and Merritt was good enough to be named to the All-ACC team.
Merritt, who does a sports talk show every morning on a Clemson radio station, almost certainly will be a Bowden apologist. He repeatedly has said he likes Bowden, and he has rarely criticized the Clemson coach on the air.
Merritt's two biggest strengths are his gift of gab and his knowledge of Clemson. His biggest challenge may be meshing with veteran Clemson play-by-play announcer Jim Phillips, who will be working with his third color commentator in the past three seasons.
Shuffled Hoops Staff Concerned
It certainly has to be listed as one of the strangest beginnings in the history of ACC basketball. Just two months into the job, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell already has lost two assistant coaches.
The latest defection was Ron Jirsa, Purnell's top recruiter at Dayton, who decided to accepted the head job at Marshall. Marshall's third choice, Jirsa was anxious to be a head coach once again, after two rocky years at Georgia in the mid-1990s.
Purnell didn't waste any time replacing Jursa. In less than a week, he picked Dr. Ron Bradley as his associate head coach. Bradley has 26 years of coaching experience, 21 at the Division I level. He coached with Purnell at Maryland and Radford.
While continuing to review tapes from last season, Purnell has begun to formulate how he wants his first Clemson team to play. Expect a lot of man-to-man on the defensive end, and an inside-out approach on the offensive end.
Purnell said he wants the Tigers to run when they can. He also said he has been pleasantly surprised by the talent of the post players. The biggest question mark is point guard, where Purnell said he will look at three players: junior Chey Christie, sophomore Shawan Robinson and freshman Vernon Hamilton. Hamilton is the only true point guard in the group.
Purnell said he's not opposed to playing two point guards but that he doesn't want to play three. Privately, the new staff has made clear it isn't thrilled with any of the point guard candidates, but they are hoping at least one of them will develop into a consistent performer. The buzz is that there are better point guards on the staff than on the roster. Because of weakness at the point, pressing and playing against the press will be emphasized during the preseason.
One thing is for certain. Purnell's first team will face the most challenging pre-conference schedule is recent memory. Purdue, Boston College and South Carolina all are on the Clemson schedule in December.
Purnell's six-year contract will pay him $150,000 in salary and $550,000 in outside income per year. The contract includes a lot of incentives and bonuses that could reach almost $500,000 per year. The most interesting clause is a per game bonus. By Oct. 1 each year, AD Terry Don Phillips will give Purnell a list of five games, and the coach will receive a cash bonus if the Tigers win those games. One game that will be on Purnell's bonus list is UNC at Chapel Hill, where the Tigers are winless in their history.
Golf Championship Provided Lift
After one of the most difficult athletic years at Clemson in more than 25 years, the national championship in men's golf was a much-needed piece of good news.
Phillips has worked hard to build a new spirit in the department. Staff meetings now feature cheers and singing of the Clemson alma mater.
But a lack of success in the big three sports football, men's basketball and baseball during the 2002-03 year placed a cloud over the entire department. It seemed as if mediocrity had become contagious. Some Clemson fans began to wonder if the much-publicized Chicken Curse had moved to the northwest.
Enter Larry Penley's golf team, which is the most nationally competitive program at Clemson. It is a group that looks to be solid well into the future. The most amazing fact about the national champions was that all of the players were home-grown. All five starters were from the state of South Carolina.
In 2003-04, Penley will add to the roster three more players from the Palmetto State Brent Delahoussaye, a transfer from South Carolina, and Zack Siefert and Tanner Ervin, the last two Class AAAA individual state champions. Penley, a native of Dallas, N.C., played for the Tigers, and it's difficult to imagine him wanting to coach anywhere else.
Now that the golf team finally has broken through, no one expects Penley's program to stop at just one national title. He already is saying that next year's team could be better than this year's championship team.
Meanwhile, the national title certainly had to please Phillips. The Tigers beat Oklahoma State, Phillips' old school, on the Cowboys' home course in Stillwater.
When James Barker was inaugurated as Clemson's president in October 1999, he listed several goals for the athletic department. In a 10-year period, he wanted the Tigers to win another national championship in football, make two trips to the men's Final Four and win two national championships in Olympic sports. Finally, the golf title represents one significant step forward.