Teflon Tommy: When Will Enough Be Enough for Bowden?

Kristofer GreenSenior Writer ISeptember 3, 2008

This was supposed to be Clemson’s year.  The Tigers had everything going for them: a number nine ranking in the preseason polls, an experienced and proven quarterback, two outstanding running backs, and a defense that returned eight starters and on paper looked to be killer.

The Tigers were everyone’s preseason favorite to win the ACC title, and this is by far Tommy Bowden’s best team ever.

So what happened?

The Alabama Crimson Tide happened—and Tommy Bowden has once again squandered a golden opportunity.


His Father’s Business

Tommy Bowden never knew anything else.  From the time he was a child he was surrounded by football.

It was his father who gave him an opportunity to play football in college. His father was the head coach at West Virginia when Tommy walked-on as a wide receiver.

It was also his father who gave him his first coaching job. Tommy’s older brother Terry and younger brother Jeff also got their coaching starts with their father.

Tommy would spend time with several programs and in several positions, including Florida State (DB coach), Duke (QB coach and OC), Alabama (WR coach), Kentucky (OC), and Auburn (OC), where his older brother Terry was the head coach.

Tommy got his first opportunity as a head coach in 1997 at Tulane. His time at Tulane was very successful, and in his second season he lead them to an undefeated season. Although the Green Wave finished the season ranked in the top 10 in both final polls, they didn’t play a ranked opponent the entire season.

In 1999 Tommy accepted the head coaching job at Clemson, and in nine seasons he has accumulated a record of 69-42. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like such a bad record.

A Deeper Look

The Clemson football program has never been short on talent under Tommy, yet they have never won the ACC championship.

Tommy has taken the Tigers to a bowl game every year except in 2004, when the Tigers declined an invitation as punishment for an on-field brawl with rival South Carolina, but they have a 3-5 record in those bowls.

Tommy’s teams have shown consistency in only one area: being inconsistent.

This season isn’t the first time the Tigers have come into the season with great expectations. In 2004 and 2006, the Tigers were ranked in the top 20 to begin the season. Both teams had a slew of returning starters, excellent skill players, and defenses that should have been dominant.

Both teams underachieved and finished the season unranked with five losses.

The fact is that every season under Tommy, the Tigers have underachieved, and the 2008 team seems to be headed towards the same fate.

Why does Clemson seem to be stuck in this rut?

Clemson is a program that has all the bells and whistles: top-notch facilities, rabid fans, fat wallets, strong tradition, and a fertile recruiting ground.

In 2006, a former ACC coach who wished to remain anonymous tried to explain it to Sporting News reporter Tom Dienhart.

“He’ll fire a (coach) in a heartbeat to save himself. I don’t like to see that. I think Bowden gets more credit than he deserves. All this hype, and the guy has never won an ACC championship.

"And he arguably has what Florida State and Miami have. He has the tools to get it done. Maybe it’s a little sour grapes because he’s always had things handed to him. I think he’s a little overrated, and I think people are catching on to it.”

In 2007, Sports Illustrated reporter Stewart Mandel rated Tommy as the third-worst college football coach in America with at least three years' experience, questioning, “How has Bowden managed to survive half a decade on the hot seat?”

When reminded of the SI article at the 2007 ACC Football Kickoff, Bowden just smiled.

“The fact is that the guy writes for Sports Illustrated, and I’ve always wanted to be in Sports Illustrated,” he said. “I’m in there. Who doesn’t want to be in Sports Illustrated?”

Tommy Just Doesn’t Get It

Saturday’s game against the Alabama Crimson Tide was the perfect opportunity to prove that the Tigers were finally going to live up to their potential. It was Tommy’s opportunity to show that he is a good coach, and that this year was going to be different. But it wasn’t to be.

Tommy made another poor decision in a long list of poor decisions. On Clemson’s first possession, instead of sending in James Davis or C.J. Spiller, Tommy decided the best course of action would be to send in true freshman Jamie Harper.

Tommy’s reason: “Letting Harper get the season’s first rush was a promise I made during recruiting.”

Harper, though a promising young back, fumbled away his first carry. That fumble set up the Crimson Tide for a field goal. Tommy defended his promise kept, saying he’s glad he did it, and he’d do it again.

Clemson went on to lose 34-10. They gained zero yards on the ground and were out-played, out-hustled, and out-coached.

A day after the epic beatdown, Tommy called Nick Saban. He wanted Saban’s advice and asked the coach how his Clemson team could improve.

Tommy didn’t stop with the phone call to Saban. He also called Georgia coach Mark Richt, Virginia Tech Frank Beamer (who suffered his own humiliating opening day loss), and his father.

I’ve heard of coaches asking for advice from other coaches, but it seems to me that if Tommy can’t figure out what went wrong during that Alabama game, then it’s time to hang it up.

Clemson’s fans deserve better. They deserve a coach that understands how to motivate a team—a coach that understands how to best utilize the talent the team has on its roster. Most of all, they deserve a coach that doesn’t laugh off a humiliating loss and the criticism that follows.

“I like him and all. But let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be him,” Sporting News reporter Tom Dienhart said before the start of the 2008 season. “Bowden always seemingly does just enough to keep his job. But that’s no longer good enough in what looks like a make or break year. And honestly, Bowden looks poised to be broken.”

He’s broken indeed, and enough is enough.

Quotes are credited to Sporting News, SI.com, ESPN.com, and Anderson Independent Mail.com


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