Just a few miles from Death Valley, along old Highway 76 in Clemson, there is a billboard. Pictured is spokesman Tommy Bowden standing by a lake in an orange life vest. In bright Clemson orange block letters it says, “”Wear your life jacket!” with the subtitle, “On the field or on the lake safety gear saves lives!”
Depending on whom you speak to, or what publication you read, Bowden may need a life vest if the Clemson Tigers football program does not improve significantly in 2007. After a 7-1 start in 2006, Bowden’s Tigers lost four of their last five games, leaving fans bitter.
The pre-season whispers have already surfaced as Bowden opens camp for 2007, a season that will officially begin Monday, September 3 when the Tigers host Florida State in a primetime ESPN broadcast amidst all the drama that comes along with the father-son match.
To Bowden, the reports of his backside squarely sitting on the burner is old news. “I know it,” Bowden responds in a thick Southern drawl. “It’s not like I was naïve to this profession coming in. I’m going on my ninth year, every third year I’ve been on the hot seat. It’s like the 17-year locust when I lived in West Virginia. They’re coming up out of the ground every 17 years. So every three years be ready. It comes with the job description.”
The proverbial “hot seat” is inherited at birth for the famed Bowden family of football coaches. Tommy (Bowden) has seen the “hot seat” from a variety of perspectives. Growing up he watched his father (Bobby) on and off the “hot seat.” His brother (Terry) spent his fair share of time on the “hot seat” while coaching at Auburn. His brother Jeff has felt the heat as the offensive coordinator at Florida State under his father.
But Clemson’s Bowden finds peace in isolation. The 53-year old Tigers coaches has removed the media and fan distractions by simply eliminating information from his daily diet. “I don’t read the local (news) papers this time of year,” said Bowden. “There’s so much negative associated with it, there’s no sense of putting negative stuff in your head. But I’m not naïve I know what’s out there.”
In the corner behind his desk is a modest laptop computer. On it: football software and team reports. Bowden does not have Internet access in his office. There’s no television, no radio and no newspapers in sight. “This is like a little cave here,” he says. “This is where we spend 15-16 hours a day.” He then repeats emphatically, “ … but I’m not naïve.”
Bowden admits he is briefed once a week by the Clemson sports information department on what the media is writing and reporting. Those meetings are no more than five minutes in length and the briefing is right before the press conference. That’s intentional because, as Bowden says, “I don’t have time to dwell on the negative.”
The negativity, and the latest “hot seat’ references, began simmering at the end of the 2003 season. That’s when Bowden was met with the chants of “Fire Bowden” by fans late in the season. Slow starts and strong finishes quelled the fan base until last season, when Bowden’s Tigers skidded down the stretch, bringing the hot seat rumors to a rolling boil.
THE BOWDEN WAY
“I would think, at this point in time, every coach in America sits down and re-evaluates what’s best for them professionally and for their family. The university evaluates the coach and the coach evaluates the university. This happens everywhere. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary.” – Tommy Bowden, November 1998
Bowden spent the spring and summer evaluating the late season funk. The Clemson coach completed a thorough inspection that included a long, hard look in the mirror.
“What did I do different? Why did the trend change?” Bowden said, pulling a large binder from his office filing cabinet. “This is the whole program from A to Z.”
It’s titled the “2007 Hideaway” manual, and it’s the centerpiece of Bowden’s annual summer coaching retreat, an intense one-week meeting schedule that includes all of Bowden’s nine full-time staff members.
It’s the beginning of a seven-month journey. It’s the launching pad for an all-inclusive, all-consuming, 16-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week commitment to college football and the pursuit of perfection at every level of the game.
The manual is a Bowden coaching staple handed down from generation-to-generation and includes detailed strategies on practice, two-a-days, weekly schedules, academic overviews, strength and conditioning programs, recruiting, offense, defense, special teams, compliance and the all-important preface explaining Bowden’s philosophy and “State of the Union” address.
In rapid-fire style, Bowden rattles off two paragraphs of the State of the Union, “As the head coach I must make sure, did I do everything possible to prevent the skid at the end of the season? If not, what can I do differently? Motivate better?” his words trail off into inaudible gibberish.
Bowden and his staff spent the last week of July holed up in the press box at Death Valley, reviewing, critiquing and planning. “I get away from phones, no TV’s, catered breakfast and lunch and we go from 8 to 5,” he said.
Bowden expects an unprecedented level of commitment that starts with him and trickles down to his coaches, staff and all football-related personnel. He begins flipping through the Hideaway again, landing on the page explaining his philosophy on family and football. “Family is important but it needs to be attended to mostly from February to August,” Bowden reads aloud, quoting from the manual. “Make sure they understand that. From now until February you need to get really serious about football.”
Bowden breaks, explaining in detail, “If your wife is pregnant, you have an emergency, yeah, go. Other than that, no basketball games, soccer games, birthday parties – sorry boys. After signing day, now catch up. If you choose this profession, there are times where you have to put it on the backburner and make it up in the spring. It can be done. My father did it. I did it.”
Bowden has the energy of an eight-year old. His step is quick and anxious. Bowden’s body language is relaxed but inside he is smoldering, the lingering effect of an inner challenge he heaps on himself.
“There’s a personal desire to succeed at the highest level. This is a job that requires it,” said Bowden. “They’ve (Clemson) has won a national championship and whenever you coach at a school that’s won one, there’s always a lingering desire to get back. The longer you go without one, the pressure mounts.
“I have a public position, a high profile position with expectations very high but my pressure is more internal than external,” said Bowden. “I have professed Christianity and I have an authority structure and priority system. Football is a huge priority. I take it very seriously. It is not the priority. So I do have something more important in my life. So when I don’t succeed, it’s not the end of the world.”
Long before he ever coached a single game, Bowden had decided he was going to be a college football head coach, following in his father’s legendary footsteps. In the sixth grade, Bowden wrote an autobiography explaining why he wanted to be a college football coach, a report Bowden’s wife, Linda, still has. He feels he was called to the coaching profession, a result of his faith.
Bowden’s Christian foundation is more important than ever. As he approaches his 11th year as a head coach, Bowden is concerned about the direction his student-athletes are going, both on and off the field.
According to Bowden, parenting is at the root of the change. “I think parents are different,” he said. “Accountability, responsibility, commitment, all that stuff, (they have) no concept. They don’t understand about accountability. They don’t understand responsibility. Hey, if you’re responsible for doing something, do it. They’ve never been taught about accountability and responsibility.
“So I the biggest change come from parents: single-parent homes, two-parent homes, a little bit away from a religious foundation … I see more leaning toward secular standards, earthly standards as opposed to Godly standards so I see more of a change in parents over the years than I see so much the player. I try to be really conscientious of how they’ve been raised, then I try to interject some things that I think will help them make good decisions to be successful.”
The social changes have created new challenges for Bowden as a coach. “I just can’t understand. I was text messaging some of my players the other day and some of the questions are just so silly,” he said. “They’re 21. I’m 53. They’re kids. I have to think. I have a house payment, I make a lot of money, I have a lot, they don’t. I’ve got to understand that. It gets harder as I get older.”
“There is a certain way I choose to live. If somebody wants to witness it and do it, fine. It’s nothing I’m going to make mandatory, nothing I’m going to promote or demote if you don’t do it. It’s a personal decision, the lifestyle I choose. If they want to follow it, fine, but you will be exposed to it.” – Tommy Bowden, 1998, Anderson Independent-Mail
Bowden has 78 career wins but his most meaningful career victories aren’t in the Clemson media guide or on any season highlight video. As a matter of fact, they didn’t even take place on the football field.
“See that picture on the wall? You see what’s happening there?” asks Bowden.
A single frame, holding three separate photographs, one of former Clemson star Anthony Waters (now a San Diego Charger linebacker) and Calvin Grant (wide receiver) and fifth-year senior Bobby Hutchinson hang on Bowden’s office wall. A photographer captured the three student-athletes being baptized in knee-deep water at an unknown river behind a local Clemson church.
Bowden breaks out in a big smile. Suddenly, national championships, ACC titles, wins, losses and the anxiety of being on the “hot seat” are in perspective.