(1999-2008): Tommy Bowden parlayed his initial coaching success at Tulane University (18-4, 1997-1998) into the head coaching position at Clemson, where he compiled a 72-45 record (.615) beginning in 1999 until he resigned midway through the 2008 season after a disappointing 3-3 start. During his tenure at Clemson, Bowden’s teams consistently improved in talent level, but were inconsistent in matching talent to results. Some of the program’s most memorable wins often came alongside some of its most frustrating defeats, and Bowden was never able to “get over the hump,” failing to win ten games in any season, failing to claim an ACC crown, failing to win a major bowl game, and never figuring as a legitimate national title contender over nine-and-a-half seasons.
Bowden’s best teams epitomized these trends and embodied the highs and lows of the program during his tenure. The 2000 squad raced out to an 8-0 start and #3 national ranking but floundered late, finishing at 9-3, and ending on a sour note with a 41-20 loss to Michael Vick and the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Gator Bowl. The 2003 squad started sluggishly, but rebounded late with a flurry of dominant performances that included a 26-10 dismantling of then-#3 FSU, a rout of Duke, and the infamous 63-17 destruction of the Gamecocks in Billy Brice. The season culminated in a dominant 27-14 win over Phillip Fulmer’s Tennessee Volunteers in the Peach Bowl. The team finished the year 9-4 and ranked in the top 25. Both the 2006 (8-5) and 2007 (9-4) teams finished second in the ACC Atlantic Division and thus missed out on a chance at the conference crown despite being arguably the most talented teams in each of those seasons.
In between these high points, frustrating though they were, were decidedly low points in 2001 (7-5), 2002 (7-6), 2004 (6-5), each of which only added to the cumulative frustrations of the fanbase, frustrations that ultimately cost Bowden his job midway through 2008.
Despite these frustrations, however, Bowden’s resume includes several significant highlights worthy of inclusion on this list. His 72 victories in Clemson rank fourth in school history behind Frank Howard (165), Danny Ford (96), and Dabo Swinney (89). He compiled a stellar 7-2 record against South Carolina during what was arguably the Gamecocks most competitive era under Lou Holtz (1999-2004), then Steve Spurrier (2005-2007) prior to Spurrier’s elevation of the program to unprecedented albeit fleeting heights from 2009-2013. He never suffered a losing season, maintained bowl eligibility throughout his 9.5 seasons, led the Tigers to eight bowl games (three bowl victories), and ushered in a new era of offensive football in Clemson. His career .615 winning percentage ranks ninth among Clemson head football coaches.
Tommy Bowden also deserves a great deal of credit for recognizing a great coaching talent. It was he who hired Dabo Swinney as wide receivers coach in 2003, despite Swinney’s being out of football for two years. Additionally, Bowden recommended him as interim upon his resignation five years later (a move that was somewhat surprising considering DC Vic Koenning had head coaching experience and Swinney didn’t even have coordinator experience). Bowden may not have gotten over the hump on the football field, but he brought Clemson back from the doldrums of the Tommy West era and handed off a program ready to take off to Dabo Swinney.