With mid-season MLB offering the only sport to watch, we are mired in the “Dark Territory” of the sports calendar. It is long and full of terrors, so I thought I’d share some historical stuff from the 1980s up until the beginning of the Dabo incredible run. The Clemson brand has never been bigger nor the fanbase larger than right now, and I’m acutely aware many newcomers probably aren’t fully up to speed on what “little ol’ Clemson” was doing before Coach Swinney constructed the current empire we are all enjoying. I’m hoping some folks will like a little walk down memory lane from one man’s perspective and offer up their own in the comments.
The 2000s were probably the time that the majority of the readers of this fine site became immersed in Clemson football. Kids born in the 1990s spent their formative years riding the roller coaster that was the Bowden-era Tigers. For me, the 2000s became the time that I started to believe that Clemson football could be something more than just a marginal player on the national scene, which is one of the reasons Bowden PTSD existed for me and many others. On the one hand, I am very thankful for Bowden bringing some kind of relevance back to the once proud program Ford left behind as well as that WR coach he brought to town. On the other hand, I have had a hard time getting over the near misses and mind boggling defeats that were sprinkled into seemingly every season. Nevertheless, Bowden modernized Clemson football in a way Hatfield and West never could and brought us some pretty exciting high-points.
#10: Bowden Resigns/Dabo Takes Over (2008): For as dark a time as this seemed to be initially, because anytime you are getting rid of your coach, things aren’t good, all Clemson fans are eternally grateful for how this went down. In reality, it was the only way Dabo Swinney was ever going to become head football coach at Clemson. Tommy Bowden gets a lot of credit from me for not making this a petty and ugly scene where he was going to force TDP to straight out fire him. He thought about himself, sure, but he clearly thought about his staff, Dabo, and the team’s well being as well. I’ve said it on here many times, but I will say again that the things Dabo said from his very first presser as interim coach were things I had been waiting since 1989 to hear from Clemson’s head coach. That first game against GT just felt different, even in a loss, and it has been different ever since. Watch that initial presser I have linked and you will see he delivered on every single thing he stated from day 1.
#9: Charlie goes 4-0 over U of SC (2005): I sometimes fear that guys like Woody Dantzler and Charlie Whitehurst will become afterthoughts in Clemson lore thanks to the ridiculous riches at the QB position Clemson has enjoyed in recent years. Woody still produced the most incredible one-man performance from a Clemson player in my lifetime (coming up later), and Charlie is the man who not only beat FSU for the first time in their ACC history, he beat a top 10 Tennessee squad, won a game in the Orange Bowl back when nobody was winning down there, and swept the hated Gamecocks four straight. I have him firmly at #2 behind Deshaun Watson (Trevor becomes eligible for my list when he completes his career here) on my top Clemson QB list. Charlie was banged up in 2005, but he still had enough in the tank to lead the Tigers to a win in Columbia over Spurrier’s Cocks. The most fitting moment was his clinching the win with a first down run on a QB draw.
#8: Woody goes HAM at NCSU (2001): I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some ridiculous individual performances from Clemson guys over the years, but the best remains Woody’s game against Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack in Raleigh in 2001. 333 yards passing with 4 TDs AND 184 yards rushing with 2 TDs. Clemson was rolling Matt Bailey out there at WR for goodness sake, but it didn’t matter to Woody. His two game run from the GT game the previous week to this one may never be topped by a single player. In reality, that 2001 team probably had less overall talent than the 3 win 1998 squad, but Woody elevated it enough to make a bowl game and notch a couple strong wins.
#7: “Has a man open! MY GOODNESS! MCKELVEY! TOUCHDOOOOWN!” I still get chills hearing the iconic Sean McDonough’s epic call of Woody pulling a win out of nowhere in Atlanta against a top 10 (at the time) GT team. The link is a crappy video, but the sound is all you really need to capture the moment. I went bonkers when Renfrow caught that TD to win the 2016 Natty, but second to that might have been watching this unfold. As stated in #8, the 2001 team was slapped together with duct tape with true freshmen everywhere and injuries galore to guys like Roscoe Crosby who probably could have made a big difference. Woody was insane.
#6: Clemson signs CJ Spiller. Not a game, no, but the power of Dabo Swinney was revealed when he landed CJ in the 2006 signing class, changing forever the national perception of Clemson recruiting and laying the foundation for what we are all enjoying now. Not even Danny Ford could claim a recruiting coup on this level considering where Spiller was from and the status of Clemson vs. its competition in his recruitment. By the time Spiller would graduate, the Tigers finally had won the Atlantic Division, hosted College Gameday, and redefined what offensive talent could do wearing the paw.
#5: 2004 Over Miami: As mentioned earlier, there was a time when winning in the Orange Bowl in Miami was unthinkable for any college football program. While the power of the U had begun to wane by this time, in the minds of just about every Clemson fan, the ‘04 Tigers had no real shot at this game going in. That team had started the year 1-4, including blowout losses to Texas A&M and UVA, while the Canes were ranked 11th. The beginning of this game went about the way most thought, with Miami running it down Clemson’s throat with Frank Gore. With Clemson down 17-3, I had already shifted into steady disappointed drinking while watching. For some reason, the Miami PA folks decided playing “Eye of the Tiger” was a good idea, and the Clemson defense began stoning the Miami offense at every turn. Then, Charlie Whitehurst, Airese Currie, and Reggie Merriweather got some traction and the Tigers began the comeback. I went from beer to 190 Octane before O.T., and when the Tigers finished the job, it was shots all around and a cadence count cheer from the old Hard Rock Cafe Sphinxs in Myrtle Beach. Sunday hurt, but Saturday night was glorious.
#4: Peach Bowl Delight: I talked about a scorched earth run for the 1989 team in part 1 of this series. Another such run, and more shocking for sure, was what the 2003 team did after being humiliated by Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The cherry on top of that was waxing #6 Tennessee in Atlanta. Clemson had gone the entire 1990s without a signature win over a national program. My number #1 moment from the 90s version of this article was the 1990 blowout of a Ray Goff coached UGA squad that finished 4-7. But, by the time ‘03 was over, the Tigers had slain mighty Florida State and Tennessee, the teams who played for the national title in 1998. I was lucky enough to be in the Dome that night as Whitehurst, Hamilton, Currie, and Chad Jasmin went to work on offense and an array of blitzing, especially from star corner Justin Miller, shut down the Vols offense. While it was premature for sure, the feeling that Clemson was finally back filled my soul.
#3: 63-17 Palmetto Bowl Blowout in 2003: The numbers say it all. Raise your hand if you used it as a voicemail passcode or anything like that after that epic beating in Columbia. I know I did! The Lou Holtz hire and those back to back Outback Bowl wins over Ohio State had the chickens from the midlands crowing loud and proud. The message boards were filled with “Bobby Bowden threw the game to save Tommy’s job!” theories to dismiss what had happened just a few weeks prior. Lou Holtz himself had taken command of the U of SC defensive secondary to make sure they’d be ready for this one. The rest was comical history as Charlie Whitehurst and his skill corps ripped that cover 2 zone to shreds early, then pounded Chad Jasmin down their throats before giving way to Chansi Stuckey to deliver the final insult.
#2: 2006 Purple Uniform GameDay Pounding!: First of all, props to Shoeless Films who provided first rate videos before just about anyone. While the Bowden era was mostly flirting with greatness but never fully delivering it, those moments (especially in the top 4 of this list) where it all went right were so much fun. Tommy’s last great moment, really, was the night ESPN Gameday visited Clemson for the first time. The campus was on fire from sun up to sun down as the Tigers were rolling up the polls after being more or less robbed of an early win at Boston College. They had won in Tallahassee, escaped disaster in Winston-Salem, and seemed to have everything rolling as #13 GT and Calvin Johnson came to town. The Tigers then emerged on the Hill in all purple, whipping the crowd into even more of a frenzy. Thunder and Lightning did the rest, running all over the Jackets, and the Tigers would crack the top 10 for the first time since 2000 in the next poll release. Spiller’s ridiculous swing pass touchdown came right at me in the West Stands and shall never be forgotten.
#1: FSU Finally Slain (2003): It wasn’t hard for me to pick #1 on this list. The game itself was an enormous victory, but the circumstances surrounding the win put it on another level completely. Tommy Bowden’s honeymoon was definitely over after the 2002 team got destroyed by Texas Tech and the 2003 team started the year losing 30-0 to UGA in Death Valley. To make matters much worse, the team lost a third straight year to Maryland and had just gotten humiliated in Winston-Salem (which remains the only Clemson game I’ve ever left at the half). The Bowden hot seat rumors were raging, and he faced the press conference that next Tuesday with a palpable pressure exuding from his quivering lip as his father’s 3rd ranked Seminoles were due to visit Death Valley.
Bowden Bowl 1 had been a nail biter, but the next three installments featured Clemson being completely incapable of slowing down the Noles’ offense. John Lovett’s crew had looked horrific the week before, surrendering 45 first half points to Wake, but Tye Hill and Justin Miller proceeded to play lock down press-man coverage while the defense loaded the box to shut down mammoth FSU running back Greg Jones (who had embarrassed the Tigers just the year before). As the game went on, I just apprehensively waited for things to turn the way they had done in 1992, 1997, and 1999 when FSU came back to win. However, when Charlie Whitehurst found Derrick Hamilton streaking behind the Seminole secondary late in the 3rd quarter, the party was on and FSU’s 11 game winning streak over Clemson finally came to an end. Tommy saved his job, allowing his newly hired WR coach to catch the eye of eventual AD Terry Don Phillips.
So, the 2000s ended with Dabo taking over. Tommy Bowden was able to undo a lot of the damage that was done by the Ford firing in 1990. He fought for much needed facility upgrades and had enough clout to get the dirt moving. He brought the Clemson offense into the modern day where it could realistically attract the type of game changers needed to beat Florida State. Swinney was able to clean up the rest and here we are.