Clemson has finished in the top 5 six times in school history. The first was 1981. The other five were the past five years. Clemson is an unlikely dynasty of sorts. Sure, they haven’t won their third title to officially mint them an official dynasty, but it’s coming and the route here was circuitous. With so many twists and turns it never seemed like we’d never land here.
I’d like to take us back to a fateful Thursday in 2008 and wonder how things would have been different if that night hadn’t been so bad.
The Lead-Up to the Game
The 2007 season was considered a relative success compared to expectations for the Clemson Tigers. They fell just short of winning their first Atlantic Division title when QB Matt Ryan and Boston College stole a win in Death Valley, but they won nine games including wins over Florida State and U of SC to bookend the regular season. With QB Cullen Harper, WR Aaron Kelly, and the star RB duo of James Davis and CJ Spiller returning, the future was bright.
After the regular season, Clemson Head Coach Tommy Bowden interviewed for the same position at Arkansas. The success of 2007 coupled with the leverage of leaving for the SEC prompted Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips to extend Bowden’s contract and bump his pay to $2.2 million (which was relatively high back then) to keep him in Clemson.
Entering 2008 Clemson was the preseason pick to win the ACC and was ranked #9 by AP Poll. After getting surprised by #24 Alabama in the Georgia Dome in the season opener, the Tigers picked up wins against two FCS opponents and NCSU, but then suffered a home loss to Maryland that knocked them out of the polls. At 3-2 and just 1-2 against FBS teams, it seemed clear they’d fall short of preseason expectations, but would they be respectable or completely crater?
Thursday Night in Winston-Salem
I remember it like yesterday. I was an optimistic sophomore. Despite the setbacks against Alabama and Maryland, I was confident we’d beat #24 Wake Forest on the road. They were on the way down after their Orange Bowl appearance in 2006. Losing to them would effectively end any hope of a decent bowl game for Clemson. It was a must-win. I told my economics professor I’d miss class, did whatever work needed to be done, and headed up to Winston-Salem ready to see Coach Bowden and the Tigers right the ship.
In all my trips to Winston-Salem since this one, none have had the same buzz. Deacon fans were excited. They’d just built a new press box. They won the ACC just two seasons ago. Despite losing to Navy the game prior, they already beat FSU by holding them to just three points. The Deacons offense was shaky, but their defense was tough. Too tough for Clemson. Rob Spence’s Clemson offense was totally stymied. The Tigers were held scoreless in the first half and trailed 0-3 at halftime. They couldn’t run the ball and stopped trying.
A third quarter TD pass to Jacoby Ford actually gave Clemson a 7-3 lead, but it wasn’t enough. A Deacon field goal made it 7-6 and a Riley Skinner TD pass give them a 12-7 lead (after a failed 2-point conversion attempt). The Tigers got a chance to win it with five minutes to go, but a sack and a holding penalty derailed that and the Tigers lost in Winston-Salem scoring just one touchdown in the contest. CJ Spiller only got 2 carries and the team ran for just 21 rushing yards.
The Deacons had a legitimately strong defense, but being held to 7 points in Winston-Salem is unacceptable for any self-respecting college football program. It was an awful drive back to campus. I still remember being mad at a friend who wasn’t sufficiently upset. The season was lost and it was only early October.
The Tigers were 3-3 (1-2). The exciting football season we had waiting all offseason for was already devoid of all hope. On Monday, as my 9:05 marketing principles course was nearing its end, a student sitting towards the back raised his hand. When Professor Fine called on him, he held up his Blackberry with the little roller ball, and said, “Tommy Bowden is leaving.” After a moment of hesitation, Professor Fine simply said, “class is dismissed.”
We ran out of class and exchanged hugs and high-fives. Although many of us liked Coach Bowden, we all knew the time had come. None of us expected the new hire to build a dynasty, but at least we had hope again.
The Butterfly Effect of the Wake Forest Loss
Of course, now we know that this mid-season decision Coach Bowden and AD Terry Don Phillips mutually agreed upon for him to step down, gave Dabo Swinney a six-game audition for the head coaching role. An audition he needed to have a shot at the job. Had Tommy Bowden fought for his job rather than humbly seeing the time was right and suggesting Coach Swinney take over, the college football timeline would look much different today. More simply, if Clemson had just managed another touchdown in Winston-Salem, the Tommy Bowden tenure at Clemson gets extended at least a bit longer, likely until the end of the season. If that happened, Clemson wouldn’t have hired Coach Swinney.
Obviously any hire looks disastrous when compared to Coach Swinney with all the success he has had. Nevertheless, some of these names were quite enticing - maybe even preferable - at the time.
Mike Leach at Texas Tech had just and amazing 2008 season in which they finished 11-1 with a memorable win over #1 Texas marked by the “Michael Crabtree catch.” In end, Leach may have been pushed out of their price range by a 5 year contract-extension that pushed his salary to approximately $2.5 million (Clemson had to pay a $3.5 million buy-out on Coach Bowden and didn’t have money in the coffers like they do today).
Another option might have been Coach Gary Patterson from TCU. He had done extremely well at TCU, and in fact was on the Clemson AD’s list to replace Bowden when they were searching for a coach, but reportedly wasn’t interested in a face-to-face interview unless there were assurances he would get the job. While that sounds arrogant, it may have been timing or just a love for TCU that turned him away.
Will Muschamp was still at Texas as a very successful defensive coordinator at this time. He would have been atop many lists, but was the “Coach in-Waiting” behind Mack Brown, which would have been a lot for Clemson to overcome. It took two more years of waiting and a program towards the top of the college football landscape, Florida in 2010, to get him to leave.
We know Troy Calhoun, Mike Locksley, and Lane Kiffin were interviewed by the Tigers after Bowden left so it stands to reason they would have been candidates in this scenario. Troy Calhoun is now thought of as a triple-option academy coach since he has been at Air Force since 2007, but at the end of 2008 he had only been there two seasons. Before that he was an OC at Wake Forest and the Houston Texans. It’s unlikely he would have run the option at Clemson. He’s taken Air Force to a bowl game in 10/13 years now and looking back, that is a hire that may have worked out.
Mike Locksley and Lane Kiffin would have been more questionable. Locksley was the OC at Illinois. He got the head coaching job at New Mexico that offseason and went on to really struggle there. While he may do well at Maryland now, he wasn’t ready back then. Lane Kiffin is obviously a very interesting one. He is a brilliant offensive mind, but has had mixed success throughout his career. At this time, he was coming off a single-season in the NFL which ended with a 4-12 record and Raiders owner Al Davis firing him over the phone. He eventually went to Tennessee, but could have been in play if the Tigers moved fast and snatched him before the Vols did. He actually had some success in Tennessee before leaving for USC. Who knows how it would have went at Clemson. That move could have gone in all sorts of directions.
Other names that were flying around the rumor mill back then included Jim Grobe, Brady Hoke, Bud Foster, Brent Venables, and Tommy Tuberville. Jim Grobe truly could have been the hire. What he was accomplishing at Wake Forest was remarkable. Maybe if he doesn’t beat Clemson that season, some of the appeal isn’t there, but winning the ACC in 2006 was quite the accomplishment. The experience and success not only in the ACC but in the Atlantic division would have been hard to pass up.
The Coach I wanted most back in 2008 was Tommy Tuberville. He was an outstanding 42-9 in the four seasons prior, but was let go after his Auburn Tigers finished just 5-7. They’d beaten Clemson in the Peach Bowl in 2007 and he seemed like the perfect fit at Clemson, where fans surely would be more appreciative after years of underachieving.
It’s crazy to think about what could be different if Clemson had managed two touchdowns in Winston-Salem. Troy Calhoun or Jim Grobe very well may have taken over at Clemson. Maybe they’d have found success and still be there now. It’s almost certain we wouldn’t be the dynasty we are today though. Just one more touchdown could have changed everything. Thank goodness we blew it in Winston-Salem!