The locusts come every 17 years.
For Tommy Bowden, this bizarre phenomenon of nature remains a vivid memory from his days in West Virginia. Bobby Bowden, Tommy’s coaching-legend father, had moved the family from Alabama to Morgantown when he became the Mountaineers’ head football coach in 1970. Tommy, who played as a walk-on wide receiver for the Mountaineers from 1973 to ’76, still recalls the peculiar insects, with their freaky red eyes, thick black bodies and incessant drone. Every 17 years, they would crawl out of the ground by the millions to mate, spawn and die, all within several weeks.
The locusts are buzzing again. These creatures are a different breed—antennae and wings are replaced by notepads and recorders—although quite frankly, locusts and sports writers probably rank fairly close on Tommy Bowden’s list. The noise coming from the latter is not making life any easier for Clemson’s head coach.
“This is my third year on the hot seat, so I’m accustomed to it,” said Bowden, who is in his ninth year with the Tigers. “It seems like it’s every odd year. Every year I don’t win [Atlantic Coast Conference] Coach of the Year, it seems like I hear ‘Hot Seat.’ It’s like West Virginia—you know, the locusts come every 17 years.”
“Football is a huge priority; it’s just not the priority. When I experience difficulty, I know where to turn.”
Technically, West Virginia’s 17-year locusts are not locusts at all, but periodical cicadas. But that’s beside the point. So, too, is Bowden’s success at Clemson to many denigrators. Judging by winning percentage and bowl appearances, he is one of the top coaches in the program’s rich 111-year history. But that hasn’t stopped some media members and Clemson fans from treating him like a piñata.
“In this profession, you are remembered for what you did last year,” Bowden said. “If you lost last year, that’s what you are. If you win this year, you won’t be.”
|"We're in a state where there are no pro sports, so college football is held very highly."|
- FCA's Derek Durst on Clemson's significance.
Bedlam came to Death Valley on Oct. 21, 2006. That night, 83,000 orange-clad fans watched giddily as the Tigers overwhelmed then-No. 13 Georgia Tech, 31-7, to improve to 7-1. Some diehards might even have dared to dream about a national title run to end the long drought since Clemson’s lone championship in 1981.
Then the roof caved in.
Starting with Virginia Tech the following week, opponents figured out if they stopped the run, they could stop Clemson. The Tigers dropped four of their last five games, including a tough 28-20 loss to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 29.
|FCA and The Bowdens |
Coach Tommy Bowden’s involvement with FCA spans more than three decades. He and his wife, Linda, started attending FCA as students at Morgantown High School in West Virginia and have maintained a strong relationship with the ministry.
“I don’t think there has been a time that I have asked Tommy to go somewhere and share with FCA that he hasn’t said yes and gone,” says Dal Shealy, former FCA president and current director of FCA’s football coaches ministry. “FCA not only allows him to share his faith, it also gives him guidance, accountability and a good support base.”
Bowden speaks at FCA events across the East Coast. He is a regular at the FCA Black Mountain Boys Camp in North Carolina; and he lends both his time and his name to the popular FCA Bowden Breakfast, held in conjunction with the Clemson season opener against Florida State every other year. Despite their game-day coaching duties, both Bowden and his father, FSU Head Coach Bobby Bowden, spend the morning of the breakfast with more than 1,000 of their fans, signing autographs, answering questions and taking pictures.
“Tommy will tell you that he feels God has given him this platform to reach others and glorify God,” says Joel Shaw, FCA Development Director for Greenville S.C., who helps coordinate the Bowden Breakfast. “He genuinely feels that God has put him in this position, and he is holding himself accountable for what he is doing with it. It would be real easy for him to turn down a lot of opportunities, but I think he seeks out ways to do more because he feels it is part of God’s plan.”
For more on this year’s Bowden Breakfast, which was held on September 3, visit bowdenbreakfast.com.
Click here to watch a video of Tommy Bowden speaking at Black Mountain FCA Camp.
An 8-5 record is great for some teams, but not in football-crazed South Carolina. And certainly not at Clemson, where premium tailgating packages sell for $25,000 apiece and the Tigers’ pulsating pre-game entrance into Memorial Stadium was once described by ABC announcer Brent Musberger as “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
“We’re in a state where there are no pro sports, so college football is held very highly,” said Derek Durst, an FCA area representative in the northern part of the state. “[South Carolina Coach] Steve Spurrier and Tommy Bowden are like gods to some people, or at least the football teams are.”
The fallout from last season was harsh. In July, SI.com writer Stewart Mandel ranked Bowden as the third-worst coach in the country. Bowden deftly deflected the jab with humor, saying he always wanted to be in Sports Illustrated
But the SI.com article was only one of many negative reactions to the Tigers’ recent win/loss totals (22-14 record, 1-1 in bowl games since 2004) and their overall lack of ACC titles and Bowl Championship Series berths during Bowden’s tenure. In fact, when asked before the start of the season who was saying positive things about him, Bowden deadpanned, “My father, my mother and my wife. Three people.”
Still, a look at his overall record at Clemson demands respect. In eight seasons, he has compiled a 60-38 record, seven bowl appearances and two ACC Coach of the Year awards (1999, 2003). He has never suffered a losing season at Clemson and has defeated in-state rival South Carolina in six out of eight attempts.
“He’s a good head coach and a good man,” said Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips. “And we’re so doggone close. If you tripped, you’d fall off the top of the hill—that’s how close we are.”
Phillips points to nine players who got injured last year—representing a cumulative 34 missed games—and the fact that Clemson’s 2007 season ticket sales this summer broke the school record and led all other ACC teams.
“You look at that, and common sense tells you he’s doing something right.” Phillips said. “We have to maintain perspective.”
The inherent nature of his job helps Bowden repel the fickle arrows of public opinion.
“We’re coaches,” he said. “We put in 105- to 110-hour weeks. We’re in a cave over here. I don’t have time to read the paper or look at the Internet or TV. I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I know what I’m capable of.”
Even more, Bowden’s rich pedigree of both football and faith serves as a strong rudder as he navigates through the storm. Bobby Bowden (whose all-time record for Division I-A wins earned him the rare honor of being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame while still actively coaching) and his wife raised six children in a strong Christian home and guided them to FCA participation. Three of their four sons played big-time college football and eventually became coaches. Terry Bowden, who was head coach at Auburn from 1993 to ’98, now works as a college football radio analyst, and Jeff Bowden only recently left his offensive coordinator position at Florida State.
“Having my father in the profession and Terry at Auburn, you know [what comes with being a coach],” Bowden said. “When you understand the job description and have a strong, godly foundation, it’s a little bit easier to take public criticism.”
The now 53-year-old Bowden, who accepted Christ at age 12, actively looks for ways to live out his faith. Since becoming a full-time college coach in 1980, he has served with FCA, first as a liaison to the various schools where he worked during his 19 years as an assistant coach and now mainly as a speaker/fundraiser on the East Coast.
“If there was a poster child for FCA in the South, it is Tommy Bowden,” said Tony Eubanks, Clemson’s FCA chaplain. “He’s never too busy.”
Tommy’s parents instilled in him a deep love of God’s Word. He is currently reading the Bible front to back for the third time.
“He comes in early,” Eubanks said. “Most of the morning his door is shut, and he’s praying and being with the Lord. If his door is shut and his car is out there, you know what he’s doing.”
This solid foundation helps Bowden when the crush of an entire region’s autumn hopes become overwhelming.
“Christianity has helped me prioritize my life,” he said. “Football is a huge priority; it’s just not the
priority. When I experience difficulty, I know where to turn.”
“Most of the morning his door is shut and he’s praying and being with the Lord. If his door is shut and his car is out there, you know what he’s doing.”
- FCA’s Tony Eubanks, Clemson football chaplain
Contractually, Bowden has four years left at Clemson. But nothing is guaranteed. The scuttlebutt regarding his job security is that Clemson needs to win big … and soon.
That could be tough this season. There are plenty of published reasons why the Tigers—picked to finish third in the ACC preseason poll—will falter: their quarterback is too young; there’s not enough experience on the offensive line; star running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller can’t carry the load all by themselves.
Bowden has heard it all before. He has an easy answer for all of that.
“I just bring up Wake Forest,” he said. “They won the conference [last year] with a freshman quarterback. There goes that theory.”
Still, Bowden is not naïve, and he is nothing if not candid. His overall bowl record is 3-4, and he knows the clock is ticking. An ACC title and a BCS berth would greatly enhance his standing.
“It needs to be soon,” he said. “We’ve been real close. But close here is not good enough. ‘Patience’ and ‘rebuilding’ are not words we use around this place.”
In Death Valley, there is no 17-year respite from the locusts. But Bowden has anchored his life to something greater than the ebb and flow of success on Saturdays.
“Football is important—I invest a lot of time into it—but it’s not the most important in my life,” he said. “I’ve got something a little bit bigger than anything secular here on earth.
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of Clemson University