Axed Clemson coach Tommy Bowden sealed his own fate five months before the season even started.
In an interview last spring, Bowden told me -- as he did others -- that "on paper, since I've been at Clemson, this [season] is my best opportunity" to win the school's first ACC title since 1991. If you make that claim only to get eliminated from the race by the first week of October, what possible reason would anyone have to believe it's ever going to happen?
It took 10 years, but on Monday, Clemson administrators finally accepted this reality. They saw a team brimming with offensive weapons that started the season with a humiliating performance against Alabama, a subsequent loss to Maryland and, most gallingly, a 12-7 loss to Wake Forest last Thursday in which the Tigers looked completely inept offensively.
Bowden responded by brusquely demoting preseason ACC player of the year Cullen Harper, but Clemson's problems extended far beyond its struggling quarterback. Since starting the 2006 season 7-1, the Tigers have gone 13-11. In a memorable primetime rout of eventual division champ Georgia Tech at the apex of that 2006 run, tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for 338 rushing yards, eliciting seemingly limitless possibilities for the future. Neither has come close to recapturing that glory in the 24 games since.
Clemson could have allowed Bowden to hang around for the rest of the season, but then they would have risked him pulling … well, a Bowden. New QB Willy Korn would come in and lift the Tigers to a second-half surge, teasing Tigers fans yet again of the possibilities of something grander next year. Then next year would come, and Clemson would go 8-4 again.
It's been that kind of near-annual titillation that allowed Bowden to hang around as long as he did. Every time it looked like he was down to his last days, he'd pull some unexpected upset out of his hat. Every time expectations were low, the Tigers would exceed them, and every time expectations were high … well, see this year.
In hindsight, Bowden peaked eight years ago. Behind dynamic QB Woody Dantzler, the Tigers started the 2000 season 8-0 and reached the top five of the polls but eventually got spanked by Chris Weinke-led Florida State and lost to Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. That was also the last time Bowden had the services of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, his right-hand man on his undefeated 1998 Tulane team as well.
Bowden spent the next eight years chasing those glory days but could never put the pieces together offensively, even with the most talented core of skill players in the ACC these past three years. He got lapped by Wake Forest and Boston College in his own division. Not only had the fan base lost confidence but, based on recent comments, so too had his players.
While Clemson hardly qualifies as a "premier" destination, the job Bowden vacates will be plenty attractive to potential replacements. For one thing, the next coach will inherit what some dubbed the top recruiting class in the country last February, and Clemson's deep-pocketed boosters can pony up for just about anyone. (It's likely costing them several million to part ways with Bowden, who just got a new contract this past offseason.)
One obvious name that jumps to mind: Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson. A South Carolina native and former Clemson cornerback, Johnson spent 25 years coaching in the state (including one season as Clemson's defensive coordinator) prior to taking the Vandy job in 2002. Meanwhile, he's done more this season with a cast of largely unsung players than Bowden did with a roster full of blue-chippers.