The first week of December has played out to be a very expensive week in Clemson University history.
Tommy Bowden was, figuratively, packing his belongings inside of Jervey Athletic Center the first week in December, heading to Fayetteville to be the next coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
I admit to having mixed feelings at the time. Clemson was about to play in the Chic-Fil-A Bowl looking for a 10 win season for the first time in more than 15 years. Clemson had just defeated South Carolina in Columbia. A week before that, Clemson played one of the biggest games in Death Valley history and came within a whisker of beating Boston College to earn a berth in the ACC Championship game.
Things were not perfect in early December. But Clemson, clearly, stood at the precipice of something great. So I understand how my mixed emotions could also be felt by the two people that were in charge of making the decision to counter-offer Bowden. Terry Don Phillips and James Barker had a tough decision to make, so let me be clear about that. But both men are in important positions so that they can make tough decisions. As it played out, the decision turned out to be a disastrous error.
Phillips would say on December 4th, "Tommy Bowden has made us a consistent winner. He has built a firm foundation for this program in all aspects. We continue to have success on the field in terms of wins and losses, and national ranking. We are graduating our players at a rate that ranks among the top BCS programs in the nation, and they are representing the institution in a manner that brings pride to the University. We are continuing to attract top flight student-athletes with strong character.”
All of which is true. But the next sentence that came from Phillips’ mouth on December 4th almost seems eerie now.
"While we are pleased with the performance of the program, we know there is
another level to reach. We expect to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and play in BCS bowls. With today's agreement we are optimistic Coach Bowden will take us to those goals."
Since that quasi-challenge from Phillips to Bowden, Clemson is 3-4 with losses to Auburn, Alabama, Maryland and Wake Forest with wins over NC State, SC State, and The Citadel.
So it has become painfully obvious that extending Bowden’s contract in December to keep him from going to Arkansas has been a monumental error in judgment. That error has made the 2008 football season a disaster that is, in essence, over before the 2nd week of October. But that error back in December is also now going to force Clemson to dig deeper into the pockets to dissolve the Bowden marriage.
Anytime bad decisions are made, you have to look for accountability. We have spent much time looking at Bowden’s decisions on the field and in his hires. And now, Bowden is being held accountable for those poor decisions.
So who should be held accountable for selling our soul to Bowden in December, only to see it backfire just a few games later?
Who pulled the string to keep Bowden from going to Arkansas?
I’m not going to get into rumors. You have heard the same things that I have, so I’ll let that debate rest outside of this article.
But one of two people, clearly, should be held accountable for the decision to entice Bowden back to Clemson.
Terry Don Phillips, Clemson Athletic Director, was the face for the Clemson Administration during the December press conference. You could make an argument that he wanted to keep Bowden for another couple of years to avoid getting into the frenzied coaching craze that was taking place in December. To get another big time coach last December, Clemson would have had to shell out a ton of money per year to compete with all the schools that had vacancies. Extending Bowden’s contract, at least in December, seemed a rational economic move.
But you can also make the argument that Phillips has never been enamored with Bowden. Phillips did not hire Bowden. If there was uneasiness between Phillips and Bowden, it came to a head in 2003 following the loss to Wake Forest. Rumors swirled that Phillips had privately told Clemson’s administration that he would fire Bowden at the end of the year. Those private comments quickly spread throughout the public like a wild fire, dominating the week after the Wake Forest game to the point Bowden was left at his press conference almost begging for a vote of confidence from Phillips. It never came.
Clemson’s stunning turnaround in 2003 after the Wake Forest loss took the ball out of the hands of Phillips, and gave Bowden his reprieve, even if he never received his public vote of confidence from Phillips.
Knowing Phillips was not the person that hired Bowden to begin with and knowing the Phillips had grown weary of Bowden’s inconsistent teams as early as 2003 make it difficult to believe he would bend over backwards for Bowden in December.
So did Terry Don Phillips pull the string on December 4th?
James Barker has spent much of his tenure elevating Clemson’s academic reputation while creating goals for the athletic department that include a football National Championship and a basketball Final Four.
On one hand, Barker seems to distance himself from major athletic decisions. He rarely (if ever) is a part of athletic press conferences. I have never seen Barker conduct interviews with media outlets to discuss athletic successes or failures. Barker was a central figure in the academic enrollment issues that cropped up a few years ago, but his role was more of a mediator than a leader.
Other than the athletic goals that Barker placed in his University Vision, I can’t recall very many public comments about Clemson’s athletic programs in general or the football program specifically.
So it seems a bit out of character that Barker was calling the shots in December based on his track record as a hands-off President when dealing with athletic affairs.
That being said, it is also not a stretch to envision Barker’s fingerprints on the decisions that were made in December. Barker likes Bowden because Bowden keeps things between the white lines on the road. Bowden’s teams are rarely in the news for the wrong reasons. Bowden has a great graduation rate, and he keeps his athletes out of trouble relative to other big time college football programs. In addition, the football players are good citizens in the community and have earned plenty of accolades as ambassadors for Clemson University.
Barker, understanding the things Bowden was doing right, could have stepped in during that week in December to orchestrate Bowden’s contract extension. Barker may have justified to himself that Bowden’s team have character and are getting closer to the ultimate goal and, therefore, Bowden should be kept at Clemson to see his foundation rewarded with a championship.
So did James Barker pull the string on December 4th?
I think you and I and all of Clemson Nation have the right to know who is calling the shots for our athletic future.
I think we all are owed an explanation for who is calling the shots with Bowden. Not because it will change the 3-3 start to this football season. It has more to do with who, specifically, is responsible for the huge amount of cash we are now forced to pay to Tommy Bowden because of the hasty decisions that were made in early December to extend Bowden’s contract and increase the buyout.
In these tumultuous economic times, Clemson must now prepare to open the pocketbook to bring in a new coach that can help us achieve all of our goals. And yes, we would have had to open the pocketbooks in December as well. But we also would not have to pay off Bowden as much had cooler heads prevailed in December. Bowden held the advantage in the sense that Arkansas was moving fast. Maybe Arkansas moved too fast for Clemson’s administration to think clearly? As we know, Phillips left Jeff Davis’ induction to the College Football Hall of Fame in New York to work out the details with Bowden’s extension. It was obvious that Phillips was not prepared to have that conversation at that moment with Bowden since he was so far away.
In addition to the extra money, we are also saddled with a lost football season where an abundance of talent has to rot away in what, at best, will be a minor bowl game. This team should have been coached to a level where they would be in contention for an ACC Title this year. Instead, those dreams will have to be placed on hold for a new coach in 2009.
So who pulled that string? I think we deserve that answer.
Did Terry Don Phillips pull that string? I think you should ask him with an email at PTERRY@CLEMSON.EDU.
Did President James Barker pull that string? I think you should ask him with an email at JBARKER@CLEMSON.EDU.
I think the two of them owe us, at the very least, an explanation as to who signed off on extending Bowden’s contract. In this age of economic accountability, we have a right to know. It won’t change anything, I know. But it will give us a sense of who is truly running the show in the Clemson Athletic Department.
Because, if truth be told, Bowden should not be the only person at Clemson that should fear for his job.
Someone had to pull the string to keep Tommy Bowden at Clemson when Arkansas was hooked on the line. And I think whomever pulled that string should be sweating just as much as Tommy Bowden is right now.