Tommy Bowden sat behind his desk in his darkened office after running eight miles at lunchtime, with one hand raised to eye level. The other lay flat on his desk to illustrate the highs and lows of life as a football coach. "When Terry went to Auburn it was a very low part of my career," he said.
"Not for him, but I had worked to be the head coach. It was a very humbling time for me professionally. And then five or six years later it's reversed."
December 1992 was the low point. There was the good news that Tommy’s family wouldn’t have to move again – Terry came to Auburn with the stipulation that he could keep his brother on as offensive coordinator. That was good news for Tommy’s wife Linda. For Tommy it was devastating.
"When I've had low times professionally or personally, I've had a tendency to put my nose to the grindstone and try to be more committed and say, ‘This is not going to deviate my faith because it happens to everybody’," he said. "Christ doesn't guarantee no adversities. You can overcome them, but you're going to have them."
Seven years later things have, indeed, reversed. Tommy's the one on top. He was named head coach at Clemson a few months after Terry resigned at Auburn. Nothing ever changed when the entire Bowden family – Bobby and Ann Bowden, their six children and spouses and the 22 grandchildren – vacations in Panama City Beach, Fla. Tommy's always been the one telling Terry what to do. That's how it was when he worked for his brother. That's how it is today. Terry is, after all, his little brother. “Go get the beach furniture,” Tommy would tell Terry. Terry would do it.
Whatever happened to Tommy and Terry professionally, things never changed at Panama City Beach.
It's seven days of golfing for Bobby. His boys take turns trying to keep up with him on the golf course.
"I don't play much golf," said Tommy. "We take turns playing golf with daddy. We tee off about seven-thirty or eight in the morning and get finished about noon. We get back and spend time on the beach. Daddy will golf every day. I don’t like to do it every day. I’ll do it every other day. Steve will go every day. Jeff, me and Terry will usually rotate.”
The golf course is nearly the only place where Tommy hasn't followed Bobby.
From the time Tommy could walk, he was tagging along on the football field. "Tommy is the only one that I thought would go into coaching," said Bobby. "Terry we thought would go into law. Jeff majored in criminal justice. But Tommy, ever since he was in elementary school, let it be known that he wanted to be a coach."
Tommy is the second of four boys. Older brother Steve was a preacher; now he’s a financial planner in Birmingham. He’s working with Terry on a project to involving schools and parents. “We are doing something that is going to have a powerful influence on education in the country,” said Steve.
Terry has been driving to Birmingham from Auburn to work three days a week with Steve on the project. Tommy describes the project as “day care for rich people.”
“You and your wife are working and you can see what your children are learning,” Tommy said. “You could catch up on them and see what they’re being taught.” He doesn’t expect Terry to stay out of coaching. “He’s going to start that TV work in September. I would say after he does that we’ll know. I would think he’ll get back into coaching this coming November when more jobs come open. But he can afford to be selective, which is a nice luxury. He doesn’t have to take just anything.”
This week, though, everybody in the Bowden family is taking a break for the annual vacation, usually a time for sharing thoughts on coaching. This year, with Tommy preparing for a October 23 game with his dad, the talk "will be pretty generic," said Tommy. The days are over for now when Tommy and his dad exchange any substantive ideas on coaching.
“We’ve always talked football,” said Tommy. “Me and Terry and my bother Jeff – we’ve always talked x’s and o’s especially since daddy was at Florida State and Terry was at Auburn and I was at Tulane and we never played. Now it will be, ‘How long do you practice? How do you discipline?’ More of that than the x’s and o’s that we used to.”
All the boys, including Steve, were in Troy, Al., for the Bowden family camp last week. They left straight from there for the beach. "As long as mother is calling the shots, we'll go," said Tommy.
If Tommy and Linda have anything to do with it, though, their only son Ryan won't follow in his dad's footsteps. "He loves to be around Tommy and go up and stay at practice," said Linda. "You would think he would be bored. We're so adamant at steering him away from it. It's such a tentative way to live.
“It's exciting and all that. During the rough times, we landed on our feet. But the situation with Terry last year shows the nature of the business. He went from top to bottom in record time. We're steering Ryan away, showing him some other options."
Linda remembers the eleven moves in 22 years; never enjoying a new car so they could afford for her to stay at home with their children.
“I’ve got a wife that’s a homemaker and always wanted to be a homemaker,” said Tommy. “That’s the most important job. We’re kinda a throwback to the 1950’s with Ozzie and Harriet and all that stuff. They say you can’t do that stuff anymore. I’m living it.” When Tommy became head coach at Tulane, they could finally afford a buy a new car. After 20 years of being an assistant, it didn’t change the way they lived. Linda picks up daughter Lauren from school. She still cooks Tommy his favorite – fried green tomatoes.
For now, Ryan is planning to go to college at Auburn, where he spent the better part of his years growing up. He’s seen the better side of coaching, though, just like Tommy did when he tagged along with Bobby on the football field and on the road trips with Samford in the early 60’s.
“I made the decision when I was in the sixth grade to be a coach,” said Tommy. “Terry and I slept on those luggage racks inside the team bus. None of us were big anyway. At six and seven we were small. It was easy to sleep up there.” Bobby never faced a losing season as a head coach until Tommy was a sophomore on his 1974 team at West Virginia.
That season opened Tommy’s eyes to the nature of college football coaching. Twenty-four years later he’s been through it all himself – from the low of being passed over in favor of Terry at Auburn to sitting in the corner office of the McFadden Building as the head coach at Clemson.
“I had kinda made a commitment to make sure my Christian witness didn’t deviate because I was having adversity,” said Bowden.
Tommy Hood can be reached at email@example.com