In Andy Griffith’s 1954 What Is Was Was Football monologue, he used his southern drawl to illustrate what a hick from the hills thought of his experience in attending a football game.
“I don't know friends, to this day, what it was that they was a doin' down there, but I have studied about it”, Griffith scowled.
“I think it was that it's some kindly of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without gettin' knocked down or steppin' in somethin'.”
Some 54 years later, there seems a bit of poetic justice to that classic tale that correlates to Clemson football, the now defunct Tommy Bowden era, and the dawning of the Dabo Swinney era.
Coach Bowden, you see, could never seem to take the pumpkin from one end of the cow pasture to the other without getting’ knocked down or steppin’ in something’.
I found myself, especially in the later years of Bowden’s tenure, almost pulling for the man as much as I pulled for the team. The first thought after a big Clemson win was what relief that must be for Bowden and his staff. The first thought after a tough loss would be how will Bowden survive this one?
And let me say that I am not particularly proud of the fact that the Bowden era had degenerated to that point with me. Many of you had crossed the threshold of support for Bowden years before and I’m sure took some pleasure in seeing the rest of us that hung on to the end squirm after the Maryland and Wake Forest losses last year.
But Bowden’s mythic persona, like his tenure at Clemson, was never as clean as many would try and make it out to be.
Bowden never found a hill he was not willing to climb. After “figuratively” being fired the week after a loss to Wake Forest in 2003, his Clemson team pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat by ripping off a classic finish to the season that saw an upset of Florida State, a 63-17 whipping of South Carolina, and a bowl victory over Tennessee.
We did not necessarily know it then, but that “resurrection from the ashes “ blueprint of 2003 would come to define Bowden, his coaching style, and the repetitive sequels to digging holes with bad losses from 2004 until 2008 with hopes of coming back from those losses to salvage quality seasons.
A month ago, Bowden himself verified why he would never win a championship at Clemson. Instead of the gun slinging hunter Bobby Robinson thought he had hired away from Tulane, Bowden seemingly had become comfortable with using up each and every one of his nine lives.
"I went to work that morning fully anticipating coaching that day and that night”, Bowden said July 15th in Florence, Alabama in reflection of the Wake Forest loss last year.
“It was going to get better. It might not have pulled out to win a championship, but we would have pulled out and gone to a bowl. I'd been on the hot seat before. We'd get this thing turned around.”
Bowden summarized his tenure at Clemson with four words. “I've always done that.” Indeed he had. Until the act grew sickening to even his most loyal supporters. Bowden found comfort in pulling his teams off the ledge instead of teaching them to never get close to the ledge in the first place.
So we dawn upon a new football season with a new coach (the interim tag now removed) in Dabo Swinney. Coach Swinney seems, in many respects, the anti-Bowden. If Bowden believed one thing, Swinney seems to believe almost the opposite. Bowden’s reserved nature and even keel is the polar opposite of the cheerleading/motivational/inspiring mantra that Swinney wears on his sleeve for all to see.
Bowden spoke. Swinney gushes. Bowden preached patience. Swinney senses immediacy. Bowden took pride in trying to avoid disasters. Swinney seems intent on chasing dreams and goals.
Swinney seems to me like that item you buy off of television infomercials. It looks good, it shines brightly in the spotlight, and the pitchman can make it seem like you can’t live without the product.
But until the item is shipped to your door, you are never really sure what the quality is behind the eclectic verbiage and shiny video.
Swinney has said all of the right things from the moment he took the reigns last October. I have often wondered if Coach Swinney listened to talk shows, subscribed to web blogs, and scanned Internet message boards during his time as an assistant to Bowden. If there was an issue (from offensive formations down to uniforms) that Clemson Nation had a gripe with, Swinney seemed to add them to his grab bag of goals and visions.
Bowden spent 10 years with an ambivalent approach to anything that folks said about the program. Swinney has taken 9 months to show concern and compassion for every single one of those agenda items, no matter how relevant or irrelevant those items are to wins and losses.
It seems like Swinney is everything we have ever wanted in a football coach. Passion, demand for things to be done with a sense of urgency, and full dedication to no excuses.
Ten years ago I would have bought it all…hook, line, and sinker. Ten years ago, I would have already published an article about how this was going to be the year the pieces to the puzzle will fall together and we will play for an ACC Championship and BCS Bowl berth. I would have gone game by game, explaining in detail why I think our coaches and their philosophical ideals will equate to wins.
But, in some cruel way, Bowden’s legacy still cast its shadow over this program and, more specifically, me. I’m not so quick to believe that words equate to wins. I’m not so quick to hear coach-praise of positions and players and believe that initial concerns for those areas and players should wash away with the August practices. I’m not so quick to think we can be tougher than our opponents. I’m not so quick to believe we can out-coach another team in a close game.
And maybe that is a good thing. Seems I, and maybe many of you, had become more like Gamecock fans than Clemson fans. The eternal hope that promises will be fulfilled has sustained season ticket holders in Columbia for 100 years. I suppose we had become that way too…always thinking that that past problems had been corrected during the Bowden regime.
Do I like Dabo Swinney? Yes. Do I think he has the right approach to this season, these players, and his coaches? Yes. Do I think Dabo Swinney earned a chance to be this program’s coach with his performance as interim coach? Yes.
Am I excited about this football season? Heck yeah!
Beyond that, I’m not sure what we have bought from the shiny and clean infomercial with Swinney. These players, coaches, and Swinney himself have plenty to undo from the Bowden era if there is even a slim hope of playing in Tampa.
Swinney has to find a way to take the pumpkin from one end of the cow pasture to the other without gettin' knocked down or steppin' in somethin'. Bowden never could chart that path. Year in and year out Bowden spent more time cleaning off his back and shoes afterwards than he did pursuing (with determined passion) the goal of winning championships.
Swinney must spend more time preventing the knock downs and the steppin’ in something’ if he wants to truly distance himself from Bowden’s legacy.
Is Swinney special? Is he the next Danny Ford? Is he the next Gene Stallings? Is he going to win at Clemson beyond our imagination?
What do we have, beyond the passion and rhetoric, in Dabo Swinney?
What it is, is something. I just don’t think we know what that something is, yet.