Florida State-Clemson finally the rivalry the Bowdens envisioned

Friday October 18th, 2013

For nine years, Florida State-Clemson was known primarily as The Bowden Bowl, college football's first-ever coaching matchup between father (Bobby) and son (Tommy). But the coaches themselves would have much preferred a game like Saturday's showdown in Death Valley, when their respective successors, Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, will lead a pair of top-five teams into a de facto national title elimination game.

"This is what I would have liked to accomplish. This was my dream," Tommy Bowden said this week. "But it's good to see [Swinney] finally able to do it."

"When we first got in the conference back in '92, one of the first things I said was I felt there were some natural rivalries that could result from this for Florida State," said Bobby Bowden. "One of them was Clemson-Florida State and the other was Georgia Tech-Florida State. The Georgia Tech thing hasn't happened, but the Clemson thing has."

It just took about 20 years longer than either he or Clemson supporters would have liked.

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Bowden's Seminoles were in the early stages of a staggering 14-year run of top-four finishes (1987-2000) when they gave up independent status to join the ACC before the 1992 season. Clemson, not too far removed from its 1981 national title, had to that point been the football standard bearer in a league known mostly for basketball. The Tigers had won 13 ACC titles, including five in the decade prior to Florida State's arrival. The teams had played a classic game just four years earlier in 1988, a 24-21 'Noles' victory that featured both Deion Sanders' electrifying 76-yard punt return and Bowden's game-changing Puntrooskie trick play.

In their first meeting as conference foes in 1992 -- the first night game at Death Valley in 36 years -- No. 5 Florida State edged No. 15 Clemson 24-20 on a late Charlie Ward touchdown pass. "I don't think we did anything to hurt the series tonight," Bobby Bowden said afterward. "We said it was going to be a natural and this was a great start."

Just a year later, however, the 'Noles won 57-0 en route to their first national title. The blowout was a sign of things to come, as Florida State dominated not only the Tigers, but also the entire league. It went a staggering 70-2 in ACC play during its first nine seasons in the conference.

Clemson hired Tommy Bowden in 1999 following his undefeated season at Tulane in hopes of returning its program to national relevance, and the Tigers nearly achieved just that in the inaugural Bowden Bowl. In front of a record crowd of 86,092 at Death Valley, 3-3 Clemson led the top-ranked 'Noles 14-3 at halftime before falling 17-14. But it took until 2003 for the Tigers to notch their first victory over Florida State, by which point the 'Noles had begun a gradual descent into mediocrity. Meanwhile, Clemson could never get over the nine-win hump.

Tommy Bowden resigned under pressure midway through the 2008 season after his preseason top-10 team started 3-3. Bobby was forced out a little more than a year later following his third six-loss season in four years.

"[Bobby] beat me the first four years, and I said, 'Man, I've got to win this game or they're going to run me out of town,'" said Tommy Bowden, now an analyst for Raycom and Fox Sports South. "Starting the next year, we won four of five. So they got rid of both of us."

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Bobby (left) and Tommy Bowden share a laugh before Florida State's 2007 game at Clemson.
The State/MCT/Getty Images

Neither agreed with those decisions at the time. Tommy wanted "six more months," when the new football facility he'd spent years campaigning for finally opened. Bobby, 80 at that point, "only wanted one more year" to get to 35 seasons. But both Bowdens fully endorsed the men who replaced them.

In 2003, Tommy Bowden hired Swinney, then 33 and out of coaching, to be his receivers coach. Bowden had coached the former walk-on receiver as an assistant at Alabama a decade earlier. When Clemson's then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips met with Bowden on a Monday in mid-October five years later to discuss a change in direction, Bowden recommended promoting Swinney despite the fact that he'd not yet been a coordinator.

"When I talked to Terry Don, I said I think this guy is eventually going to be a really good head coach," said Tommy Bowden. "I thought he had all the intangibles. His reputation isn't as a play-caller, it's recruiting and managing people."

Facing heavy criticism coming off a 7-6 2006 campaign (his worst in 30 years), Bobby Bowden drastically overhauled his coaching staff, most notably hiring away Fisher, then 41, from LSU, to be his offensive coordinator. Bowden had known Fisher since the mid'-80s when he played quarterback for another son, Terry Bowden, at Salem (W. Va.) College. Fisher later coached under Terry at Auburn.

After just one season, Bobby Bowden agreed to a plan that designated Fisher as his coach-in-waiting, a move that proved awkward years later when Bowden remained on the job. But Bowden -- who will attend his first Florida State home game since he stepped down when the school hosts Bobby Bowden Day next weekend -- insists he "never lost faith" in Fisher.

"Terry had told me years before that he felt like Jimbo was one of the bright coaches of the future," said Bowden. "I'd known him for years, but the three years that I worked with him, I really though he was brilliant. He had as good a feel of anyone I knew. He's such a good recruiter. He was really up on it."

While Swinney took over a program farther removed from its glory days, and a year and a half earlier than Fisher, both have charted similar courses. Clemson's recruiting has continually improved under Swinney, whose first class included current star quarterback Tajh Boyd from Hampton, Va., and whose first top-10 class in 2011 featured stud receiver Sammy Watkins from Ft. Myers, Fla. Swinney's administration provided the resources to hire and retain acclaimed offensive coordinator Chad Morris and longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Fisher almost immediately restored Florida State to the lofty recruiting perch long enjoyed by Bowden, plucking four- and five-star prospects from across the South. Redshirt freshman phenom Jameis Winston, the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit in the class of 2012, spurned home-state juggernaut Alabama to play in Tallahassee. After an extended talent dropoff in Bowden's latter years, the program produced its most NFL draft picks (11) in school history last spring.

Over the past several years both teams have risen in the polls and risen to the top of a conference that Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and even Wake Forest had won more recently. The winner of the past four Clemson-Florida State meetings has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic Division, and the winner of the past two games (Clemson in 2011, Florida State in '12) has ultimately won the league.

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The 2011 clash at Death Valley, in which a then-unheralded Tigers team knocked off the No. 11 'Noles en route to an 8-0 start and a 10-4 season, announced Boyd and Watkins' entrance on the national stage. Last year's game in Tallahassee, in which No. 4 Florida State wiped out a 14-point third-quarter deficit to beat the No. 9 Tigers 49-37, marked a breakthrough moment for Fisher's program en route to an 11-2 finish and an Orange Bowl win.

But Saturday night's showdown marks a seminal moment. It's the first meeting between top-five teams in Death Valley, and the first such matchup Florida State has played within its conference since the 2004 opener against then-league newcomer Miami.

"I think it's a sign that both of us are establishing ourselves back in national prominence again, and it's great for our kids to experience that," said Fisher. "The more successful we have a chance of being."

"We want to be one of those teams that year in, year out, Clemson comes to everybody's mind," said Swinney. "Our brand is out there, and when people sit down to write out their top 10, top 15, we are one of those teams that should be there, along with Florida State."

Florida State remains in-state rivals with Florida and Miami, and Clemson with South Carolina. But given the continued stakes, the 'Noles and Tigers may have themselves a new rivalry.

"It's become a rivalry, because it's a very important Atlantic Division contest," Fisher said of Florida State-Clemson. "There's no doubt. It is a rivalry because of the importance and how good both teams are."

Finally, it's just as the Bowdens envisioned.

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