By Scott Rhymer
It was a cold Thursday evening in Blacksburg, Virginia. October 26th, 2006 started with an air of optimism that had not sifted through the Clemson football program since 1991.
Tommy Bowden had arguably reached the pinnacle of his tenure at Clemson when the sun rose in Blacksburg on that cold October day. Sure, one could point to 2003 and the remarkable finish vs. FSU, Duke, South Carolina, and Tennessee as a greater moment under Bowden. But while that finish certainly lives in infamy for Clemson Nation, the reality of that finish is that Clemson was playing only for pride and not for a Championship in 2003.
But on this October day in 2006, Bowden’s Tigers found themselves sitting squarely on the precipice of something special. Clemson was off to a 7-1 start, with the only blemish being a double overtime thrilling loss in Chestnut Hill to Boston College. The Tigers had rebounded from that loss to string together 6 straight wins that propelled Clemson to #10 in the nation. Clemson sat squarely within BCS Bowl contention and was just on the outside looking in for consideration of playing for a National Championship.
Five days earlier, Clemson University and Death Valley were the showcase of ESPN’s Game Day broadcast on Bowman Field. James Davis and the sensational freshman, CJ Spiller, were in the spotlight of the entire college football nation. It seemed Bowden’s infamous “worm” had finally “turned”.
So as Roy Philpott and I sat high atop Lane Stadium finishing up our 45th consecutive broadcast of the Tiger Pregame Show on October 26th in 2006, there were hints that Clemson was about to officially turn the corner, change the culture, and return to national relevance.
The game itself even started the way we all had dreamt, with James Davis turning the corner to score and give Clemson a 7-0 lead to temporarily silence the deafening Lane Stadium crowd.
And then came the boom.
The Hokies would proceed to punch holes in all of the good feelings and optimism that Tommy Bowden’s Tigers had so rightfully earned previous on their way to a 24-7 beat down that ended with Tommy Bowden being pelted by a bottle from the stands.
What we did not know at the time, and surely Tommy Bowden could not have known at the time, was that cold evening on October 26th was going to be the closest he would ever get the Clemson football program to the level we all wanted and craved it to get to.
There would be no culture change at Clemson in 2006.
We fast forward five years. The Tiger Pregame Show is about to broadcast our 107th consecutive show. Tommy Bowden is now doing television and his wide receiver coach, Dabo Swinney, is leading a revival of Clemson football.
To quantify how far this team is today from the 2010 version that limped pitifully off the field in the Tire Bowl in Charlotte last December will take more words than this blog can give today. Since that December day, Coach Swinney hired better coaches, recruited better players, and has pushed all the right motivational buttons during the first four games of the season to get Clemson into the top 15 in the nation. Clemson is in the driver’s seat for the Atlantic Division race, and regardless of what happens Saturday in Blacksburg the Tigers will still control their own destiny in the Atlantic come Sunday morning.
What I find fascinating about this game Saturday, however, is what it means in terms of changing the culture of Clemson football. It is as if Clemson has come full circle. We are right back this week, both figuratively and literally, to where we were on October 26th, 2006.
Virginia Tech is what Clemson used to be…very good every year and a championship football team every couple of years. The Hokies are the best coached team in the ACC and will play hard nosed football unlike most teams that play in the ACC. Lane Stadium is one of the toughest places for a visiting team to win a game in the entire country, and a night game will not make that any easier.
Yet this is exactly the type of game that good football teams relish as an opportunity. Clemson is not favored Saturday, nor should we be. But good football teams don’t need Las Vegas to give them the confidence they need to walk into a snake pit and come out with a win. Coaches of good football teams see a game like this Saturday as an opportunity to coach their players to a point where a crowd can’t remove the focus of the job that needs to be done.
In other words, Saturday is EXACTLY the type of game we all want to position our football team to play in. Nothing is more satisfying that walking out of an opponent’s stadium with a win. When you throw in the fact that our opponent is a top 15 team and the stadium is called “Lane”, that satisfaction will be multiplied ten fold on Saturday night if we win.
Dabo Swinney has stated time and again that he is going to change the culture of Clemson football. While he may not get specific during his Tuesday Press Conference this week, Dabo’s culture change means winning a game like we have this Saturday.
To be blunt, Dabo’s predecessor ran into a brick wall when presented with an opportunity similar to what we will face Saturday night. To be fair, it will be way too early to say Dabo Swinney can’t change that culture if Clemson leaves Blacksburg with a loss. As I said earlier, we will still have control of the Atlantic Division even with a loss to the Hokies.
But with a win, is it time to say the culture of Clemson football has officially been changed? To put in perspective, this team would be 5-0 and ranked somewhere near the top 10. Clemson will have earned that record not against average football teams, but the defending National Champion, the defending Atlantic Division Champion, and the defending ACC Champion. All three of those teams were ranked when Clemson played them. That is not only noteworthy, it is a three game stretch that would be hard to find more impressive in the history (yes I said history) of Clemson football.
October 26th, 2006 was a missed opportunity to change the culture of Clemson football. October 1st, 2011 provides an almost identical opportunity with a new cast of characters.
Dabo Swinney has now gotten his chance to shed what Tommy Bowden never could.
Broadcast time this week from Lane Stadium in Blacksburg will be 12:00 noon. If you have not done so, download the free Tune In App for your Droid or Ipad phone so you can stream WCCP during the season on your phones. If you are traveling to Blacksburg for the game, this is a great way to listen to the Tiger Pregame Show, Tiger Tailgate Show, the game broadcast, and the 5th Quarter Show from Blacksburg.
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