CLEMSON, S.C. -- Tommy Bowden keeps the rings in a desk drawer.
Just an arm's length away, the three pieces of jewelry are a sign of respect and winning. They are reminders of Florida State's 11-0 regular season in 1979 and an unbeaten season at Auburn in 1993, both when he was an assistant coach to his father, Bobby, and brother, Terry, respectively, and the undefeated 1998 season at Tulane, when he was the head coach.
These rings are props Bowden uses when hypnotizing recruits with tales of past glory, the kind of stories Death Valley used to emit. They're also signs of something the first-year coach wants to bring back to a storied program made famous by 81,000 orange-clad fans stirred by the rubbing of Howard's Rock and the bolt down The Hill from behind the East end zone.
"There are problems here, or I wouldn't be here," said the 45-year-old Bowden. "The problems didn't happen overnight, and the problems can't be corrected overnight.
"Anytime you play Marshall at home (in the Sept. 4 season opener) and you're an underdog, there's been some lost credibility in the program. That's got to be re-established."
Bowden frequently quips that Death has been removed from Death Valley.
If Bowden is to restore the mystique that's dissipated in the past seven seasons, it will require his entire arsenal.
When searching for Tommy West's successor, Clemson athletics director Bobby Robinson detoured outside the Tiger family. West arrived in the Upstate in 1993 to return Clemson to the eminence of the Danny Ford days. West, a former assistant under Ford, was dismissed after five seasons. West now works in sales and development for Supplier Resource, a Seneca, S.C.-based electronics company, but said he hopes to get back into coaching.
West coached the Tigers in four bowl games, but his 31-28 record was unacceptable to impatient Clemson fans. Part of Robinson's criteria was Division I success. Bowden's remarkable undefeated season at Tulane satisfied Robinson's conditions, and on Dec. 2 the Tigers were introduced to their new savior.
"We were looking for somebody that had a proven track record," Robinson said. "He had the total package. We want to get back to a level where we can compete for the conference championship year in and year out. If you can do that in this conference, you'll be competing on the national level as well."
Bowden blood is rich in football expertise. Papa Bobby has a dynasty at Florida State complete with a 12-year string of top-four finishes in the Associated Press poll. Tommy was a grad assistant at FSU when the 'Noles finished the 1979 regular-season 11-0 and played in their first major bowl, the Orange, losing to Oklahoma 24-7. Brother Terry guided Auburn, which was on probation, to a perfect season in 1993 with Tommy serving as offensive coordinator.
In 1997, Tommy began composing his chapter of Bowden lore. With 19 years of assistant coaching experience on his resume, he did the unthinkable by converting the Green Wave's lackluster program into a top-10 resident with a 12-0 1998 season, which resulted in only a Liberty Bowl bid. Bowden's two-year tenure in New Orleans produced an 18-4 mark.
Having reached his pinnacle at Tulane, Bowden was eager to assume the reins of a power conference program, someplace where an undefeated season would be rewarded with a national championship.
"At Tulane, you would have been the guy everybody else would've been compared to," Bowden said. "That was the perfect situation to (leave a legacy). Here, the challenge is getting back up. It's had success, it just needs someone to get it back.
"Instead of being part of the tradition, you would've been the tradition (at Tulane). Here you can only be part of the tradition."
`Frank Howard will roll over'
Bowden has gone against tradition, bagging the predictable, run-dominated offense in favor of an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that the Tigers have only seen coming from the other sideline.
Although his scheme will feature up to five receivers at once, Bowden's teams are historically balanced. Tulane was the only program to average more than 300 passing and 200 rushing yards per game last season.
"Our offense will be different; Frank Howard will roll in his grave," Bowden said of the late Clemson coaching legend. "They'll see a running game, but it will be different. They won't be seeing the power I."
But Bowden says the change won't occur overnight, even though he has been on the winning side in 12 straight games. The last loss came at the end of the 1997 season. He'll stay the course, no matter what he hears from the Clemson faithful. That could hit home as early as this season, when there are a league-low 11 starters back from a 3-8 team, only five home games are scheduled and five opponents participated in bowls last season.
"If I was younger and had less experience, I might listen to them," Bowden said of naysayers. "It's all relative. We're using a similar system (to Tulane) so I think we can have similar success.
"I've done it once, I hope I can do it again. This is where I'd like to finish."
It didn't require much coercing from Bowden for the players to buy into his system.
"I really think that he's here to win ballgames," said offensive lineman T.J. Watkins, a converted tight end from North Augusta. "He'll do whatever it takes to win."
In time, Bowden will be judged by his winning percentage. For now, he and his wife of 22 years, Linda, are building a house with hopes of retiring here. Son Ryan, 17, is a tight end at Daniel High School and daughter Lauren, 14, is a sophomore at Daniel.
A five-year contract binds him to the Atlantic Coast Conference institution but Bowden won't offer a time-table for returning Clemson to prominence.
"I know how long I've got; I don't know how long it will take," he said.
A devout Baptist, Bowden is grounded in family and religion. An oversized leather-bound Bible rests on the left corner of his desk. He took on the daunting task of reading the scriptures from cover to cover two months prior to accepting the Tulane job. The bookmark was two-thirds of the way through this past July.
In early summer, Bowden came to Augusta as the guest of First Baptist Church of Augusta minister Tim Owings, a longtime friend from when they were neighbors in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the late 1980s. Bowden delivered lengthy sermons at both worship services.
The slender country boy shares his father's dry wit, conservative values and discipline. He acknowledges the responsibility of maintaining his family's gridiron legacy.
"When you say this name in college football, it's integrity, character and class," he said.
Each summer, Bowden immerses himself in his father's coaching notes compiled during the past 25 years. The slightly graying perfectionist sits with notes in one hand and a fishing pole in the other on a lake in the mountains of West Virginia.
Critiquing the philosophies and methods of a coaching legend rejuvenates Bowden. The blending styles of father and son are evident once the headsets are plugged in.
"I take what suits my personality and I try to institute that," Bowden said. "I feel comfortable with my personality and I try to stick with it."
Personality profiles of the three Bowden men prove Tommy and Bobby are cut from the same stock. While their charts nearly overlap, younger brother Terry's is almost the polar opposite. Bobby and Tommy are laid back, while Terry is more high strung.
Terry and Tommy are the closest of the six Bowden siblings in terms of age -- Tommy is 19 months older -- and their distinctive dispositions often produced memorable squabbles. As teen-agers, they constantly bickered over phone privileges.
"One time we were fighting and he went under the bookshelf and my eye hit it," remembered Tommy, who was left with a blood-gushing cut.
The right direction
Through all this, especially the Tulane experience, Bowden said he thinks he is ready to tackle tradition and even a college football first, a nationally televised date with his father and Florida State on Oct. 23 at Clemson.
"You want to coach where expectations are high, but you also must be realistic," Bowden said. "Patience and rebuilding are not two big words that are used very often at Clemson."
As books on war, morality and football peer down at Bowden in his Clemson office, the brazen coach preaches "cautious optimism" heading into his debut ACC season. Bowden looks up from his lunch consisting of fresh tomatoes and pretzels, secure in his role as miracle-worker.
"To know I've done it helps," Bowden said. "It gives you confidence. At least you think you know what to do, setting up a program and get it going in the right direction."