CLEMSON, S.C. - Tommy Bowden still has a job, but that hasn't stopped some folks from suggesting who should replace him.
The subject of a sports-radio show here Tuesday morning was whether local legend Danny Ford, who led Clemson to greatness during the 1980s, would be willing to return to the Tigers sidelines.
While such talk is ill-conceived and probably doesn't reflect the sentiments of most Tigers fans, there's little doubt the faithful still have reservations about Bowden as he prepares to wrap up his fourth year at the school.
The early-season promise is no longer apparent. Last week's 30-12 home loss to Maryland assured Clemson its second straight 4-4 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tigers, 6-5 overall, need a win against visiting South Carolina on Saturday (7:45 p.m., ESPN) to have any hope of going to a semi-attractive bowl.
"Here, expectations are always high," said Bowden, who is 14-13 since starting 8-0 in 2000. "You want them high and they should be high. I wouldn't think the fans would be satisfied with 6-6 or 7-5."
Bowden, who entered this season hoping to improve on last year's 7-5 campaign that concluded with a win in the Humanitarian Bowl, preferred not to say what would constitute a success this year.
Junior linebacker John Leake didn't hesitate. Though he said beating the Gamecocks and winning a bowl game would give the Tigers a "respectable" eight-win mark, Leake conceded that 2002 will be a disappointment no matter what happens.
"It's a failure already to me, because we've lost five games," said Leake, who has a team-high 142 tackles this season. "I believe we're better than that."
The Tigers appeared to be a better team earlier this year. They outplayed Georgia but lost, 31-28, in the season opener, and the defense showed improvement under new coordinator John Lovett as Clemson won its next three games.
Special teams gaffes ruined an excellent chance for the Tigers to win at Florida State, but there were still plenty of positives to be drawn from the 48-31 defeat.
The first real sign of trouble came Oct. 12 against Virginia. The Cavaliers came from behind to win 22-17, and starting quarterback Willie Simmons was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Charlie Whitehurst because of problems protecting the football.
Simmons played well the next week against Wake Forest, but Clemson's defense gave up 523 yards of total offense - 365 rushing - in a 31-23 escape.
N.C. State went to Death Valley and pinned an embarrassing 38-6 loss on the Tigers, making it clear then that Bowden's fourth team stood a flimsy chance of being better than his third.
"It's tough," said left tackle Gary Byrd. "At the beginning of the year, we never planned on being a mediocre team."
Leake says things could be worse. Had a break or two not gone Clemson's way against Wake Forest and in a 34-31 win over Duke on Nov. 2, fans might really be clamoring for Ford.
"We're lucky to be where we are now," Leake said. "We could easily be 3-8."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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