Clemson coach Tommy Bowden rushed out of the visitor's media room at Williams-Brice Stadium after his team defeated South Carolina 13-9 last month when he spied the distinctive jacket of a Champs Sports Bowl official.
"I promise we won't embarrass you like last time if you choose us," Bowden said, shaking hands and moving on.
Later this month, the 23rd-ranked Tigers (7-4) hope to give a much better showing in Orlando, Fla., than in 2002 when they were bludgeoned by Texas Tech, 55-15, when the game was called the Tangerine Bowl.
"You remember that it was an embarrassing situation and you were the coach," Bowden recalled Thursday. "It's not a situation we want again."
And one Bowden or his players expect to repeat when they take on Colorado (7-5) on Dec. 27.
"We remember what happened then," said Clemson cornerback Tye Hill, voted to the second-team AP all-America team this week. "We want to make sure it doesn't happen again."
That's particularly true of quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. He was just a precocious freshman then, having led Clemson to three victories in his four starts simply to qualify for the postseason. Then came the Red Raiders rush, which continually slammed into the young passer and left him limp and groggy when the game ended.
It took nearly two weeks for the fog of the football game to clear up, Whitehurst says now. "It was probably pretty dangerous for me then," he said.
Thankfully for Whitehurst's health, Clemson's offensive line has improved much since then - along with the Tigers' resolve.
Dealing with embarrassed fans and pessimistic predictions throughout 2003, Clemson rallied with a four-game flourish that included victories over then third-ranked Florida State, South Carolina by a 63-17 score and, in the Peach Bowl, sixth-ranked Tennessee.
A season later, Whitehurst and the Tigers did it again, recovering from a 1-4 start to win five of their final six games - including a victory over Miami. The only thing that kept Clemson from the postseason, and from Bowden going 6-for-6 in reaching bowl games with the Tigers, was its on-field fight with South Carolina that ended both schools' seasons early.
Then this year, Clemson was stuck at 2-3 after three consecutive disappointing losses - in overtime to Miami and Boston College, and by 4 points at Wake Forest. Once again, the Tigers rebounded to win five of their last six games and earn the bowl spot.
Hill, Clemson's senior cornerback, was a freshman tailback in the Texas Tech loss and actually led the Tigers with 16 yards rushing. He says the beating stuck with him and his teammates and inspired them never to settle for average when they could be great, something Hill feels the Tigers have shown during his time there. "That game had a lot to do with it," Hill said.
Bowden says the team will work through Dec. 20, get a day to see family and friends then reassemble in Orlando on Dec. 22. He'll have holiday services and dinner for his team and the families of the coaching staff on Christmas Day before the Tigers hit the practice field. "They may not be able to keep down that dinner," Bowden joked.
One large question for the Tigers - will Whitehurst practice enough after minor shoulder surgery this month to start his final game?
Whitehurst had the procedure to alleviate shoulder pain he's felt since September. He threw some Thursday as an winter storm forced Clemson to practice inside and said he felt strong.
Bowden's still in wait-and-see mode with his star. Should Whitehurst not get the kind of practice necessary, Bowden says he'll go with backup Will Proctor.
Whitehurst doesn't expect that to happen. After all, he'd like to end his bowl career much more positively than he began. "All of us have a chance to finish things the right way," Whitehurst said. "We hope we can do that."
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