CLEMSON — Tommy Bowden remembers shaking Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe’s hand, and then time standing still as he inched toward the stadium portal where Clemson exited.
On that day in 2003, the Tigers had lost 45-17, an outcome sure to increase the frenzy about Bowden’s employment status to unprecedented heights.
After what Bowden frequently labeled “the long, long walk,” he went across the locker room to quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and told him Clemson was going to knock off third-ranked Florida State the next weekend.
Bowden said he slowly circled the locker room and made everyone look him the eye and affirm his guarantee.
Then, he exited without another word.
“That was the most difficult time for me, just because of rumors of my longevity here,” Bowden recalled before this season, adding for effect. “Which were highly, highly elevated.”
When the Tigers pulled off the upset, FSU coach Bobby Bowden joked that his son’s job ought to be safe for another five days.
He got the five correct. Five years later, Tommy Bowden’s tenure has come full circle.
Clemson’s 20-17 loss to Maryland a week ago revived skepticism that Bowden’s “longevity” lasts beyond the season if the Tigers fall short of the ACC title game.
With that backdrop, the Tigers prepare for Thursday night’s game at No. 21 Wake Forest, which will test Clemson’s tendency to rally following a loss to an opponent that does not, on paper, equal the Tigers.
“I hate that I’m this good at it,” Bowden kidded. “That means I’ve been doing it more than I need to.”
After the 2003 Wake Forest loss, the Tigers won three of their final four games.
A year later, they recovered from 1-4 start to win five of their last six, including an overtime decision at No. 11 Miami.
Last season, a 23-21 comeback victory at USC gave Bowden the leverage to gain a four-year contract extension.
“One of the tougher things in this profession is keeping those guys motivated after they lose,” Bowden said. “It’s a negative atmosphere, and you have to keep them positive.
“You know, I’ve been in this situation several times, and you always hope they learn (from it).”
Bowden said he does not have any specific tricks for these circumstances.
But he thinks this year’s squad is better equipped to handle adversity than most because it has so many prominent seniors and juniors who saw that Clemson was not out of the ACC picture last year despite consecutive losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
If anything, several players suggested Bowden churns out even more of the comparisons that fans on message boards detest — associating Clemson’s losses to those of Georgia, Ohio State and the like — as a means to keep team members seeing the smaller picture. For example, all three Atlantic Division representatives in the ACC title game have had two or three conference losses.
Senior quarterback Cullen Harper said those comparisons give players something to relate to.
“We have to approach this game like it was (last year’s) Boston College game,” Harper said. “Really, all of our remaining ACC games are must-win for us.”