Football games are won and lost in the fall, but it is the spring booster circuit where fans get their annual reassurance that the athletics programs are headed in the right direction. Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden made his annual trek to Rock Hill where he addressed a packed room at the Rock Hill Country Club.
The dinner was the third this week for Bowden, who was accompanied by golf coach Larry Penley, the only current Clemson head coach with a national title to his credit, as well as several members of the athletic department.
After three consecutive years of being "one or two plays" away from earning a trip to the ACC championship games, Tiger enthusiasts are eager for Clemson to take the next step towards conference championships and a national presence.
Bowden reassured the crowd that the program is on the right track, both on and off of the field. Other than a violation of team rules by linebacker Cortney Vincent resulting in suspension of spring practice, Clemson has stayed out trouble.
The football team also recorded their highest grade-point average during a fall semester since the completion of Vickery Hall nearly 10 years ago. Vickery Hall, the first of its kind in the country, is a building constructed solely for the purpose for supporting the academic side of the "student athlete."
Still, Bowden knows running a clean program and eight or nine wins a season is not enough to meet the high expectations of the Tiger faithful. Clemson backers long for the glory days of the 1980's when Clemson dominated the ACC with multiple 10 win seasons with a national championship to boot.
"No doubt the 2008 team has as much talent as any I have had in my nine years here," said Bowden. "We signed 25 kids in this year's recruiting class, which has as much potential as any class since I have been here. Six players have already enrolled, including one of the nation's top recruits in Da'Quan Bowers.
"Experience is also on our side, as we return all skill players and expect to have around 25 graduate students playing as seniors this year. With expectations at an all-time high, it will be my job to keep them focused on the task at hand. We know we'll be on everyone's list of top 20 teams and picked to win the conference, but this year's team has not done anything on the field yet."
Three major questions face the 2008 Tigers. The linebacker core lost starters Nick Watkins and Tremaine Billie to graduation, and on-and-off starter Antonio Clay is doubtful to return after dealing with the loss of his sister in a car crash.
That leaves Josh Miller, Scotty Cooper, and Kavell Connor to step in as starters. Rendrick Taylor toyed with the idea of switching from receiver to linebacker, but is having second thoughts, according to Bowden. Taylor will continue to be evaluated through the spring practices.
For the second consecutive season, Clemson loses four starters on the offensive line. The returning linemen do have game experience, but few starts under their belts and will be thrown into the fire as the Tigers open their season in Atlanta against Alabama on August 30.
Finally, it will be important for the seniors to add leadership to the squad. Seniors James Davis, Cullen Harper and Aaron Kelly look to lead the offense while Michael Hamlin and Dorrell Scott head the defense.
The Tigers have four spring practices under their belts, but are off this week on spring break. The spring season will culminate on April 12 with the Orange and White game in Death Valley.
Missing from the meeting was basketball coach Oliver Purnell, who spoke via video message before the hoops squad departed for Tampa and the NCAA tournament. When asked about the basketball team's success, Bowden reiterated how his football team will benefit.
"Anytime you can get Clemson's name out there in the national media, it is not only good for the school, but also the football team," added Bowden. "When we have our football recruits visit during a high profile ACC basketball game, it gets them excited to be a part of the Clemson experience."