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'That is me, Lazarus reincarnated'

Amidst all the things football on Tommy Bowden's office desk is a
large King James Version of the Bible. And it's not just there for
decoration.

The Clemson football coach said he is in the process of reading it
cover-to-cover for the second time in his life. Bowden believes in a
literal interpretation of the Bible and that it has relevance to life
in the 21st Century.

He not only believes the characters and story still have meaning,
but throughout one of the longest seasons in his professional life, he
said he has seen his situation in the context of those he has read
about in the Old and New Testaments.

In a year in which his wife Linda learned to unplug the answering
machine on Saturdays and he encountered something strange almost every
week, Tommy Bowden said he was reminded of characters such as
Shadrach, Moses, Isaiah, and of course, Lazarus.

"I will run out of characters," Bowden quipped.

There were plenty of questions heading into the fifth season of
Bowden Ball at Clemson. A disastrous 55-15 shellacking at the hands of
Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl to end the 2002 season and an
offseason pronouncement by athletics director Terry Don Phillips that
he wanted to see significant improvement in the football program had
many openly questioning if Bowden would be back for a sixth season.

After a fast start at Clemson, he entered 2003 with a 29-20 record,
and was just 14-11 over the last two seasons. In an effort aimed at
improvement, he vowed that the Tigers would be much tougher. To that
end, Clemson spent much of the spring and the summer working more out
of the I-formation in an attempt to have more success running the
ball.

In preseason discussions with the media, Bowden compared his
status at Clemson to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the book of
Daniel.

"I've gone from the hot seat to probably the fiery furnace," he
said before the season. "They didn't burn up. They did what? They
came out."

All those factors came together in a highly anticipated season
opener with Georgia at Memorial Stadium on Aug. 30. It went about as
bad as it could for Clemson, which was shut out, 30-0.

The hot seat didn't appear to be cooling off any time soon.

Clemson looked lethargic in a 28-17 win over Furman the following
week, and Bowden made a critical decision. The emphasis on the
I-formation was finished. The Tigers were going to go back to
spreading the field and operating without a huddle.

Clemson routed Middle Tennessee Sept. 13 and then eased the tension
some with a 39-3 rout of Georgia Tech in Atlanta Sept. 20. Clemson's
new offense was almost flawless, and the Tigers enjoyed their most
lopsided win in the series since 1903.

Clemson had a week off to prepare for a trip to Maryland, but it
wasn't enough as Maryland controlled the game in a 21-7 win. The
Tigers regained their confidence by beating Virginia in overtime the
following week.

Following the Virginia win, Clemson traveled to Raleigh on a
Thursday night to take on N.C. State. They played well, particularly
in the second half, but lost 17-15. Clemson had a chance to tie the
game late, but quarterback Charlie Whitehurst missed Tony Elliott in
the back of the end zone on a two-point conversion play.

Clemson had survived the disaster of the Georgia game to emerge at
4-3 through seven games. The victory over Virginia was nice, but the
Cavaliers weren't as good as many expected. Bowden still hadn't
delivered the signature win that his critics craved.

As if he needed a reminder, he got it early Friday morning
following the NC State loss. When he approached his house at
approximately 4 a.m., he noticed a strange car parked in front of his
house. As he approached his driveway, the driver of the car turned and
sped away.

"You never know nowadays what is going to happen. I live at the
end of a cul-de-sac. You either have to be lost or going to my
house," Bowden said. "To be parked down there at four in the morning
is unusual. They left when they saw me coming over the hill. Nothing
was done, or maybe we caught them right before."

Clemson narrowly avoided an embarrassing loss to North Carolina,
surviving for a 36-28 victory on Oct. 25. At 5-3 the Tigers were
starting to play well and went into a Nov. 1 game with Wake Forest
feeling good.

Whitehurst had taken control of the offense and was utilizing his
explosive receivers. The defense, minus the UNC game, had played well
and kept the Tigers close in the Maryland and NC State losses. The
running game was even coming along.

The Demon Deacons had outplayed Clemson the year before at Death
Valley and lost, but after a hot start had lost two of their last
three games, including a 24-7 decision to Georgia Tech, the same team
Clemson throttled.

It looked like a game the Tigers should win. Instead, Wake Forest
ran wild against a confused defense and the Clemson offense was
nonexistent. The Demon Deacons led 45-0 after three quarters. Chants
of "Fire Bowden" could be heard in the stands.

The Tigers scored 17 meaningless points in the fourth quarter to
account for the final margin.

When the game mercifully ended, Bowden went to midfield and then
into the locker room. He figures it took him between 12 and 13
seconds. In that time he said he was finalizing what he would say to a
team that had just been humiliated.

"You had to say something," Bowden said. "Because I knew it was
probably going to be a pretty critical next three weeks."

It will probably be remembered as one of the defining moments of
his tenure at Clemson. With his players assembled before him, many of
whom were staring at the ground, Bowden said that he fully expected
them to beat No. 3 Florida State the following Saturday in Clemson
Memorial Stadium.

"I was touched by that. I was amazed he said that," Whitehurst
said. "Everybody is kind of looking down and when he said that
everybody kind of went like this (looking up). There is thoughts going
through your mind, 'We are not any good.' I know personally it made a
huge impact on me. The season is not over."

Coaches are paid big money to find a way through those moments.
Bowden said that he didn't decide to make the statement in just those
12 seconds. With the game out of hand, he had most of the second half
to craft an appropriate message.

But did he really believe what he said, that his team could beat
Florida State?

"Well, yeah I did because . . . well I would be crazy if I said I
did," said Bowden. "With our last performance the week before, the
odds of beating them were minimal. That is what guys in my position
do. You set the pace and you say, 'Let's go to work.' You have got no
other alternative. No, it wasn't a lie. Wasn't it Moses...right before
the pharaoh, he went up there and then the pharaoh brought his two
guys up there and they were tricking each other back and forth."

Bowden fielded the inevitable questions about his future leading up
to the fifth and what most thought would be the final Bowden Bowl.
Some even speculated that he might not even get to coach the game.

But he did coach it, and it's a good thing for Clemson he did. The
Tigers whipped the Seminoles in a 26-10 victory, and Clemson fans were
so jubilant that they couldn't even wait until the end of the game to
storm the field.

This was the marquee win Bowden desperately needed. Bowden's
prediction, whether he believed it or not, had come true. His players
had rallied from the devastating loss to record one of the biggest
wins in school history.

His players, sensing what they had accomplished for themselves and
their coach, presented him with the game ball after he defeated his
father Bobby Bowden for the first time.

"It was unusual. It wasn't by fluke. It was pretty decisive,"
Bowden said. "That combination of things made it pretty special."

The Tigers thumped Duke 40-7 the following week, and headed into
the regular season finale with rival South Carolina on a roll.

At his Tuesday media conference before the USC game, Bowden almost
broke down when asked what his future plans were. He paused for 12
seconds and then said: "Those (questions) you would have to direct at
somebody other than myself."

The incident created a stir that lasted most of the week. The
Tigers responded with a 63-17 rout of the Gamecocks in Columbia,
scoring the most points any team has ever scored in the history of the
rivalry.

Phillips, who had said little about Bowden's future throughout the
season, said after the game he would begin working on a contract
extension with Bowden.

Sometime between the Wake Forest disaster and the landmark win over
Florida State, Bowden said his wife gave him a verse from the book of
Isaiah.

In part it read:

"All they that were incensed against thee shall be ashamed and
confounded; they shall be as nothing...Thou shall seek them, and shalt
not find them, even them that contended with thee; they that war
against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of naught."

Bowden said that what happened in the final month of the season
confirmed the message he read in Isaiah.

His team is one of the hottest in the country, winning three
straight and routing its archrival. The Tigers were selected to play
in the Peach Bowl, he was named the ACC Coach of the Year and became
the first coach in the history of the league to lead his first five
teams at a school to bowl games. Not surprisingly, the criticism has
quieted.

"To me, that applies directly to what I went through the last
three or four weeks. That is like a lot of criticism and all of a
sudden you start winning. All the people? You can't find them. I
thought that hit right at home."

Bowden received his contract extension on Dec. 2, agreeing to a
three-year extension that keeps him at Clemson for the foreseeable
future.

He can't help but make one more Biblical connection. Since
Phillips' statement in the offseason about improvement, many thought
Bowden's dismissal was inevitable.

The Wake Forest debacle only made it appear more certain, and
Bowden looked all but finished. But with the successful final month,
he survived.

He said it is just like Lazarus, you know, the one that Jesus
raised from the dead.

"You heard of Lazarus? That is me, Lazarus reincarnated," Bowden
joked. "If you know what happened to Lazarus, it was a natural."

Daniel Ogle is a writer with the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail.