Bowden Bowl not fun for the Bowdens

When Clemson finally beat Florida State in an Atlantic Coast Conference game last season, Tommy Bowden's celebration was noticeably subdued. His father's disappointment was abbreviated.

Tommy had saved his job. Bobby had been eliminated from a possible berth in the BCS title game. But family had overtaken football in college football's only father-son rivalry, muting emotions on both sides.

The annual Bowden Bowl offered myriad cute story lines when the first father-son matchup in Division I football began in 1999.

With each passing year, the reality of what it means to the Bowden family becomes a bit darker, and heavier, for the participants. Until last year, Bobby's Seminoles beat Tommy's Tigers with such frequency, the postgame punch lines about father knowing best appeared to be pre-written.

Then, suddenly, it wasn't so funny anymore. Bobby won't divulge what Tommy told him about his job status prior to last year's game, but his feelings on the matter are clear.

"I think he definitely would have lost it if I had won," Bobby said. "They already had everything in place for him."

When the teams meet again on Saturday afternoon in Tallahassee, that potential scenario no longer will be a distraction for Bobby.

Thanks to last year's victory over the Seminoles (on his father's 74th birthday), and the four-game, season-ending win streak it started, Tommy got a lengthy contract extension with a $3 million buyout.

"He gets to go to the beach if they fire him now," Bobby said. "Before, he didn't have that."

Good thing. Clemson was one of a few teams expected to challenge Florida State and Miami for the Atlantic Coast Conference title this season, but the Tigers have been a major disappointment, struggling to beat Wake Forest at home in overtime, then losing to Georgia Tech and Texas A&M.

Bowden Bowl VI may not be an elimination game for Tommy, but it will be for the losing team. Neither can afford another ACC loss.

The focus is different for other reasons.

The pressure to win in previous Bowden bowls didn't come close to the shared family grief present in this one. On Sept. 5, 15-year-old Bowden Madden and his father, John Allen Madden, were killed in a Hurricane Frances-related car accident minutes after they left Bobby's house in Tallahassee, where they had gone for a small Labor Day weekend gathering.

Bowden Madden, born and named after his grandfather the week after Florida State's "punt-rooskie" victory at Clemson in 1988, was an avid Clemson fan. Tommy, his uncle, sent him Clemson gear on a regular basis, finding some humor in steering his loyalty away from Bobby's Seminoles.

Tommy and Bobby delivered eulogies at the funeral services in Fort Walton Beach on Sept. 9. The next night, Bobby's Seminoles lost at Miami. A day after that, Tommy's Tigers fell apart in the closing moments of the loss to Georgia Tech.

The Bowdens have been trying to hold it together since.

"Football has always meant a lot to our family, and it is awfully important, but ... for the first time, our priorities were really challenged," Tommy said.

Tommy's sister, Ginger (Bowden Madden's mother), won't attend Saturday's game for the same reason she and their mother, Ann, didn't attend FSU's victory over Alabama-Birmingham last weekend.

They find it difficult not to cry when friends and strangers approach to express condolences over the tragedy. Ann said she will be in attendance this weekend, with great reluctance, because she's the head coach's wife.

Already, FSU had made plans to unveil a larger-than-life statue of Bobby outside Doak Campbell Stadium in a ceremony prior to the game. There is metaphor in the moment.

Bobby has remained a stoic publicly, and to his team, since the accident. Life goes on. There are football games to be played, no matter what's going on inside.

"Healing takes time," said Bobby, re-directing his thoughts toward the season. "It's a pretty tight family. The more we play and the more iffy our season is, the tougher it makes it."

And the tougher it makes Bowden Bowl VI.

"Here you go again," Bobby said. "Tommy needs to win that game and I'm going to do everything I can to keep him from it. ... Somebody's fixing to get hurt -- me, or him."

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.