Clemson-WVU connections run deep: Can Swinney & Morris finish what Bowden & Rodriguez started?

For both programs, the path to the Orange Bowl passed through a decade of highs, lows and turmoil

The Clemson football team meets at midfield before their Jan. 1  practice for the 2012 Orange Bowl at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.

Photo by Mark Crammer

The Clemson football team meets at midfield before their Jan. 1 practice for the 2012 Orange Bowl at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.

Clemson and West Virginia have been playing intercollegiate football for a combined 235 years. They share a general geographic vicinity near either end of the Appalachians, overlap somewhat in their recruiting areas, briefly were members of the same conference, and their current leagues – the ACC and the Big East – have been affiliated in a series of post-season bowl games for more than 20 years.

Yet the Tigers and Mountaineers have met just once – in the 1989 Gator Bowl.

“That’s kind of surprising,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney during the teams’ kickoff press conference in Miami a few days after accepting invitations to play in this year’s Orange Bowl.

While the Tigers and Mountaineers have just once crossed paths on the football playing field, they have much in common nonetheless, including shared aspirations and frustrations and a web of coaching connections that link Dabo Swinney to West Virginia alums Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez, and, indirectly via offensive philosophies that will match up two of the leading practitioners of up-tempo, spread offenses – Clemson coordinator Chad Morris and Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen - in this year’s Orange Bowl.

Since the teams last met in 1989, West Virginia has won 169 games, while Clemson has won 162. The Tigers have been ranked for 145 weeks in either the AP or coaches’ poll, or both, while the Mountaineers have been ranked for 128 weeks. Clemson has been ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation, and West Virginia has climbed as high as No. 2.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two programs has been their ability to win conference championships. Since winning the ACC in 1991, Clemson went 20 years without a conference little before breaking the drought this season. West Virginia, meanwhile, dominated the Big East during Rodriguez’s seven seasons, winning four conference titles, finishing second twice, and playing in two BCS bowl games.

Tommy Bowden, Rich Rod & Mountaineer Heritage

Whenever he found himself on the hot seat, Tommy Bowden more than once related the story of what happened to his father, Bobby, who, during a particularly rough stretch, was hung in effigy by disgruntled Mountaineer fans when he was head coach at West Virginia in the mid-1970s.

Tommy Bowden’s own ties to West Virginia are strong. He enrolled as a freshman in 1972 and played football under his dad for four years. Bowden got his foot in the door as a grad assistant at West Virginia, and year later moved to Florida State as his father’s defensive backs coach.

Bowden spent the next 20 years as a well-traveled assistant coach, with stints at Auburn, Alabama, Duke and Kentucky, before he got his head coaching breakthrough at Tulane in 1997.

One of Bowden’s first moves as head coach took him back to his West Virginia roots, when he hired Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator. A native of Grant Town, West Virginia, Rodriguez had played defensive back for the Mountaineers under coach Don Nehlen, and he, like Bowden, got his coaching start as a West Virginia graduate assistant.

Rodriguez, armed with innovative ideas about how to incorporate a quarterback-centered rushing game into a spread offensive attack (he’s credited with being one of the inventors of the quarterback zone-read from the shotgun formation), ended up at Glenville State College in Glenville, W.V., where his offense proved to be a nearly unstoppable buzzsaw at the NAIA level. After Rodriguez coached three Glenville teams to the national playoffs and was named NAIA national coach of the year, he was hired by Bowden to direct Tulane’s offense.

The combination was an instant success. With quarterback Shaun King running the attack, the Green Wave piled up both impressive statistics and victories. After an 11-0 season in 1998, Clemson hired Bowden to replace Tommy West; and when Rodriguez was not chosen to succeed Bowden as head coach at Tulane, he joined Bowden at Clemson as associate head coach and offensive coordinator.

The Bowden-Rodriguez combination was a hit at Clemson, as well. After a 6-6 season in 1999, the Tigers won their first eight games in 2000, and climbed to as high as No. 4 in the national polls. Quarterback Woodrow Dantzler thrived under Rodriguez’s direction. In 2000, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 1,600, and a year later, became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season.

Rodriguez’s Homecoming & Clemson’s Search For Offensive Identity

After the 2000 season, Don Nehlen retired as head coach at West Virginia and the Mountaineer athletic administration moved quickly to snap up one of their own in Rodriguez, who in four seasons working for Bowden had emerged as a hot head-coaching prospect.

The Mountaineers transitioned through a disappointing 3-8 first season under Rodriguez, but a year later found their footing and finished 9-4 and No. 20 in the final coaches’ poll – West Virginia’s first season-ending national ranking since 1993.

Rodriguez led the Mountaineers to Big East titles in four of the next five seasons, and to two BCS bowl games in a three-season span. His 2005 team ran the table in the Big East and went 11-1 overall, beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl; the Mountaineers followed with another 11-win season in 2006; and then a year later, went 10-2 and claimed a spot in the Fiesta Bowl opposite Oklahoma.

In mid-December that year, between West Virginia’s Big East title and its date with the Sooners, Rodriguez unexpectedly resigned his position and was named head coach at Michigan.

Meanwhile, back at Clemson, Bowden and the Tigers struggled to recreate the offensive magic that had Clemson in the nation’s top five and on the cutting edge of offensive innovation during Rodriguez’s two seasons in the Upstate.

Brad Scott took over the offense in 2001 and coached Dantzler to his record-breaking season. The Tigers averaged 432 yards per game that year – nearly matching their 2000 average, which was a program-record 436.8 yards per game. Offensive production dropped off significantly in 2002, bounced back in 2003, still under Scott, but then plummeted to 295.6 yards per game in 2004 under newly-named coordinator Mike O’Cain.

In 2005, Bowden hired Rob Spence, and, in his words, “turned the keys of the car” over to the former Toledo, Louisiana Tech and Maryland assistant widely known as ‘The Mad Scientist.’ Spence’s version of the spread was an adjust-on-the-fly variation of the run-and-shoot, developed first by an Ohio high school coach and honed at the collegiate level by Portland State’s Mouse Davis.

The Tigers had mixed results under Spence, whose teams averaged about 400 yards per game for his first three seasons, but whose output plummeted in 2008 despite an abundance of talented playmakers – a contributing factor in Clemson’s slide, Bowden’s forced resignation midway through the 2008 season, and Dabo Swinney’s ascension as head coach.

Thus eight seasons of offensive inconsistency in the wake of Rodriguez’s departure ended with the hiring of a new head coach intrigued by many of the basic concepts of Rodriguez’s offense, and two years later, with his hiring of Chad Morris to put his own unique, but in many ways similar, run-from-the-spread plan into action.

Turmoil Times-Two In Morgantown

West Virginia’s last two coaching changes have been acrimonious affairs – first with Rodriguez’s departure for Michigan shortly after signing a long-term contract, and more recently with the hiring of current head coach Dana Holgorsen as ‘coach in waiting.’ Holgorsen’s arrival was followed by the early retirement, under duress, of Bill Stewart, a former Rodriguez assistant who coached the Mountaineers to their 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma and earned himself the job full-time.

The Mountaineers’ streak of Big East dominance ended with Rodriguez’s departure, and in the aftermath, Stewart’s three straight nine-win seasons and losses in two of three bowl games against ACC opponents left West Virginia’s fans and athletic administration restless.

Last December, West Virginia made a bold move for Holgorsen, who, like Rodriguez a decade earlier, was widely considered to be the nation’s hottest young offensive coordinator. He was hired as offensive coordinator and ‘head coach in waiting,’ with the understanding that Stewart would retire after the 2011 season, and was given free reign to hire his own offensive assistants and run the offense.

Shortly thereafter, in a soap opera that played out publicly in newspapers and on radio and internet sites, Mountaineer football was divided into Stewart and Holgorsen camps.

Holgorsen was at one point investigated by the school in relation to a disturbance that allegedly ended with him being escorted from a local casino. Shortly thereafter, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told a Pittsburgh radio station that Stewart called him three days after Holgorsen was hired, asking him to “dig up dirt” on the new coach.

After an uneasy off-season, Stewart resigned last June, turning the program over to Holgorsen.

Sports Illustrated described the situation as “a fiasco” and “a textbook case of how not to appoint a coach in waiting.”

Six months later, Holgorsen has his own nine-win season and a spot in the Orange Bowl opposite Clemson, and West Virginia fans are feeling pretty good again.

Meanwhile, in January the school is due its final $500,000 payment from Rodriguez – part of a legal settlement between West Virginia, Rodriguez and the University of Michigan to satisfy the $4 million buyout in the contract Rodriguez signed four months before he left Morgantown.

And as for Rodriguez, who tried his hand as a TV analyst after being fired by Michigan last January, he’s in Tucson these days, hiring staff and hitting the recruiting trail in his first month as head coach at Arizona.

It’s a small world, or so it seems.

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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