With a new leader and a great work ethic, Clemson’s football team is poised to become King of the Jungle
By Kim Goss
Published: Fall 2000
One of the reasons high school football players want to attend a major university is to get a great education--at least, that’s the primary reason they give to their parents. Another important factor is that bigger schools generally enjoy great fan support and have football programs committed to winning. When there are the inevitable lags in their team’s win-loss record, these programs will take the positive steps necessary to get back into bowl games and return to the top of the national rankings. Clemson University has just such a commitment to excellence, and it’s why two years ago the university decided to hire Tommy Bowden as its head coach.
After the 1998 season, Bowden, son of Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, inherited a football program that was taxing the support of even the most diehard alumni. Although the Clemson Tigers had earned the title of National Champions in 1981, the spark had fizzled and Bowden found himself trying to turn around a program that had not won an Atlantic Coast Conference title for almost a decade. What’s more, they had sunk to the level where the team only produced three wins in 1998, placing them eighth in the conference. Obviously, this is not the level of performance you’d expect from a prestigious university such as Clemson, and not the type of tradition that would attract elite high school football players who could make a difference on the gridiron.
Knowing he had his work cut out for him, Bowden brought his exciting “no huddle” running style of football to Clemson and became deeply involved in every aspect of the game, especially the off-season conditioning program. Says Head Strength Coach Joey Batson, “I have to account to Coach Bowden for everything I do in an annual planner that tracks our progress from August to July. This report ends up being about 140 pages and, believe it or not, Coach Bowden is going to read every word of it and give it back to me with notes.” Such attention to detail has paid immediate dividends.
In Bowden’s first year, the Tigers ambushed their prey to place second in the ACC and earn a trip to the Peach Bowl against Mississippi State. What’s also impressive about their amazing comeback is they did it with one of the toughest schedules in the country.
Clemson opened the season against Marshall (which ended the season undefeated, but only edged Clemson by three points), and then had to face the two teams that eventually competed for the National Championship, Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Batson says his Tigers were in peak condition for all these battles, had good game plans and played well, but they were simply not yet up to that level of football--even though Florida State also only edged them by three points. “These teams have some strong, fast athletic kids and we were outmatched in some areas. We’ve got a ways to go, and that will come with continued hard training and recruiting.”
This year Clemson has a favorable schedule that doesn’t pit the team against Marshall or Virginia Tech, and includes seven home games. But Batson says the Tigers are not taking any team lightly. “We just go one game at a time, and that starts with the Citadel. We have some good players here, we’re in great shape and we’ll be a physical team, but we’re not to the level where we can just show up on Saturday and beat people.”
Even more important than their schedule, this year’s den of Tigers is loaded with experience, having 16 returning starters, equally divided between offense and defense, and 53 returning lettermen. Quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, who started in five games last year, was ranked 31st in the nation in passing efficiency and ran for 588 yards, second best on the team. With this type of manpower, you can see why most of the pre-season polls have Clemson ranked in the top 25. But the Tigers are hungry and are striving to regain their former respect as a football powerhouse.
“Coach Bowden is really pushing hard to get the things that he feels can build a national championship program, and he supports our strength program 100 percent,” says Batson. “He wants us to feel a “sense of urgency” in everything we do; he tells us, ‘We can’t wait until tomorrow--we have to do it today!,’ and ‘if you don’t feel it, then Clemson ain’t the place for you.’”
Not Just a Paper Tiger
If you get the sense that being a strength coach at Clemson is a demanding job, you’re right. But Coach Batson is up to the challenge and has exceeded even Coach Bowden’s demanding expectations.
A native of Georgia, Batson says he caught the lifting bug when he started pumping iron in a basement gym with his cousin. “We had a high school coach who gave us a strength program. Although we didn’t quite know what we were doing, we enjoyed lifting.” As his love for lifting eventually evolved into a desire to be a strength coach, after college, Batson accepted graduate-assistant jobs to perfect his skills. He took on greater responsibilities at smaller schools, and four years ago became the head strength coach at Clemson.
Batson says one of the biggest influences in his training philosophy has been Louie Simmons, arguably the most accomplished powerlifting coach in the world. “Several years ago I spent some time visiting Louie and I still talk to him about every two months--Louie has been a great help to me,” says Batson. “His gym is pretty barbaric--there’s not much there--but it just shows you that you can take some barbells and dumbbells, a glute-ham bench and a power rack and get just about as strong as anybody.”
The Clemson strength program is well staffed with four full-time coaches, three graduate assistants, two student assistants and one volunteer. With that level of help, Batson is able to group his athletes under separate coaches, which allows for greater individuality. But Clemson’s commitment to football doesn’t stop with quality coaches.
Batson says Bowden is pushing hard to get a 10,000-square-foot weightroom completed as soon as possible, one that will cater primarily to football. “We’ve got a brand new football complex in the works,” says Batson. “When you add that accomplishment to our indoor-turf field, it’s a program that you know is only going to get better.”
Although Batson has made it to the top of his profession, he is realistic when encouraging others to follow in his footsteps. “If you really want to get involved in this profession, you need to sit down with someone who is established in the field and let them tell it to you straight. It’s a long, hard road, and I think a lot of guys get into it and don’t realize the amount of time they have to put in,” says Batson, who often finds himself working 14-hour days. “It’s pretty brutal--you have to have a love for it. That’s for sure.”
The advice Batson gives prospective college football players in regard to their strength program depends upon the high school and the strength program they are coming from. “Some guys come in cleaning and squatting with very good technique, and you always have pretty good bench pressers. What I generally see that needs the most work is overall conditioning, and we often have to elevate their work capacity so they can handle the amount of work they do on the field.”
Batson is convinced that conditioning was a significant factor in why the team finished strong last year. “We’re always going to be a well-conditioned team,” says Batson. “In Coach Bowden’s philosophy, number one is conditioning, number two is speed, and number three is strength. This is not to diminish the importance of strength, because strength and speed go together, but Coach Bowden will never sacrifice one or the other for conditioning. This means we have to run our players extremely hard in the summer and do a lot of volume. We have a fast-paced offense, so we need to condition with repeated bouts of intense training with short rest intervals.”