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Bowden battle a no-win situation

During the Seminole Boosters' on-campus luncheon Monday, a fan offered to sing Happy Birthday to Bobby Bowden a little early. The Florida State coach turns 74 Saturday.

"You better wait 'til next week," Bowden said, "to be sure it's a happy birthday."

In some ways, it couldn't possibly be.

The best present he could receive Saturday would be a victory over Clemson, which would clinch the Atlantic Coast Conference title and the Bowl Championship Series berth that goes with it. A convincing win also would keep his No. 3 Seminoles in the national championship picture.

Yet it would come at the expense of his son, Tommy, the embattled Tigers coach.

"It makes it very tough," Papa Bowden said. "It makes it tough on me and him. You want to see him succeed. I mentioned this about three years ago. This was really fun when we started this series, this father-son thing. Really fun. But about three years ago, it ceased to be fun. Why? Because one of us has to lose.

"Remember, I've got another son on my staff," Bowden said, referring to Jeff, his oft-maligned offensive coordinator/receivers coach. "I ain't interested in feeding either one of them. I want them both to make it."

That won't happen Saturday.

There no longer are ties in college football, and the stakes of Bowden Bowl V put Bobby a bit on the defensive, as they would any parent.

Tommy, 49, is 34-24 overall at Clemson but a middling 5-4 this season (3-3 in the ACC) and coming off an embarrassing 45-17 loss to Wake Forest. The Tigers have been unranked for more than two years and have three wins against ranked teams under Bowden, the most recent against No. 9 Georgia Tech in 2001.

"It (criticism) is a part of the profession, but when it's your own son, it cuts a little deeper," said Tommy, who earns about $1.1-million and has four years remaining on a seven-year deal he signed in November 2000. "The blood, you can never erase."

Added Jeff: "I don't particularly like anybody talking about my children. I've got five children. But we understand what you go through in coaching when you're not doing as well as expected."

Tommy, who turned around a downtrodden Tulane program, including an undefeated season in 1998, falls into that category.

Folks expected Papa Bowden-like results at Clemson. And Tommy has had some success. He's 3-1 against intrastate rival South Carolina and is the first Clemson coach to take his team to bowls in each of his first four seasons. The legendary Frank Howard didn't do that, nor did the ever-popular Danny Ford, who ran the program into NCAA trouble.

"I see Lou Holtz getting praised and my brother's beating him like a drum," said Terry Bowden, the former Auburn coach and current ABC college football analyst. "He's not cheating. He doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't go to strip clubs. He doesn't gamble. He does everything the right way. He's the closest to Bobby Bowden you're going to find in this country."

If he sounds a bit like a defense attorney making a closing argument for the jury _ Clemson president James F. Barker and athletic director Terry Don Phillips, both of whom were hired after Bowden _ he is. And he makes no apology.

Papa Bowden shares those sentiments and, in a more subtle way, has made his own case for Clemson to show patience as he has consistently urged other schools to do, not just the ones that employ his family.

"People have to realize, it took us 11 years here," Bowden said. "I came here in '76 and it was '87 before we really became a power. It takes a while. It all depends whether your administration is strong enough to withstand the criticism.

"There's nothing a father can do. It's just like when daddies call me here about their boys. I don't pay a whole lot of attention to them. A daddy ain't going to say something but something good about his son. I don't even know what they're thinking. Tommy knows the downside of this profession. He saw it with me, and we've always felt like if something bad happens, something good is fixing to happen behind it. And we all know, there's only one answer: You've got to win."

That's true for Bobby, too, even though his job is as secure as Fort Knox. So, the implications for kin have to be set aside.

Not easy for a father.

Next to impossible for a mother.

"I love my children better than anything and it breaks any mother's heart to see her children disappointed about anything, whether it's their boyfriend or their girlfriend, or their senior prom or whatever," Ann Bowden said. "And this is even a little heftier than that because it involves their family, their lifestyle, their income, their job."

"I promise you dad's attention is focused on what we have to do to win this game," Jeff added. "But we're family and in the back of our minds, we know what's going on."

Some happy birthday.