Terry Bowden answers the call again. From Clemson grad intern to ULM head coach | Hunsucker

Adam Hunsucker
Monroe News-Star

Terry Bowden kept his eye on the prize during his Clemson apprenticeship. He ached for one last opportunity to be a head coach. So bad that Bowden went back to school to get it.

More baby boomers than ever are keeping their minds sharp through higher education. Just not for the explicit purpose of leading a college football program.

Bowden scoffed at retirement after Akron fired him in 2018. Untethered from the school he steered to its best FBS season ever, Bowden arranged an audience with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and asked for a job. The only opening Swinney had to offer the 1993 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year was an unpaid graduate intern position.

Swinney was shocked when Bowden called days later and said he’d applied to graduate school.

ULM football coach Terry Bowden (right) chats with Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando (left) during Monday's introduction at Bayou Pointe Event Center.

“I hadn’t been a college student in 34 years, but I got accepted and paid my own way because that’s how bad I still wanted to coach football,” Bowden said. “You’re responsible for so many things as a head coach, so I wanted to see how Dabo handled everything that comes with running a program and add it to my background.”

There exists a hidden force, undetectable to civilians, that draws all football creatures inside the game’s gravitational pull. Like many coaches' kids, Bowden heard the call, but didn’t feel it until at 26 years old, he chose lining fields and washing jocks at tiny Salem College over practicing law.

Such precedent explains why Bowden, then 62, was sharing office space alongside other Clemson staffers, most young enough to be his children, while working toward a master’s degree in athletic leadership.

More:ULM players react to first meeting with Terry Bowden: 'He's going to show us how to win'

Bowden intends to finish the curriculum during what little downtime he has. His days just got longer now that at age 64, he’s starting over again as the football coach at Louisiana-Monroe.

“I have two classes left, and I’m going to finish this dadgum thing because you pay $5,000 a semester to get your degree, so I think I’ve put $25,000 into it,” Bowden said. “I did hire someone from Clemson to handle our video, and she will help me with my homework.”

On Monday, ULM and clan Bowden cemented their union at the Bayou Pointe Event Center. Witnesses included Terry’s Hall of Fame father, Florida State legend Bobby Bowden, family matriarch Ann Bowden, and older brother Tommy Bowden, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year at Clemson.

Before his formal introduction to the ULM family, Bowden accompanied his coaching staff and players to the on-campus Martin Luther King Day of Service benefitting the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana.

More:Four things on new ULM football coach Terry Bowden's to-do list

Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando, who attended ULM and lobbied on Bowden’s behalf during the coaching search, emceed the introduction.

“All you have to do is Google ‘ULM football’ and see how this hire has resonated throughout the country,” Brando said. “It’s absolutely off the charts, and I couldn’t be happier to see my school, because ULM is my school, thinking bigger in terms of what can be done with this program.”

Bowden thought the call was gone following an ugly departure from Auburn, his rapid ascent on the plains forgotten when the Tigers started 1-5 in 1998. Keep in mind Bowden’s record was 20-1-1 after two seasons, and one year before, Auburn pushed Peyton Manning and Tennessee to the brink in the 1997 Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

New ULM football coach Terry Bowden spent the past two seasons as a graduate assistant and analyst at Clemson. The former Auburn coach has hired a staff long on Clemson ties.

ABC Sports provided Bowden a new vocation just as lucrative, maybe more so than coaching, and way less stressful. Overtures by Miami and North Carolina led to new contracts and raises, so who needed the sideline?

Bowden did. The call healed those Auburn scars, though getting back in proved more difficult than getting out after a decade as a studio analyst. Spurned by alma mater West Virginia in 2008, Bowden accepted he’d have to start smaller.

Enter North Alabama: the oldest college in the state and a small school powerhouse. Bowden was on the Florence campus ready to call the Division II Championship Game when then-UNA coach Mark Hudspeth resigned for an assistant’s gig at Mississippi State. Athletic director Mark Linder slid a note under the door of the broadcast booth offering Bowden the job.

North Alabama wasn’t quite Auburn, but it was a significant improvement from other stops at Salem and Samford.

“Really it was the hardest job I had because they’d won 10 games where the other schools I’d had were bad the year before,” Bowden said. “I was willing to say I wasn’t the hot name anymore. The money wasn’t a factor, so I started over.”

Much had changed in Bowden’s decade-long exile. While his Auburn teams integrated a few spread concepts, these were now base offenses. The fullback belly and sprint draw pass belong to the Jefferson Pilot Sports mausoleum.

“When I started coaching, it was the I-formation – that’s what I cut my teeth on – but I learned you better be able to adapt,” Bowden said. “If you’re the first guy to put in the wishbone, you probably won a national championship. If you’re the last guy to take it out, that means you got fired.

“You want to be on the front end of the curve because if you coach long enough, people are going to figure you out.”

Bowden hired spread forefather Rich Rodriguez to fuse his run-heavy approaches at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona with tactics favored by the staff’s Clemson acolytes. On the other side, 27-year-old defensive coordinator Zac Alley is installing the same scheme as the Tigers.

The initial contact between ULM and Bowden occurred prior to the ACC Championship Game. Bowden told ULM athletic director Scott McDonald he was interested but preferred to meet after the game was played on Dec. 19. As Clemson pulled away from Notre Dame, Bowden received a text message from McDonald asking if he could meet with ULM President Ron Berry the next day.

ULM announced Bowden as its new football coach on Dec. 23.

“We were looking for someone who understood the technical aspect of football, but me as an academic, I was looking for leadership skills,” Berry said. “I can tell you we found the perfect person to create the right culture for student-athletes and bring pride not only to our athletic program, but this entire campus”

More:5 things to know about new ULM football coach Terry Bowden

Once the youngest coach in the country, Bowden is now one of the oldest, though still younger than Alabama’s Nick Saban. The goal at Akron was to coach until he turned 70, which leaves him five years to stage his most ambitious restoration project.

Auburn and Samford were merely down when Bowden arrived. This is a below sea level cratering.

The Warhawks haven’t won a game since beating Coastal Carolina on Nov. 23, 2019. The Chanticleers were a year away from becoming college football’s favorite plucky underdog, a title bestowed on ULM back in 2012.

Akron, 1-11 before Bowden, even managed one win. The closest comparison being the winless Salem team Bowden inherited in 1983. Rodriguez was the coach when Salem dropped football in 1989.

“That’s what I kind of thought was I’d go until 70, but that’s so much closer now,” Bowden said. “If we can get this to a winning program, then we’ll have a young guy on this staff that ULM will want to move up. They’ll be the guy, and I’ll help him fundraise for the next level of football.

“I’d like to have this program in a position one day to where there are young people on this staff ready to take over. That’s what I foresee, and I plan to go as long as I’m successful and can help.”

Follow Adam on Twitter @adam_hunsucker