When Furman and The Citadel renewed the longest rivalry in Southern Conference history last Saturday, much was at stake for both teams. As much as the Bulldogs needed the victory, the stakes were much higher for the men from the Upstate.
And you can double that for Paladin head coach Bruce Fowler.
Oh, Furman wasn't going to "Kiffin" him or anything, and fire him by the Bell Tower right after he rolled back onto campus. But that doesn't change the fact that Fowler has to be looking over his shoulder by now, especially when he is a blocked field goal away from being 0-3 against the Big South.
While Furman is not Southern Cal, their fans and boosters occasionally suffer from what one might call "88 Syndrome". It's the same disease that is sometimes found in heavily orange sections of Pickens County, where it is known as "81 Syndrome". During the days of Dick Sheridan and that eventual National Championship in 1988, the Paladin faithful became a little curmudgeonly and a bit spoiled.
So the calls for the end of Bruce Fowler's tenure have started to rumble, even at a school like Furman. But Saturday's win might quiet them, at least a little.
The problem is that to many fans think these are still the days of Sheridan, the man who coached Fowler as a player and truly began the Furman football tradition in the late 1970s. Just get the smartest players you can find, get them in the weight room, play disciplined football and you can overcome the obvious obstacles that Furman faces in enrollment, recruiting, volume of fan base, etc. I mean, it worked in 1985 and 1988 and 2001, right?
But these are not the days of Sheridan. Everyone is in the weight room, studying film, and executing on offense at a maximum level. All-time Furman greats like Stanford Jennings or Chas Fox, or even Louis Ivory and Ingle Martin, don't often slip through the recruiting cracks these days. Bruce Fowler is a throwback to Sheridan, but he's still learning to operate in a vastly different era.
Add in the fact that the Paladins are carrying 44 true or redshirt freshmen on their roster and have only a sophomore quarterback with any game experience. Starter Reese Hannon spent time on the bench Saturday night with his second injury in four games. It's pretty hard to cut him loose to do all that he can do.
The good news last Saturday is that the young players stepped up big-time on Saturday night, including Hannon's true freshman backup QB Duncan Fletcher. It's one more indicator that Fowler's group is growing up a little, and nothing builds confidence than winning games.
Last season, Furman could not close out games, even when they had a lead. In their last two contests, they've held off a charge from their opponents and finished the task to even their record at 2-2.
Fowler's team needs to go at least 5-6 this year. With the win over the Bulldogs and a struggling Elon team coming to town this Saturday, they are giving themselves an opportunity to get there. No one considers that a satisfactory record, and certainly it's nowhere close to anyone's expectations for the program. But it's realistic progress for a team and a coach that are building in a brand new era.
The fans need to show some patience here, and enjoy the progress that this experience-challenged team is making. After all, this is not 1988, and Bruce Fowler needs the time to build a new era of Paladin football.