When David Dowd accepted the challenge of starting a football program at Charleston Southern in 1991, there was no staff, no stadium, no locker room.

For Dowd, that was no problem. He quickly started interviewing prospects who might want to be on the ground floor of building something. When 126 kids showed up for the first meeting, there weren’t enough helmets for everybody.

Still ... no problem.

When the first game was played against Methodist, a school with a 2-year-old program that had never won a game, the opening kickoff was returned 97 yards for an opponent’s touchdown. (Actually, at the time, that was a minor problem).

For the cowboy boot wearin’, slow Southern drawl talkin’ son of a North Carolina preacher, the goal was always to build a foundation. For 12 years, he did his best to lay those building blocks.

He still smiles when remembering the baloney sandwiches on the side of the road as the post-game meal. (By the way, a player could have mustard or mayo, not both).

He laughs when recalling CSU President Jairy Hunter’s suggestion that maybe the head coach not feel like he must do all the grass-cutting on the practice field.

Dowd, 60, fondly remembers taping his coach’s show in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Moncks Corner. At the time, he was wearing so many hats he often wondered if he’d actually ever have a moment to really do any coaching.

Staying connected

Those 12 years as the head coach at CSU ended 29 years in college football for Dowd. Since then, he’s coached and taught at the high school level. He misses it and still feels his feet belong on a football field.

Dowd still looks for ways to teach life skills. He’s proud that 50 of his former players are now coaching high school football.

One former player, Shawn Wright at Cross High, once said of Dowd, “he’s the only white man to ever say I love you.”

The coach created a mentor program at CSU that allowed some of his players to eat lunch on Friday’s with at-risk students. He’s not sure that helped them win many games, but he’s certain it laid the foundation for making many of those young men better husbands and better fathers.

Again, he and his staff were trying to build something.

Dowd recently moved to the Upstate where his wife landed a job as a financial aid director at one of the state’s tech schools.

He’s landed a part-time job in the Clemson Athletic Department where he’s in charge of a study hall for athletes two nights a week. It allows him to stay connected with young people and provides them with somebody who cares. He wants to hear their stories and they quickly learn they’re probably gonna hear some of his.

A helping hand

Dowd sends new CSU coach, Jamey Caldwell, a text every week saying “Good Luck.” He’s afraid to attend a game because he jokingly fears if the Bucs lost, somebody might blame him.

Maybe riding that tractor on the Bucs practice field took its toll. In recent years, he’s had hip replacement, knee surgery and spinal stenosis. He’s still proud, though, of the groundwork he helped lay and the success the program is enjoying this year.

It’s not unusual for Dowd to sometimes scribble football plays on a napkin. He has attended a couple of Clemson games, but quickly grows weary of the things fans yell at coaches and 19-year-old kids. He’d much rather watch from the sidelines where he can see the sweat, smell the dirt and hear the pop of the pads.

Every great accomplishment is reached by standing on the shoulders of those who were there before you.

Nothing can be built on a shaky foundation. Dowd’s been back on campus twice since he left in 2003. With just one game left at home during this unforgettable year, it might mean the world to an old coach to have a chance to come back to see what he helped establish. Besides, he’s probably got one or two new stories to share.

Reach Warren Peper at wpeper@postandcourier.com.