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Twenty-one years later, the name tag remains in a dresser drawer. Every now and again, usually after a loss, Dave Clawson will retrieve the relic from another time, another existence, and remind himself that life could be much, much worse.

The name tag was from The Cooker Bar and Grill, a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, where he waited tables and avoided the indignity of being an unemployed 25-year-old with a master's degree. And he needed a hookup for that job. Fortunately, his college roommate was managing the joint and helped him graduate from the “server-training program.”

Ah, yes, Dave and the Cooker Bar and Grill.

It was part of a small restaurant chain that went out of business years ago, falling to hard economic times that followed Sept. 11, 2001. It will forever be there for him, even if in name only. It pushed him and, in many ways, saved him. It made sure he didn't get swallowed in an industry that consumed many a coach before him.

Clawson took the gig making $2.30 an hour plus tips after he was unceremoniously fired by an upstart program at the University at Buffalo. He was an offensive assistant, coaching running backs and quarterbacks, before UB made its ascension to Division I, and he was swept out the door with former head coach Sam Sanders.

“Every time I think that things are going tough or the season isn't going well, I see that little name tag from The Cooker Bar and Grill,” Clawson said with a laugh. “And I know it's not too bad.”

The Cooker Bar and Grill kept his dream intact. He stockpiled shifts for two weeks at a time and scrounged for enough money for gasoline and nights in cheap motels while visiting schools in search of a job. Twenty-one years later, life is good. Twenty-one years ago, he wondered if it could get any worse.

Looking back, it's strange how a short stint in a restaurant was a launching point that kept him grounded just the same.

To skip over Clawson's stops between UB and Bowling Green, where the former Lewiston-Porter High quarterback has resurrected a struggling program in less than four seasons, would be a great injustice. For his coaching career to end 21 years ago in Buffalo would have been a greater one.

Clawson returns with Bowling Green for a game against UB in Ralph Wilson Stadium for the right to play for the Mid-American Conference championship. It's the biggest game in years for either program. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Clawson, who hasn't stepped foot on the turf since he was a high school junior 30 years ago.

The Youngstown native led a Lew-Port team that included future Cowboys star Daryl Johnston to the 1983 Section VI championship game. He threw three interceptions in a loss to powerhouse Williamsville South. Years later, he's still irked more by UB firing him than anything that happened in that game.

“For me to get my first full-time job there, I mean, it's home for me,” Clawson said. “It's where I went to high school and where I grew up. That's what made it hard. In retrospect, we had lemons and ended up making lemonade. It ended up being beneficial, but any time you're let go, it's not a fun experience.”

Clawson took the long way home.

His road back was filled with potholes and detours. There were times in which he wondered if he was headed for a dead end, other periods in which his career appeared headed for a cliff. He lived the nomadic, unsettling and stressful lifestyle common among coaches in what evolved into a terrifying yet exhilarating journey.

Along the way, he gained experience and expanded his boundaries of creativity as they related to offensive football. Simply, he became a darned good coach.

His resume belongs on a scroll, one that hits the floor and keeps rolling the way he did after graduating from Williams College in 1989.

He was a graduate assistant coach for two years at Albany. He spent two more at UB, when Cliff Scott was the quarterback and Anthony Swan his top recruit, before being shown the door. It was during his time waiting tables that he secured interviews with, among other schools, Fordham and Lehigh.

Fordham turned him down as an assistant coach. Lehigh hired him as running backs coach for $3,500 a year, plus housing in a hotel paid by a corporate sponsor. Coaching barely paid the bills, but it gave him an opportunity to pay his dues. He was a single man driven by a single goal, to build a career from coaching.

The experience made him feel rich.

“I was making way more money waiting tables,” Clawson said. “But I still wanted to coach. If there was a jumping off point, that was it. I missed coaching a lot. I wanted to go somewhere where I was going to learn something.”

A year later, he was named offensive coordinator at Lehigh and began studying various versions of the West Coast offense and the benefits of opening up the passing game. Clawson spent three years at Lehigh and three more as offensive coordinator at Villanova, where he gained a reputation as an offensive genius.

In 1997, en route to Villanova going 12-1, Brian Westbrook became the first back to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

Fordham, the same school that years earlier turned him down during his days waiting tables, summoned him to bring its program back to respectability. Fordham for years rationalized that its high academic standards held back the program. Clawson changed the mentality and proved the value of finding bright kids who could play.

He was 31, the youngest Division I head coach in the country. Fordham was 0-11 his first year and 3-19 in his first two seasons. It finished 19-6 over his final two seasons. The win total was the most in consecutive seasons since 1918-19, a span that included Vince Lombardi and Fordham's famed “Seven Blocks of Granite.”

With the program back on track, Richmond hired him for the same reason. The Spiders were 3-8 his first year before rattling off three straight winning seasons and finishing 11-3 his final year. Clawson was on football's track to big-time college football, to Tennessee and the Southeast Conference.

It lasted nine months.

Clawson in 2008 was named offensive coordinator at Tennessee under Phil Fulmer amid whispers he was the Volunteers' head coach in waiting. Instead, the Vols limped to a 5-7 finish. Clawson's genius never had a chance to take hold. He was fired with Fulmer after the season, confirmation of a lesson learned at UB.

“At the time, I thought you worked for the school,” he said. “Really, you work for the head coach. Now that I've been a head coach three different times, I've kept a handful of assistants at each place. More often than not, I want to bring my own people. I get that.”

At age 46, married with two children, he returns with Bowling Green. The Falcons were 2-10 three years ago and 5-7 in 2011 before Clawson turned it around. Bowling Green's season looks eerily familiar to UB's with its 8-3 record overall, its 6-1 record in the conference, its blowout wins over Miami, Ohio and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of 152-10.

Clawson finds none other than UB standing in the way Friday, his son Eric's 12th birthday. He returns to Western New York, where it all began, where he first became a full-time coach. He's traveled the roads to success. But when he looks back and thinks about home, he sees himself staring out the window of the family car.

He was much like his own son, a boy uncertain about where life would lead him.

He has since made a name for himself.

“I still think that drive along River Road from Lewiston to Youngstown is as beautiful a drive as I've ever been on,” he said.

“When you look across the river and see Canada, when you go down to Fort Niagara and look across and see the needle in Toronto, it's absolutely gorgeous. You know, it's home.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com