I am sure that most of the folks that worked with Coach Bowden experienced the same thing I did the day the news broke that he was terminally ill. Messages flooded into my phone asking for confirmation and how he was doing, but after the initial flurry, I began to get messages asking how I was doing.
One such message from a prominent national writer read “…I wish I’d had a chance to cover him in his glory days but he was always incredibly kind to me and generous with his time…”
My message back might say it all about the legend we have lost. “The greatest thing about Coach is he is like that with everyone. What a privilege for all of us.”
I truly believe that there has never been a coach of any sport that was more rewarding to work for, more fun to play for, more engaging to cover (from a media perspective), more sincere in his love of people and more genuine than Bobby Bowden. There’s no dadgum way!
Well, there might have been some who matched those qualities, but they never matched his achievements.
But don’t get the impression throughout this admittedly fawning story that Coach Bowden was not tough, not competitive or somehow not as responsible for his wins as other coaches.
For those who have never seen the bear part of the teddy bear that was Coach Bowden, one of my strongest memories was in 1987 as we were just about to burst on the national scene.
Running back Sammie Smith was a rare combination of tremendous strength and remarkable speed and a great deal of the Seminole offense that year would be built around the sensational back who played his best in the big games.
During a typical grueling pre-season practice, Sammie went down grabbing his knee and screaming at the top of his lungs. All three practice fields instantly froze and a glance was all anyone needed to know what the impact of #33 laying on the turf meant. Even tough-as-nails offensive coordinator Wayne McDuffie, who prided himself on his Marine-like countenance, had a look of fear on his face.
Bowden showed no emotion as he blew three quick bursts from his whistle and moved the drill up just 10 yards, continuing the practice with “the season” laying right there. No words, no panic, no “woe is me”…just leadership. Fortunately, Sammie was back at practice after a week or so, and Bowden, without saying a word, had reminded his players that they were a team.
There are countless other examples of Coach Bowden showing his tougher side and many times when his assistant coaches sat back in locker rooms listening to him challenge a team without dropping a single curse word or occasionally letting one slip.
Surprisingly, Coach rarely had animated pre-game speeches. He usually talked calmly to the team reminding them of the specific plans they put in during the week, challenging them to play as a team and always imploring them to never quit.
Sure there were times like when he stood in front of the team as he did in the bowels of Ben Hill Griffin and asked them if they were scared? Then, screamed at them “Are you scared?” If they were, they weren’t after that.
I didn’t see all that many pregame speeches but of the ones I did my favorite was at Michigan in 1991. We were ranked No. 1 and Michigan No. 3. It was one of the toughest tickets in Wolverine history and the press box was as full as the stands. The team filed into the dinky locker room after pre-game warmups and gathered around Coach for his final message.
I’ll have to paraphrase here, but he talked very softly while shaking his head. “Men, that’s a heck of a football team we are going to play today. I know we usually defer to the second half if we win the toss, but captains I want you to take the ball first. I didn’t want to say anything this week, but their offense is loaded. Defense, their offensive line is huge. They got a good quarterback and a great receiver. I’m scared we won’t get the ball too many times today.”
As you can imagine the locker room was stunned. Players were turning and looking at each other as Bowden turned his back on the team. Then, with his typical timing, he spun on his heels and yelled “like hell I am…we’re gonna beat the living…” The rest of the speech was completely drowned out by a football team on its feet, jubilant, frenzied and screaming louder than any fan would that day. Bowden just pointed to the door to the field and I’ll guarantee you – no one could have beaten Florida State that day.
We all got to see the program rise to national prominence and Coach Bowden’s ascension to legendary status as ESPN cut its college football teeth on FSU football. We got to watch Coach get a kick out of Deion Sanders whose swagger was about as far from Coach’s nature as you could get, but he recognized that harnessing talent and personality like that was the worst thing he could do. We saw him literally father Warrick Dunn, and handle the high-powered 1999 team with flawless expertise.
We saw him take his program into stadium after stadium that chewed opponents up and spit them out only to come away with victories that even left opposing fans impressed. In fact, the game that Bowden himself said might have been the most important win ever was a great example of that.
The business office in the athletic department pushed harder than anyone for the 1980 Seminoles to take a big paycheck and play at Nebraska. We had a good football team having gone 11-1 the previous year and we entered the season in the Top 15 proving our worth with a 16-0 win over LSU in Death Valley to open the season. But this was the third-ranked Cornhuskers and they never lost at home.
FSU fought and scrapped and got up every time they were knocked down and when the smoke had cleared, the Seminoles prevailed 18-14. So stunning was the performance that Bowden and his Seminoles were cheered all the way off the field by Cornhusker fans still shocked at what they had just witnessed.
The truth is no one before or since was better at winning than Bobby Bowden. And if you wonder what his colleagues thought, get a load of what one of them, insisting on anonymity, told Mike Freeman for his book BOWDEN – How Bobby Bowden Forged A Football Dynasty.
A man who coached against Bobby Bowden was asked a simple question: Just how good is the legendary Florida State coach? writes Freeman.
“…Bobby’s team was in to play us,” says the former college coach, now in the NFL, referring to a time period within the past several decades, “and we were scared to death of Florida State. They were killing teams. They were winning by huge margins and running all kinds of trick plays. They were very intimidating.
“So we did some things I regret to this day. One thing we did was send someone to spy on his practices. We saw a lot of their plays and what they were planning to do. Mainly we saw some of their trick plays they were practicing. We got tons of information.
“Then we put microphones in the visitor’s locker room of our stadium. We heard just about everything before the game and at halftime [that] Florida State was planning. At halftime, we listened to what Bobby told the team. We knew some of the plays they were going to run. Bobby and his assistants were talking about defensive stuff too. We stole a bunch of stuff.
“…So how good a coach is Bowden? We had some pretty good players on our team when we faced him. Our coaches were cutthroat _ _ _ _ _ _ _ with no conscience, but we were good. We spied on his practices. We wired his locker like we were the damn CIA. We did all that, and he still beat us. I thought after that, ‘This is the greatest coach I’ve ever seen.’ Nothing has happened since then to change my mind…”
Of course, it wasn’t always an easy road as we also all saw Florida State, and Coach Bowden, suffer some of the cruelest losses the game has ever dished out headlined by the wide rights against Miami that surely would reveal a flaw in him. It didn’t.
Guts – I’ll give you the “Puntrooskie” call at Clemson
Coaching Prowess– how about 14 seasons among the nation’s Top 5.
The list goes on and on.
His last act as a coach provided the perfect ending for this most remarkable of men. He won his last game against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. He spent 50 minutes talking to the trove of media stuffed under the stadium and probably would have talked 50 more. But Ann made her way down from the back of the room and up to the podium, kissed Coach on the cheek while he was in mid-sentence and said under her breath, “come on Bobby, it’s time to go home.”
Faith, Family and Football. He left everyone a road map to the serenity and focus that made his a truly exceptional life.
And it was, indeed, a privilege!