Commentary

Bobby Bowden gave enough

Chicago coaches have plenty to learn from retiring FSU coach

Updated: January 2, 2010, 11:41 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

I thought it was the way all coaches were supposed to be.

What did I know?

When I began covering Bobby Bowden's Florida State football team for the Orlando Sentinel in 1986, I had been a sportswriter for only three years. Up until then, I had covered high school coaches who didn't believe women should be in the press box, much less covering their teams. And for one year after that, I had covered the legendary John McKay when he led the not-so-legendary Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1984, a year in which they won six games, which was a big improvement from their two victories in '83.

As a sportswriter, you had to appreciate any coach who answered a question about his team's execution by saying, "I'm in favor of it" without so much as skipping a beat. But by that point in his career, his last in coaching, McKay clearly did not want to be there, and Bowden is still the one by which I measure all others.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesBobby Bowden carries 388 career victories into his final game.

Bowden did want to be there every day of his coaching career. Still does and still would be next season if not for FSU officials all but firing him with an ultimatum in November that he, at 80 years old, had to accept.

I am thinking about him on New Year's Day because he is coaching his last game for Florida State in the Gator Bowl. I am thinking about him, as I often do while covering sports for a living, because so many coaches would be wise to follow Bowden's lead, but fewer and fewer seem to get it.

Bowden coached through scandals, politically incorrect comments, and -- worst of all in Tallahassee -- getting shellacked by the University of Florida. He leaves with 388 victories, second only to Joe Paterno. And though there are plenty of FSU fans who think it is Bowden's time, he still leaves as one of the most beloved and charismatic coaches of his and our generation.

I think about Lovie Smith, who has never so much as poked a toe into the waters of controversy the likes of Bowden during his 34 years at Florida State, and yet Smith is as walled off emotionally to the public as an embattled politician.

I think about Vinny Del Negro, who is undoubtedly enduring his most challenging period in a very brief coaching career and trying to keep a sense of humor, but is becoming increasingly defensive and distrustful.

I think about how difficult it is for a Bowden-esque guy like Ozzie Guillen to get away with being candid, and for the 66-year-old Lou Piniella with being 66.

At the first hint of a stutter, a lifelong trait, Piniella is seen as doddering. At 66, Bowden didn't know his players' names any better than when he was 46. But he was still in his prime, his team finishing 11-1 and third in the final AP rankings and presiding over a dynasty in which he would lose only five more games in the next four years. He went undefeated and won the national championship in 1999 at age 69.

I think about Joel Quenneville, as qualified a coach as there is in hockey, highly respected and liked by his players, perfectly affable toward the media, and yet I somehow wish, as I do of all coaches, that he could show a little lighter side to his personality.

But I understand. I do. When Bowden went 6-5 and lost out on a bowl bid in 1981, he wasn't worried about being shown the door. And it was only because of his legendary status that he wasn't shown the door when the real skid started three years ago.

Bowden was given breaks, no question. There was the free-shoes scandal in '93. The academic scandal in '06, when non-football staffers at FSU were accused of helping football players cheat on tests in an online music course. He has defended players who have broken the law, most notably writing a letter to a judge on behalf of Michael Gibson, a serial rapist who once played briefly for FSU.

Mike Bianchi, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, in his words "absolutely destroyed" Bowden in a column afterward. The next time Bianchi saw Bowden, who was said to be upset by his words, the coach greeted him with a pat on the butt and a "Hi, buddy, how you doin'?"

When Bowden's retirement announcement was made, Bianchi paid tribute to a beloved coach, calling it a "dark day" and noting the irony that at 45, Florida coach Urban Meyer was physically burned out and on the verge of quitting, while at 80, Bowden was hungry for more. At one point, Bowden said that if someone had offered him a five-year contract, he would have signed it then and there.

"But I didn't win [enough] dadgum games to deserve it," Bowden said.

You want a chuckle? Throughout Bowden's career, reporters could call him at home, and if they didn't have his phone number, they could look it up in the Tallahassee phone book. I had to do it once or twice, and I was nervous until he greeted me like a niece calling to wish him a merry Christmas.

We would speak to him in his office, even before games, if one so desired, which one reporter did at length every single game for years with no objection from Bowden. And at the end of your questions, it was always, "You got enough?"

On Sunday mornings, we had breakfast with him and dissected the game. And then he'd bid those of us leaving town goodbye with his standard question, "You flyin' or drivin'?"

Did Bowden con all of us in the media into giving him the benefit of the doubt over the years because of his unprecedented access to him and his unfailing good nature? Maybe. But it is hard not to see a man's sincerity when you are given the opportunity to get to know him, to read his loyalty to players as more faith and forgiveness.

You used to be able to get a Bears coach, even Smith at the start of his tenure here, alone for a quality interview or simply added insight. In the days of the old Halas Hall, you could walk a player out to his car to just chat in private.

Now, as mandated by the league, the Bears let you into their locker room on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but you'd be hard-pressed to find more than the same handful of players actually willing to talk in a group setting for a minute or so. Colleges are worse.

Some get it, like Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who seems to coach with the same exuberance and humility today as he did when he took the job under tragic circumstances after the death of Randy Walker four years ago. You only hope he doesn't change much, that the times don't force him to change.

They never did it to Bowden.

Years after covering Bowden and Florida State, I had the occasion to visit him in his office, and it was still decorated in old-school coach, lined with his trophies, photos and books on World War II, and tinged with that same familiar scent of Bengay and sweat that used to make my eyes water.

"You got enough, gal?" he said.

I'd give anything for one more trip there.

I'd give anything to have coaches still care if you got enough.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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