Football, family on Bowden's mind at Hall induction

NEW YORK -- On the day that he would receive the highest honor there is in college football, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden wondered aloud about failing as a father.

Twelve hours later, Bowden would not only be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he would receive the Gold Medal from the National Football Foundation. It would be the cherry on top of a career that began more than 50 years ago, a career that has spanned 365 victories and two national championships.

But for the first time since 1976, his first season in Tallahassee, Bowden did not finish the regular season with a winning record. The Seminoles are 6-6, largely because the "low battery" light flashed on the Florida State offense all year, and not for the first time.

The offensive coordinator, Jeff Bowden, became the focus of the venom spewed by fans and media members looking to assign responsibility for an offense that finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing (95.8 yards per game) and 10th in turnover margin (minus-10).

Jeff Bowden, Bobby's youngest son, resigned on Nov. 13, two days after Florida State lost at home to Wake Forest, 30-0. He had been his father's offensive coordinator for six seasons.

Of Bobby Bowden's three football coaching sons, only Tommy, the head coach at Clemson, still wears a whistle around his neck. He has a career record of 78-41 (.655). Terry, fired by Auburn in 1998, never came back to coaching. He had a record of 111-53-2 (.675).

Bobby sat over coffee Tuesday in the lobby restaurant of New York's most venerable luxury hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, guest and building alike still vibrant long after their peers have faded away. He said he could enjoy the honor in spite of the angst and frustration he endured this season. His team finished 6-6, and his son bore the brunt of the blame.

"The worst season I've had in 31 years, and yet I get the highest award," Bowden said. "Anytime something bad happens to me, something good follows."

As he spoke about the season just concluded, he cupped his chin in his left hand. It was not the pose of someone basking in the glow of achievement.

"I just want Jeffrey to be happy," Bowden said. "I put him under a stress I shouldn't have put him under. I should have led him in a different direction."

In his book, "The Bowden Way: 50 Years of Leadership Wisdom," written with his son Steve, Bobby Bowden wrote, "Sometimes the most unfair thing you do to a person is to allow him to continue his employment after the situation has become untenable."

Bobby wouldn't address the issue of whether he believed that Jeff had run out of football tenability. He couldn't. He couldn't bring himself to that point.

"That's a hard one to answer without getting family in it," Bowden said. Well, yes.

"I've always made it tough on my children," he continued. "When Tommy played for me at West Virginia, I made it very tough on him. Terry was the same way. When Jeffrey played for me at Florida State, I was tough on him. I always thought if I had it to do over again, I'd give them a few breaks. As I look back, I wish I had treated them like everybody else. There were times I wanted to start them and I started another one. I didn't want to look like I was showing favoritism."

In "The Bowden Way," Bobby listed his four priorities, in descending order: God, Family, Others, Football. For more than half a century, Bobby Bowden managed to maintain those priorities, in descending order, and still win games. When the winning began to slow, Bowden did not flinch. He remained true to his beliefs. Jeff resigned, Bobby said, because he feared he had begun to chip away at his father's stature.

On the day that Bobby Bowden's stature would be celebrated by his entire sport, he looked back at the sport that has been a part of his life since, literally, he was at his daddy's knee in Birmingham.

"From the age of 1 to 5, I lived adjacent to the Woodlawn High football field," Bowden said. "This is back when Woodlawn was it. They were the champs."

He took an offered notebook and drew a diagram of the high school, the practice field and his house. All that stood between one end zone and the Bowden backyard was an alley and a big, bushy fence.

"I couldn't see over it," Bowden said. "We had a garage right there. Daddy would climb up there and I'd get up there and we'd watch them practice. Imagine, you'd go out in the yard to play and you'd hear guys kicking a ball. You'd wonder what was going on.

"I moved from there, 3 miles away. And here was Howard College's practice field. My house was half a block away, down a hill. We lived there for 13 years. I'd go outside and hear the same things.

"All my life, I've been right next to a football field. I never knew nothing else."

A statue of Bobby Bowden stands outside Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. It is literally larger than life. He performed a football miracle at Florida State, taking a small school with little heritage and turning it into a national power, the pillar around which the Atlantic Coast Conference built its expansion.

Florida State is 6-6 going into the Emerald Bowl against UCLA on Dec. 27 (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The Seminoles have won only seven of their last 17 games. Bowden has just watched his son lay down his career in order to prevent his father's from being further harmed. That would be tough for any parent to take.

"But you know what?" Bobby Bowden asked. "There's basically nothing that would surpass the fact that I was with him for six years. I didn't get to do that with Tommy. I didn't get to do that with Terry. I didn't get to do that with Steve. The six years [Jeff] was there, I got a chance to be close to him, enjoy him. Things didn't work out. The situation didn't fit for some reason."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.