Commentary

Bowden's legacy goes beyond the game

Updated: December 1, 2009, 7:39 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Time finally caught up with legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireBobby Bowden built the Seminoles into one of college football's greatest dynasties.

Bowden, who built the Seminoles into one of college football's greatest dynasties and was the patriarch of one of the sport's most famous coaching families, announced his retirement Tuesday after 34 seasons on the FSU sideline.

Bowden, who turned 80 last month, will coach the Seminoles in their upcoming bowl game. Next year, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who had worked as Bowden's coach-in-waiting the past two seasons, will become only FSU's second coach since 1976.

Bowden leaves a legacy that reaches far beyond the game of football and his role as a coach. Famously known for his Southern charm and witty one-liners, Bowden often spent Sunday mornings preaching at church pulpits across the country, using his lofty position to help spread his Christian faith. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes named its national citizenship award after Bowden in 2003.

"Faith is the most important thing in the world to me," Bowden said. "It's the greatest strength I've had. It's helped me get through the hard times. You're not going to win every one of your football games. I've always said I'm not going to make football my god. A lot of coaches put so much into coaching football games that they have nothing left. I've never made football my priority. My priorities are my faith and my dependence on God."

Bowden, who won more games than every major college football coach except Penn State's Joe Paterno, guided Florida State to 388 victories and two national championships, in 1993 and 1999. Bowden retires ranked first among active coaches in winning percentage in bowl games, second in bowl victories and second in bowl appearances.

Bowden was the first coach in NCAA history to lead his team to bowl games in 27 consecutive seasons, including a remarkable 15 straight appearances in prestigious New Year's Day bowl games. At one point, Bowden's teams won 11 consecutive bowl games. He is also the only coach in NCAA history to lead teams to 14 straight seasons with 10 victories or more.

Bowden and Paterno, who are the only coaches in NCAA history to win 300 or more games at one school, were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 5, 2006. Both were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame while still actively coaching. In honoring two of the sport's greatest coaches and ambassadors, the Hall of Fame's governing body waived a rule stipulating that coaches must be retired for three years before being inducted.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden and Joe Paterno
Al Bello/Getty ImagesBobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are the only coaches in NCAA history to win 300 or more games at one school.

Florida State named the playing field at Doak Campbell Stadium after its longtime coach in 2004. A bronze statue of Bowden's likeness also greets visitors to FSU's Moore Athletics Center.

The popularity of Bowden's football program helped Florida State grow into one of the country's largest public universities. From 1909 to 1947, FSU was known as the Florida State College for Women until it returned to coed status. FSU didn't field its first football team until 1947 -- more than four decades after the University of Florida fielded its first team -- and didn't award athletic scholarships until 1951. Florida State president T.K. Wetherell was a Seminoles wide receiver from 1963 to 1967 and was coached by a young assistant named Bobby Bowden.

Bowden coached 26 consensus All-Americans, including multiple winners of college football's greatest individual awards. Quarterback Charlie Ward, who led FSU to its first national championship, won the 1993 Heisman Trophy. Chris Weinke, who was the first three-year starter at quarterback under Bowden, won the Heisman Trophy in 2000. Ward and Weinke were among three FSU quarterbacks to win the Johnny Unitas Award, and Seminoles players also won the Thorpe, Butkus, Davey O'Brien, Lou Groza and Lombardi awards during Bowden's tenure.

Under Bowden, FSU became one of the great training grounds for future NFL players. An FSU player was selected in the NFL draft every year from 1984 to 2009, and nearly 30 of Bowden's former players were NFL first-round selections. More than 150 former FSU players were drafted by NFL teams after Bowden was hired to coach the Seminoles.


As much as college football changed during the more than four decades Bowden stood on the sideline, his life away from the game has seldom wavered.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
AP PhotoWith the Mountaineers from 1970 to 1975, Bowden compiled a 42-26 record.

Bowden and his wife, the former Julia Ann Estock, live in the same house in Tallahassee they bought when he was hired at FSU in 1976. They even have had the same phone number for more than three decades. Their number has always been listed in the local phone book, even after pressure mounted on Bowden to win more games near the end of his tenure.

Bowden never drinks or smokes and rarely curses. He was known for taking his players to church once a year, and rarely misses a Sunday service himself.

"I can hardly remember not being a believer," Bowden said in the book "I Saw Him in Your Eyes" by author Ace Collins. "I was always going to church with my mom, dad and sister. I was literally raised under the godly influence both at home and church. There was no alcohol and no smoking at our house. That was the way a Bowden was supposed to live. My dad always told me to represent the Bowden name in a respectful manner. I grew to understand that meant living with the highest moral values. I knew that just being a Bowden meant I could not be involved in anything that would reflect badly on our name."

Bowden often preached those same principles and values to his players.

"Coach Bowden was a father figure to all of us," said Andre Wadsworth, an All-America defensive end at FSU in 1997. "The first day, he told us he didn't want us sleeping with women because he thought sex should be saved for marriage. He told us he didn't want us drinking, even after we turned 21. He told us he was going to treat all of us like his sons, and that's what he did. He cared about us -- more than he cared about football."

Football kept Bowden away from his wife and six children, but three of his sons played on his college teams and later followed him into coaching. Tommy Bowden was the coach at Tulane and Clemson, leading the Green Wave to a 12-0 season in 1998. Terry was the coach at Salem (W.Va.) College, Samford (Ala.) University, Auburn and North Alabama, leading the 1993 Auburn team to an 11-0 record. Jeff worked on his father's FSU staff as wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator from 1994 to 2006.

Bobby Bowden said he never pressured his sons to follow him into coaching.

"I did not encourage them to be coaches, and I didn't want them to get into coaching," Bowden said. "I did not want to compete against them, and I didn't want them competing against each other."

In 1999, Florida State and Clemson met for the first time with Bobby and Tommy Bowden on opposite sidelines. The game was dubbed the "Bowden Bowl" and was the first major college football meeting of father-son coaches. FSU won the first Bowden Bowl 17-14, the first of four straight victories for Bobby Bowden over his son's teams. Clemson upset No. 3 FSU 26-10 in 2003 -- on Bobby Bowden's 74th birthday -- knocking the Seminoles out of the national championship race.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesFather and son, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, right, faced off for the first time in 1999.

Bobby Bowden had a 5-4 advantage over his son in head-to-head meetings before Tommy was forced to resign as Clemson's coach midway through the 2008 season. In the end, the pressure of the Bowden Bowl was too much, especially for the family's matriarch.

"You see blood hurting, husband or son," Tommy Bowden said in 2005. "Somebody's hurting Sunday, which reflects back on her. We get paid well to hurt. She doesn't."

Bobby Bowden was criticized for keeping Jeff as the Seminoles' offensive coordinator even as his teams struggled mightily. Jeff resigned after a 30-0 loss to Wake Forest on Nov. 11, 2006, the first time FSU had been shut out in 232 games. It was an episode that haunted Bowden until the end of his coaching career.

"This is a big loss to me personally," Bobby Bowden said shortly after his son resigned. "His decision is an emotional one for me."


Robert Cleckler "Bobby" Bowden was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 8, 1929. His father, Bob Bowden, worked at the First National Bank of Birmingham. His mother, Sunset Cleckler Bowden, was a homemaker. Although Bowden's father survived the Great Depression, his grandfather, a home builder, went broke and moved into the family's home in the Woodlawn section of Birmingham.

As a young child, Bobby Bowden spent many fall evenings sitting on the roof of his family's garage with his father. The roof provided a perch over hedges for Bowden to see the practice fields of Woodlawn High School, which had the best football team in the city. Many of Woodlawn High's players attended Bob Bowden's Sunday school class at the neighborhood Baptist church.

In 1934, Bob Bowden moved his family to the East Lake section of Birmingham, into a home that was about a half-block from Howard College. Bobby Bowden started playing football at the YMCA at age 9. On Sunday afternoons, neighborhood boys would meet at Howard College's practice fields for touch football games. Among the East Lake boys who played with Bowden was Harry Gilmer, who would later became his favorite player as the University of Alabama's star quarterback.

"All my life, I've been right next to a football field," Bowden told ESPN.com in 2007. "I never knew nothing else."

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesBowden, who learned to love football as a child, never tired of teaching the game.

At the age of 13, Bowden suffered from rheumatic fever and was plagued by swelling in his knees. He spent six months in the hospital and was confined to bed for nearly a year after he returned home. While in bed, Bowden developed a love for, of all things, war. He became enthralled by World War II radio reports from faraway battles in France, Germany and other parts of Europe. Without TV, Bowden envisioned the battlefields in his mind and contemplated the strategies of generals.

"I basically listened to a play-by-play of World War II for a year," Bowden said in the book "The Book of Bowden" by Julie and Jim Bettinger. "I would imagine what every place looked like: what the terrain of the battlefield was like, what the army units looked like, and how the sounds and smells of the war must have been. I had a pretty good map in my head of where things were in Europe and I even began to learn which generals were leading which units."

Bowden also developed a great love for college football while he was ill. He listened to radio broadcasts of Alabama football games on Saturday afternoons. His father bought him a football strategy board game, and Bowden often played out games he was listening to on the radio. Bowden dreamed of one day playing for Frank Thomas, who coached the Crimson Tide from 1931 to 1946. But Bowden first had to convince his doctors that he was healthy enough to play sports again.

Bowden enrolled at Woodlawn High School after recovering from rheumatic fever in 1945. Doctors advised him against playing sports, so Bowden focused his energy on music. He was first chair in the school's orchestra and a trombonist in the school's marching band. Bowden played with the Lee Jordan Band at Saturday night dances at the Rose Club. He dreamed of playing in the University of Alabama's "Million Dollar Band" and even attended band camp in Tuscaloosa for five weeks in the summer of 1945.

Of course, Bowden's favorite song was, "Yea, Alabama!" Bowden would later hum the Crimson Tide's fight song to calm his nerves before games in his rookie season as a head coach at West Virginia in 1970. He loved Alabama that much.

"To me, there was no other school," Bowden told ESPN.com in 2007. "I was so avid that I can even remember crying. I remember praying, 'God, please help them win.'"

The only thing Bowden loved more was playing football. Before his sophomore year of high school, Bowden persuaded his parents to get a second opinion from doctors. Bowden's parents were told their son's heart was strong enough to play football again, so he went out for the Woodlawn High varsity team in 1946. Bowden promptly broke his thumb and missed all of his sophomore season. He returned the next season and became one of the city's best halfbacks.

Bowden accepted a scholarship to play football at Alabama in 1948. Howard had been replaced by new coach H.D. "Red" Drew, but Bowden was still living his dream when he played on the Crimson Tide's freshman team.

Oddly enough, Bowden lasted only one semester in Tuscaloosa. He quickly became homesick for Estock, his high school sweetheart, who would become his wife of more than 60 years. Bowden, then 19, and Estock, 16, eloped on April 1, 1949, with Bowden driving his father's shiny new Ford to a church in Rising Fawn, Ga. Bowden knew married players couldn't remain on scholarship at Alabama, so he transferred to Howard College, which was only a few blocks from his parents' home.

Bowden played halfback and quarterback for Howard College (now Samford University) for four seasons. His teams went 4-5 in 1949, 2-8 in '50 and 2-3-1 in '51. He was named "Little All-America" as a senior in 1952 after leading Howard to a 5-4 record.


After graduating from Howard College in 1953, Bowden earned his master's degree while commuting to Peabody College in Nashville. He and Ann also had a growing family. A daughter, Robyn, was born in 1951, and their oldest son, Steve, was born in 1952. The children stayed with Bowden's parents while Bowden and his wife finished school.

Bowden returned to his alma mater as an assistant football coach and head track coach in 1954, earning $3,600 annually. He left Howard in 1956 to become athletic director and football coach at South Georgia Junior College, where he won three state championships. Bowden returned to Howard as head football coach in 1959 and inherited a team that had endured six consecutive losing seasons. He went 31-6 in four seasons.

[+] EnlargeBear Bryant
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireAlabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant became Bobby Bowden's idol during Bowden's years at Howard College in the 1950s.

While coaching at Howard, Bowden traveled frequently to Tuscaloosa to watch the Crimson Tide practice. Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant became Bowden's idol. Bryant was fond of Bowden and often sent him players who couldn't cut it with the Crimson Tide.

In 1963, Bowden joined Bill Peterson's FSU staff as wide receivers coach. Bowden spent three seasons in Tallahassee before moving to West Virginia as the Mountaineers' offensive coordinator in 1966. He was promoted to head coach in 1970 after Jim Carlen left for Texas Tech. Bowden's first team at West Virginia finished 8-3 in 1970 but was most remembered for blowing a 35-8 halftime lead in a 36-35 loss to rival Pittsburgh. Two years later, the Mountaineers finished 8-4 but lost to NC State 49-13 in the Peach Bowl.

West Virginia slipped to 6-5 in 1973 and 4-7 in '74, and the pressure on Bowden was mounting. With 17 starters back, including All-America wide receiver Danny Buggs, the 1974 team was expected to be very good. But the Mountaineers lost their top two quarterbacks to injuries and lost their opener against Richmond, 29-25.

Soon, West Virginia fans hanged Bowden in effigy. Students hung a sheet outside a dorm room that read, "Bye-bye Bowden." Bowden saw the sign each day he walked to his office. Fans also placed a "for sale" sign in the front yard of Bowden's home. Ann Bowden removed the sign before her husband could see it.

"I can't forget that," Bowden told reporters before FSU played West Virginia in the 2004 Gator Bowl. "I saw how quick people will turn on you. I saw how quickly friends would turn on you, how quickly people who used to invite me to parties quit inviting me."

The Mountaineers rebounded with a 9-3 record in 1975, including a 13-10 victory over NC State in the Peach Bowl. After the 1975 season, Bowden was coaching in a college all-star game in Tampa, Fla. He received a phone call from FSU president Stanley Marshall and athletic director John Bridges about the Seminoles' vacant coaching position. Bowden had sought the FSU job after his first season at West Virginia in 1970, but FSU officials didn't feel he was ready. FSU hired Tennessee defensive coordinator Larry Jones instead. Jones and his successor, Darrell Mudra (who coached from the press box instead of the sideline) were a combined 19-37 in five seasons from 1971 to 1975.

With the FSU program reeling, Bowden finally was offered the job. It was a decision that would forever change the face of FSU and college football. In 1976, Bowden's first season, the Seminoles finished 5-6, which, remarkably, was his only losing season at FSU. The Seminoles went 10-2 in 1977 and 8-3 in 1978. The 1979 team -- which was led by Bowden's first senior class -- went 11-0 in the regular season. The Seminoles lost to Oklahoma 24-7 in the Orange Bowl. FSU went 10-2 in 1980, upsetting No. 3 Nebraska 18-14 on the road. Bowden believes that was the victory that put his program on the map.

"Up until that point, I don't think a lot of people had heard of Florida State," Bowden said. "Maybe they had heard of Florida State down in the South, but not all over the country. But after that game, people everywhere were saying, 'Who's Florida State?'"

It wouldn't be long before the entire country knew who the Seminoles were. The 1981 FSU team finished 6-5 after laboring through one of the toughest schedules in college football history. In five consecutive games that became known as "Octoberfest," the Seminoles played road games at traditional powers Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU and went 3-2 in that stretch. Still an independent at that point, FSU's football team had to help the athletics department balance its budget.

In the 1986 season -- Bowden's 11th season at FSU -- the Seminoles finished 7-4-1 and were invited to play in the All-American Bowl. As soon as FSU arrived in Bowden's hometown of Birmingham, Alabama coach Ray Perkins resigned to become coach of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alabama fans knew whom they wanted as their next coach -- Bowden. He met with Alabama officials but was told that university president Joab Thomas wanted him to go through a full-scale interview. Bowden left the meeting and removed himself from consideration for the job.

When Crimson Tide coach Bill Curry resigned three years later, Alabama officials called and offered Bowden the job -- without an interview -- but he respectfully declined.

"I thought I was supposed to go back there, you know it?" Bowden told ESPN.com in 2007. "You know how you feel like you're just kind of being led someplace? I'm thinking, 'Boy, it's funny how my career is. I'm going to end up back where I always wanted to be.' And I just thought it was meant to be. But it wasn't."


Bowden's destiny was to coach at FSU, even if he didn't know it at the time. When Bowden accepted the coaching position at FSU in 1976, he thought it would be another steppingstone to a more attractive job in his native Alabama. After having spent the previous decade in West Virginia, Bowden wanted to reacquaint himself with Southern college football fans. And after seeing FSU's 1981 schedule for the first time, he hoped he wouldn't be in Tallahassee for very long.

"I never really came here to stay," Bowden said. "It just ended up happening that way."

In more than three decades as FSU's coach, Bowden never had any reason to leave. The 1987 FSU team finished 11-1, which started a streak of 14 consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories. The Seminoles finished in the top 5 of the final Associated Press Top 25 poll every season from 1987 to 2000. After joining the ACC in 1992, FSU won its first 29 ACC games and didn't lose to a league foe until a 33-28 loss at Virginia on Nov. 2, 1995. FSU won ACC titles in each of its first nine seasons in the league.

Bobby Bowden vs. Miami
AP Photo/Phil CoaleBowden didn't win his first national championship until 1993, and Miami was largely the reason.

But Bowden didn't win his first national championship until 1993, and in-state rival Miami was largely the reason he had to wait. In 1987, FSU's only defeat was a 26-25 loss to Miami. The next season, the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 in the preseason but lost to the Hurricanes 31-0 in their opener. Miami beat FSU seven times in eight seasons from 1985 to '92, with many of those losses costing the Seminoles a chance to play for the national championship.

FSU's most famous loss to Miami came in 1991, when the No. 1 Seminoles lost to the No. 2 Hurricanes 17-16 after FSU kicker Gerry Thomas' 34-yard field goal try sailed wide right with 29 seconds to play. The play infamously became known as "Wide Right." The very next season, FSU lost to Miami 19-16 when Dan Mowrey missed a 39-yard field goal -- how else? -- wide right on the final play.

"As good as we were, we didn't win a national championship until 1993, mainly because we kept losing to Miami on missed kicks," Bowden said. "I used to get mad because nobody else would play Miami. Notre Dame would play them, then drop them. Florida dropped them. Penn State dropped them. We would play Miami and lose by one point on a missed field goal, and it would knock us out of the national championship. I didn't want to play them, either, but I had to play them. That's why I said, 'When I die, they'll say, 'At least he played Miami.'"

Florida State finally beat Miami, 28-10, in 1993. The Seminoles lost at No. 2 Notre Dame 31-24 in their 10th game but recovered to beat NC State and Florida to end the regular season with an 11-1 record. Bowden won his first national championship when No. 1 FSU defeated No. 2 Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl. Ironically, the Seminoles won the game after Cornhuskers kicker Byron Bennett's 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left on the final play.

Bowden added a second national championship in 1999 -- at age 70 -- when the Seminoles finished 12-0 and became the first team to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1-ranked team in the country.

"They always said, 'He can't win the big one,'" Bowden said. "When you finally win it, it was more of a relief. When we won the second national championship, it was more of an accomplishment. You were No. 1 in the country from start to finish, which had never been done before. That was a great accomplishment."

Bowden's dynasty was criticized at times for players' misconduct and what some perceived as his soft hand at punishment. All-America cornerback Deion Sanders helped FSU beat Auburn 13-7 in the 1989 Sugar Bowl, but it was later discovered that Sanders had quit going to class and hadn't taken exams the previous fall semester. The state's board of regents passed an attendance rule that became known as the "Deion Rule."

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden & Charlie Ward
AP PhotoBowden coached 26 consensus All-Americans, including 1993 Heisman winner Charlie Ward.

Shortly after FSU won the 1993 national championship, Sports Illustrated published a cover story that alleged that at least seven Seminoles players participated in a $6,000 shopping spree at a Foot Locker store. The shopping spree allegedly was paid for by an associate of a sports agent, which would have made the players ineligible under NCAA rules. The incident led then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier to call his team's biggest rival "Free Shoes U."

In FSU's 1999 national championship season, star receiver Peter Warrick, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and Laveranues Coles were charged with receiving deeply discounted merchandise from a department store. Bowden was criticized because he kicked Coles off the team but only suspended Warrick for two games. In FSU's 46-29 victory over Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, Warrick caught six passes for 163 yards with two touchdowns and returned a punt 59 yards for a score.

Before that same bowl game, Bowden was criticized for not suspending All-America kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who had missed the team's curfew in New Orleans. Bowden joked that he didn't have "Warsaw rules" for his Polish-born kicker.

In 2002, FSU quarterback Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team after he was charged with stealing checks to pay off gambling debts. It was alleged that McPherson bet on FSU football games. He pleaded no contest to felony theft and forgery charges and misdemeanor illegal gambling.

"I don't care what they say," Bowden said. "I'm in charge of 115 boys. If I have five get in trouble, I have 110 who didn't. That's a pretty good average, but we'll be criticized for it. That's our society today. I've always been pretty tough. You probably get a little more understanding as you get older, but I've always felt I was pretty tough when it came to discipline. People have always called me a second-chance coach, but that's the way I was raised. If people hadn't given me a second chance, I'd have never made it."

Florida State's biggest scandal came in the 2007 season. Shortly before the Seminoles played Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, the school suspended more than two dozen players for cheating in an online music course. An investigation found 61 student-athletes in 10 sports received improper assistance in the music course. The NCAA placed FSU on four years' probation, cut 19 athletic scholarships and ordered the school to vacate victories by teams whose student-athletes were involved, including 14 of Bowden's 382 career victories.

"In 50 years of coaching, I've never been accused of cheating," Bowden said. "Now they want to penalize me for something I didn't have a part in."

Bowden wondered how the scandal would affect his legacy.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
AP Photo/Doug MillsBowden retires ranked first among active coaches in winning percentage in bowl games.

"When I do retire, I would like for them to say, 'He was one of the greatest coaches and did it the right way,'" Bowden said. "I'd hate for them to say, 'He was a great coach, but he cheated.' I'd hate for them to say that. It would be sad."

After losing to Oklahoma 13-2 in the 2001 BCS National Championship Game, Bowden's program began to slide. The team that had set the standard for college football in the 1990s won 10 games in only one season from 2001 to 2008. Many FSU fans began to wonder whether Bowden had lost his touch. But Bowden continued to coach beyond his 80th birthday, hoping to return FSU to the sport's upper echelon one more time.

FSU offensive coordinator Fisher, who played quarterback for Terry Bowden and coached with him at Samford, was named Bobby Bowden's eventual successor near the end of the 2007 season. The plan was for Fisher to coach under Bowden until the end of the 2010 season. If Fisher hadn't actually succeeded Bowden by January 2011, FSU's booster organization would have owed him $5 million.

"You always have that goal to get back to a national championship," Bowden said. "That's one thing about college football -- there's always motivation. Every year, there's motivation and hope. In football, your past doesn't mean anything. It's all about, 'What have you done for me lately?' A 7-6 record; that's what you've done lately. That's why I'd like to get us back before I get out."

But after FSU finished the 2009 regular season with a 6-6 record, losing six games for the third time in four years, Bowden was forced to retire. Fisher has agreed to a five-year contract to become FSU's coach; a source said the deal will be announced later this week.

"I've seen so many people retire and die," Bowden said. "My dad retired and died a year later. Coach Bryant retired and died a month later. After I retire, there's only one great event left. I've just never had a desire to retire."

Dadgummit, college football will never be the same without him.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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