Coach Bobby Bowden has won football games and hearts at Florida State University
Watching the pristine, perfectly manicured green grass of Doak Campbell Stadium seemed so peaceful and, in some ways, cathartic.
It was August 2004 and my mother, Lucy, had passed away about a week earlier. I was in Tallahassee when I got the call, preparing for media day and Florida State’s first week of practice. I rushed home, helped my sisters and brother prepare for a service, delivered a eulogy, and returned, hoping that the excitement of the start of the season might help with the healing.
Then I got a message saying that Bobby Bowden wanted to see me in his office.
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I remember precisely the day. I can still imagine myself facing Bowden as he sat behind his desk, the empty stadium to my right. I remember the big screen Bowden was watching the tape on. Footballs line the shelves. Trophies, pictures, books, military collectibles – behind his faith, family and football, the next importance in Bowden’s life was his passion for military history – like a WWII helmet . The wooden Seminoles head engraved behind Bowden’s desk and the statue of an American Indian on a horse, a gift from Burt Reynolds.
But what I remember most is our conversation and how different it was from the hundreds of other conversations I’ve had with Bowden. It was not about football. It wasn’t me asking the questions like I always did since I first met Bowden in 1982. It was about life and the coach asking me about my mom – Who was she? How was his life? How were his last days? – and see how I was.
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It was one of the few times in my 40 years at this business that I have had such a deep and personal conversation with someone that I have covered. But if I look back – and it’s not to despise the many other wonderful and caring people I’ve come to know while working in this profession – that’s what defined Bobby Bowden, who passed away on Sunday at the age 91 after this was revealed. in July, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
There was something different about top coaches in Bowden’s day – Steve Spurrier, Howard Schnellenberger, Tom Osborne, LaVall Edwards, Frank Beamer, to name a few – that we lost in the trainer of modern times.
And Bowden stood above them all. Perhaps the most revered of his generation, he was surely unique with his rustic, folkloric charm – no one did ‘dadgummit’ better – which is why so many mothers and fathers sent their babies to Tallahassee to be cared for and cared for. by Bowden.
Bowden was, in their eyes, the closest thing to a second father.
Bobby Bowden was as caring and respectful as anyone I have known. Not that others weren’t, but Bowden was one of a kind. Maybe even a paradox. A man who has spent his entire life in an intense and ruthless profession where tenacity is sometimes defined by the number of games you played with broken bones, who was as sweet, graceful and forgiving (sometimes to excess) as any of his peers. A devout Southern Baptist, Bowden never confused his priorities.
But make no mistake, Bowden was still a successful and successful football coach, winning 389 games (377 recognized by the NCAA) in his 44 years of training, including two national titles and 12 ACC titles in the during his 18 years in the league.
Bowden lived his retired life as one would expect: modest, around family
I spoke to Bowden last summer, before he was hit with COVID-19. He looked like he always did, greeting me with “Hey, buddy” and ending our conversation like he had done several times.
“Call anytime. I always like to talk with you.
He then told me his golfing days were over. He said he was “hampered” when walking due to recent hip surgery. He shared his daily routine – watching the news, going for a walk around the pool, reading and responding to emails.
And he was recently out of the house when he took his wife, Ann, to the dentist. They pulled into a drive-through on the way back.
It was the classic Bobby Bowden. Always respond to emails. Driving his wife to the dentist. Have a meal in a drive-thru service. Living in the same modest house on the Killearn Estates golf course they purchased in 1976.
And, yes, still listed in the phone book – if you’re under 40, google it – under: “Robert Cleckler Bowden”.
Think about it. Imagine taking a phone book in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and going to the White Pages and finding the name: Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.
And it was Bobby Bowden who, unsurprisingly, liked to send letters, some handwritten, from pen to paper. Others typed by his longtime assistant, Sue Hall.
Letters to all. Family members and friends. Colleagues and those just looking for inspiration. Recruits… mostly recruits.
And sports journalists. Yes, sports journalists.
I don’t know how many I received, but digging through old files I found five dating back to 1983. Each had the same theme: thanking me for a recent article I sent to FSU or that Bowden had sent him through a friend, complimenting me on this article (which I enjoyed but knew I was not the only one) and sometimes adding a personal touch to it.
One thing was for sure: while he may not have typed the keys of the typewriter, these are his words. Nothing in these letters showed that they were simple form letters.
And the man could tell a story – whether on a podium or on the training ground or every Sunday morning meeting members of the media in what became known as “Breakfast with Bobby”… Bowden was as good at telling stories as he was at coaching football.
When Bowden and his family revealed he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness – later confirmed by his son, Terry, to be pancreatic cancer – ACC was in the middle of his football kickoff .
People began to remember. Telling their favorite Bowden stories, some even wondered where ACC football would be now if Bowden and FSU hadn’t joined the conference, giving it immense credibility, in 1992.
It is about a man who started his coaching career at a major college with his likeness hanging in an effigy in Morgantown, W.Va., and ending it with a larger than life statue in Tallahassee.
A man who once said “They’re going to chisel on my gravestone … ‘But he played Miami’,” after a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to the Hurricanes in 1991, a game known as Wide Right I; and “it’s only about 6 inches that turns that halo into a noose.”
Another thing Bowden once said: “I guess I’ll retire someday if I live that long.”
Bowden has lived a long, fulfilling life, long enough to coach for 55 years and make an impact on thousands of young men. This impact will be eternal.
We will miss him. Dadgummit.