Tale of the Coaching Tape: Nick Saban vs. Bobby Bowden

Alabama Athletics

Christopher Walsh

One of the most memorable phone calls that Nick Saban ever received was shortly after his father died in 1973, when he was a graduate assistant at Kent State.

“This is Bobby Bowden,” said the voice on the other end from West Virginia, located roughly 25 minutes away from where Saban grew up. The Mountaineers’ football coach had known Saban’s father, knew that his mother was having a bit of a tough time, and offered more than just condolences.

“If you need to come home, if you want to be a coach, I’ll create a graduate assistant position for you so you can do what you need to and be around your mother,” Saban recalled Bowden saying.

It’s a story that both have told numerous times, including 37 years later when Saban won the inaugural Bobby Bowden Coach of the Year Award, and two of the subsequent three.

“His rise in coaching is just unsurpassed,” Bowden said.

That’s coming from someone who enjoyed a meteoritic progression of his own.

Bowden’s first head coaching job was at South Georgia Junior College (1956-58), which led to a four-year stint at Howard, now known as Samford University (31-6, 1959-62), and then West Virginia (42–26, 1970-75).

Meanwhile, Florida State, which until the late 1940s was a women’s school, didn’t start playing football until 1947, when Ed Williamson was appointed the first coach weeks before the inaugural season and there was no stadium, scholarships, budgeted salaries or nickname. The program wasn’t ranked in an Associated Press poll until 1964, when it lasted two weeks at No. 10 until a 20-11 loss at Virginia Tech. It occurred during Bill Peterson’s reign, when from 1960-70 the Seminoles went 62-42-11 and played in four bowl games, including a 36-19 victory against Oklahoma in the 1965 Gator Bowl.

But in the three seasons before Bowden arrived in 1976, Florida State was 4-29, including a horrendous 0-11 in 1973 that prompted talk of dropping the program.

“I tell you, everything’s changed so much from when I started, we had nothing,” Bowden said about first arriving at Florida State in 1976. At the time, it was $500,000 in debt, fans weren’t attending games and he had to sell Seminoles football to everyone.

In addition to recruits, Bowden set up a speaking tour throughout the state of Florida to raise money, and continually worked the media. He wrote in his autobiography Bound for Glory that at the time he thought of only two jobs that could have been worse, being elected mayor of Atlanta shortly after Sherman’s March or being the general who volunteered to replace George Custer during the last siege of the Little Big Horn.

“At West Virginia, they sold bumper stickers that said ‘Beat Pitt. When I came to Florida State, they sold bumper stickers that said “Beat Anybody,” he quipped.

But Bowden went from believing Florida State to be a stepping-stone for him, to turning it into a program similar to the ones he hoped to someday run like Alabama.

Over 34 years he coached more than 1,000 Seminoles and notched 300-plus wins, to easily outdistance the seven previous Florida State coaches combined. His teams won two consensus national championships, 1993 and 1999 after numerous near-misses, two Heisman Trophies (quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke in 1993 and 2000, respectively), and at least a share of 12 Atlantic Coast Conference titles despite FSU being an independent Bowden’s first 16 years in Tallahassee.

The 1993 championship was somewhat controversial in that Florida State had lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular-season meeting at Notre Dame, 31-24, a week before the Fighting Irish lost to No. 17 Boston College, 41-39. Although West Virginia was undefeated (and went on to lose to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, 41-7), FSU played No. 2 Nebraska for the national championship at the Orange Bowl, and won 18-16. The final rankings had Florida State No. 1, and 11-1 Notre Dame, which defeated Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl, 24-21, second.

In 1999, Bowden recorded his only perfect season when Florida State defeated No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, 46-29. Wide receiver Peter Warrick caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Weinke in the first quarter, returned a punt 59 yards for another score in the second quarter, and made a sensational catch of a 43-yard bomb to put the game away.

“Right before that play, I asked the offense, ‘Do you want me to finish them off?’” Warrick said. “They said, ‘Yeah.’”

“We had to make a decision to win the game right here or sit on the ball,” Bowden said. “He called about four guys over and he really said it to them.”

Bowden’s the only coach to ever lead his team to 10 or more wins over 14 straight seasons (1987-2000), during which the Seminoles finished in the top five of the Associated Press poll each year and were the preseason No. 1 team five times. During that string FSU went 152-18-1.

For the 1990s decade, Florida State finished 109-13-1 for a .890 winning percentage. Bowden also had an amazing 14-game unbeaten streak in bowl games (1982-95), though there was a 17-17 tie to Georgia in the 1984 Citrus Bowl.

“We’ve always told our players, ‘You’re the only team living in a dynasty,’” Bowden said prior to the 2001 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, which was the national championship (the Seminoles lost, 13-2). “’Bama was in a dynasty, Notre Dame was in a dynasty, Miami was in a dynasty, so-and-so was in a dynasty. We hope we keep it alive.”

Overall, Bowden won 411 games, with 12 vacated by an infractions ruling and the NCAA not counting his junior-college record, giving him a final record of 377-129-4, which when Florida State did not let him go out on his own terms placed him second to Joe Paterno in Division I wins (346 at major schools). However, sanctions handed down by the NCAA on the Penn State coach vacated all of his wins from 1998-2011, making Bowden the all-time career leader.

Regardless, on September 24, 2004, FSU honored him with a bronze statue in front of the Moore Athletics Center on campus.

“There’s not a gentlemen in this business who has more dignity and class, and honesty and integrity as Coach Bowden,” said Saban, who faced Bowden as a position coach, coordinator and head coach and lost all three meetings. “I never heard him say a bad word about anyone in our profession, or anybody anywhere, anytime. In a day in age where everyone negatively recruits and tries to kill everybody else, never did it once. Always won, always classy when he won and was always classy if he wasn’t fortunate enough to win. There’s no one in our profession I have more respect for than Bobby Bowden.”

Nick Saban vs. Bobby Bowden

(Statistics through 2018 season for consistency purposes)

Category Saban; Bowden

Seasons 23; 40

Consensus national titles 6; 2

Top five finishes 9; 15

Top 25 finishes 16; 27

Overall record 232–62–1; 346-123-4

Percentage 78.5; 73.6

Losing seasons 0; 2

Bowl record/CFP 140-10; 22-10-1

Percentage 58.3; 68.2

Conference titles 9; 12

Conference record 138-42-1; 105–27-z

Consensus All-Americans 41; 31

First-round draft picks 34; 32

Record against ranked teams 82-40; 79-65-1

Percentage 67.20; 54.48

Record against top 10 teams 42-21; 38-44-1

Percentage 66.77; 46.39

Record against Saban: 1-0


National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons; 20

Consensus All-Americans 1.78 every season; .78

First-round draft picks 1.48 every season; .80

Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; 1.98

Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; .95

z-West Virginia was independent, and Florida State was until 1992.

Some of the information in this report was also used in the book "Nick Saban vs. College Football."


The Saban Files