Bobby Bowden was the last of his kind -- a charming southern coach
The last time I talked to the old coach was in October. I was in the middle of writing a book and I needed some of
We chatted by phone on a Monday morning and Bowden delivered the goods. It was a solid 20 minutes -- professional, informative and, as always, entertaining. All other issues aside, every writer with a whit of passion for college football should have had the chance to hear living history from Bowden. At the end of the interview, I thanked Bowden for his time, told him it was good to talk again. I wished him good luck because, hell, it was pretty obvious he needed it; two days earlier Florida State had lost at home to South Florida.
Here is what Bowden said at the end: "Thanks, buddy. I enjoyed that. I love talking about that old stuff. Nobody ever asks me about it much anymore.''
I was speechless, and sadder than I can describe, because in the five seconds it took Bowden to speak those words I understood that it really was time for him to leave. The embarrassing fall of the Florida State dynasty that Bowden built was tangible evidence enough, but hearing in the man's voice longing for another time was visceral evidence. When you start to look back too hard, it's over, and it probably wasn't going to end well in Tallahassee.
And it didn't. On Monday, Bowden was forced out as head coach at Florida State after 34 years, painted into a corner and given an ultimatum that he couldn't have -- and shouldn't have -- accepted. He did the right thing by refusing to accept a figurehead sideline role, even if that's what he's been doing for many years. And Florida State did absolutely the right thing by pushing him aside. The younger version of Bowden would tell you in that voice as soft as butter, it's all about winning. Florida State needs to move on.
Aging is unfair. I've got an 82-year-old father who taught me how to pump fake a rolled-up cornerback and now he needs a little help getting around. But the vast majority of people are allowed the dignity of growing old privately. Bowden grew old with 90,000 people watching every Saturday afternoon and it's painful that to some he became a punch line. But all of that will pass, and Bowden will be remembered largely for what took place in the years between 1987 and 2000, when he presided over what was arguably the greatest sustained run of success in college football history.
In 14 years, the Seminoles never won fewer than 10 games and never finished a season ranked lower than No. 5 in the country (in 10 of those years, they were in the top three). They won two national championships, three times lost the national championship game and three other times lost games in the regular season that probably cost them at least a chance to play for other national titles. In an age when college football was killing dynasties, Florida State was utterly dominant.
The coach, meanwhile, was an icon, maybe the last of a 20th century breed, the southern football coach who towered over his program, bigger than governors. Probably too big.
Bowden ran his program with a disarming, folksy charm. He must have been holy hell in living rooms all over the South, putting his arm around some high school linebacker's mother's shoulder and telling her everything would be all right. He often delivered sermons in panhandle churches, God right there alongside the Multiple I formation.
He was much the same with media. Back in November 1993 he was getting his Seminoles ready to play Notre Dame and telling stories about his old friendship with
Prior to the Fiesta Bowl national championship game in January 1999, Bowden delivered a sermon at a sprawling church outside Phoenix. When the time came, Bowden was summoned to the lectern by the pastor, who began by asking Bowden, what he does, after so many years of marriage, to make things right with his wife after they've had a fight.
Bowden stood in front of the church, letting the question hang in the air. He always had great comedic timing. He rubbed his chin. Finally Bowden looked up and said, "There's not really much I
That was a persona that Bowden created for the public. That was him, to be sure, but he played it bigger than life. There was another side to the man, because you don't win 388 college football games telling jokes and eating some grandmother's pecan pie. In 1996 Florida was the best team in college football and
In late November, the Gators came to Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. Four days before the game I sat with Bowden in his end zone office overlooking the field. In that conversation he lamented his diminishing place in the game (yes, even then). "Next time I go to a coaching convention it's going to be me and
But there was something else afoot. Florida State's defensive coaches had found some holes in Spurrier's protections. With
In that game, Florida State laid a vicious beatdown on soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner
There was ample evidence that Bowden ran a loose ship. In the spring after his first national title, SI exposed a wild, agent-funded shopping spree at a local shopping mall. Six years later, in his second national title season, wideout
As the late '90s became the 2000s, Bowden's program fell into mediocrity. That proved a much greater sin than having players break rules or laws. It always does.
But time moves quickly now, more quickly than ever. Bowden's last, struggling years will be forgotten, his dynasty remembered for as long as college football is played.