They spent a wonderful week together last July. Bobby and Ann
Bowden, married 49 years, parents to six children, grandparents
to 21 and ensconced as the First Couple of Florida State
football, up and left Tallahassee in the middle of the fierce
Florida summer and went to Italy. The trip was sweet with
nostalgia, because two decades ago, when Bobby would conduct
summer football clinics at military bases in Germany, he and Ann
would rent a car and tour the European countryside. They were
tourists again, like any ordinary senior citizens shuffling about
Rome. (At least as ordinary as any celebrity football coach with
the means to stay in a five-star hotel and to hire a personal
guide.) During a hike up from the catacombs, where Bobby had
indulged his history jones by retracing the steps of the
apostles, Ann teased her husband. "I hope you notice," she said,
"that there aren't too many old people climbing these steps." As
hints go, it was as subtle as pepper spray.
Bobby Bowden's life is like that of any other 69-year-old: a
succession of reminders--sometimes loving, sometimes harsh--that he
is not as young as he used to be. He once played basketball at
lunchtime; now he takes a nap. He once worked until midnight; now
he is at home for dinner, counting accursed milligrams of
cholesterol and trying to fight chocolate urges. He longs for the
days when film study was done with a noisy projector because
nowadays he nods off while watching tape on a quiet VCR. In long,
leisurely conversations with Ed O'Toole, a 61-year-old civil
engineer from Birmingham who played for him at Howard College in
the late '50s and is now one of his closest friends, Bowden will
talk about golf, football and old buddies. "Some of whom," says
O'Toole, "have passed away."
Bowden has not surrendered to this galloping mortality. He has
struck compromises, though. Ten years ago he started observing
practice from a metal tower instead of scrabbling around the
field trying to oversee all the drills, and a year ago he began
driving a golf cart from his office to the practice field
instead of walking. He brings tape home instead of staying at
the office for marathon planning sessions. "As you get to be my
age, you look for new ways every year to hang on as long as you
can," says Bowden. "I'm trying to prolong my career because I
love it so much."
His coaching survival has enabled him to partake of an
extraordinary season, which will finish on Jan. 4 when Florida
State plays Tennessee for the national title at the Fiesta Bowl
in Tempe, Ariz. Since his team began the season ranked No. 2,
Bowden has endured much. There was the 24-7 loss at North
Carolina State on Sept. 12, which he called one of the most
disappointing of his career. Then came the ugly resignation of
his son Terry, as coach at Auburn on Oct. 23. Finally, a
season-ending neck injury on Nov. 7 to 26-year-old sophomore
starting quarterback Chris Weinke left the Seminoles' offense in
the hands of sophomore Marcus Outzen, who was recruited expressly
as a backup. After all that, on the afternoon and night of Dec.
5, as Bowden sat at home nervously eating Chips Ahoy cookies
dipped in peanut butter and watching on TV, previously unbeaten
UCLA and Kansas State both lost, sending Florida
State--unexpectedly, magically--to Tempe.
The Seminoles have won at least 10 games and been ranked no lower
than fourth for 12 straight years, a run of excellence
unprecedented in big-time college football. However, the vagaries
of the game have left Bowden with a single national title (1993)
and one other opportunity in what amounted to a championship game
(a 52-20 loss to Florida in 1996). It was no surprise that when
Florida State athletic director Dave Hart visited Bowden late on
the night of Dec. 5, Bowden looked like a child on Christmas
morning, repeating giddily, "I can't hardly believe it."
Tommy Bowden, the third of Bobby and Ann's six children (the
second of four boys), who guided Tulane to an 11-0 record this
season and a berth in the Liberty Bowl before accepting the
coaching job at Clemson, says his father is "unquestionably the
CEO of Florida State football." That's a nice title, but what
does it mean? Elaborating, Tommy says, "He's a great delegator,
incredibly good at handling staff." If these words weren't spoken
by a family member, they could be interpreted as damning with
faint praise, but Bobby doesn't dispute the basic truth of his
son's evaluation, he embraces it. "I'm so lucky," says Bobby.
"I've got such a good staff. They just handle everything. I have
to answer mail and talk on the phone and go to press conferences.
I would not have this job if I had a poor staff."
A question rises from this slightly disingenuous, white-bread
explanation: When you are a nearly septuagenarian football CEO,
resigned to golf carts, towers and mere celebrity after having
once coordinated the offense and energetically patrolled the
practice field, what, exactly, are you?
Lots of things, it turns out. You are a dinosaur with only a
handful of contemporaries still coaching. You remain a coach at
heart, wedded to the systematic deconstruction of an opponent,
given to the selection of a killing play on Saturdays. You are a
father to the players you recruited and to the children you
raised with your wife, hanging on their successes and failures.
You are a motivator, born to fill a room with the sound of your
voice. You are human, mystified by the swift passage of years,
recalling how, at age 26, employed in your second coaching job,
as an assistant at South Georgia College, you grew out your crew
cut to look older than your players. "I was always too young to
be a coach," Bowden says. "Now I'm too old."
He was reminded of this on Nike's annual coaches' outing in
Cancun, Mexico, in which he has participated since 1980. Back in
those days Vince Dooley, Johnny Majors, Barry Switzer, Grant
Teaff and Bill Yeomans were among the guests. They're all out of
coaching. Bowden looked around at last summer's gathering and saw
LaVell Edwards, Joe Paterno and a bunch of kids. "You say to
yourself, Am I pushing this too far? Should I get out and let
younger people take over?" he says. But he has always been
competitive. When he and O'Toole briefly coached together at
Howard in 1959, they would have at a batch of thick chocolate
fudge made by O'Toole's wife and see which of them could eat the
most before taking a drink of milk. Accordingly, Bowden's impulse
to leave football to the younger coaches always dies quickly.
"About the time I get ready to give it up, my conscience tells
me, Nah, you can still kick 'em all on Saturdays," he says.
Conventional wisdom has it that Bowden kicks 'em without doing
any real coaching himself, scuttlebutt that he does nothing to
discourage. But the truth is that during practice he stands on
his tower with a pencil and a tiny notebook, scrutinizing nearly
every drill and rep. "You make a mistake, he'll see it and you'll
hear about it," says Seminoles junior All-America defensive
tackle Corey Simon.
Offensive coordinator Mark Richt took over the principal
play-calling from Bowden in 1996. After an emotional win at Miami
that fall, Bowden stated publicly that he was no longer calling
plays because Richt had asked him to stop "messing him up." It
was a startling admission for Bowden, whose reputation had been
forged on offensive creativity, and seemed to foretell his
retirement. Except that it wasn't true. Bowden has continued to
call plays occasionally, with Richt's blessing and encouragement.
Bowden called the 46-yard pass that All-America wideout Peter
Warrick threw for a decisive touchdown in the Seminoles' 23-12
win over Florida on Nov. 21, the victory that kept their title
hopes alive. "He didn't call the formation and personnel group
and all that," says Richt. "He just started saying, 'Run that
thing with Peter! Run that thing with Peter!' But it was the
right call at the right time in the right place."
Three days after the losses by UCLA and Kansas State, Bowden sat
in his office overlooking the field at Doak Campbell Stadium in
Tallahassee. The old man in him sniffled and coughed, fighting a
cold and craving sleep. His secretary brought him soup. The old
man still mourned over Terry's suffering and despaired of the
trustee's power play that father and son insist left Terry no
choice but to resign. "I always thought there was a system in
America where if you're doing good [Terry's record at Auburn was
47-17-1] and have a bad year [the Tigers were 1-5], you get
another chance," Bobby said. "That's what I got at West Virginia
in 1974. But this dadgum coaching profession...."
The young man in Bowden is sitting in his office, holding a
clicker in his right hand, watching tape of Tennessee-Florida,
breaking down the Vols' D. "This is where I get my biggest
thrill, looking for a flaw in the other guy's defense," he says,
stopping and starting the tape. "It's like you're in a writing
contest and you find out the other guy doesn't dot his i's. You
say to yourself, I got him. I dot my i's." Stop. Start. Stop.
If drawing up a strategic blueprint enlivens Bowden's brain, the
recruitment and motivation of players touches his soul.
Recruiting drives many coaches out of the game, but it excites
Bowden. "I like to visit kids, like to talk to them and talk with
their families," he says. His work in the homes of prospects is
legendary. Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler tells the story
of Bowden's coming into the Jacksonville projects in 1986 and
turning a menacing environment into The Bobby Bowden Show just by
pointing to the Seminole on his shirt pocket and saying, "We came
to see LeRoy." In 1991, when Bowden went to Pensacola, Fla., to
visit Derrick Brooks, now a linebacker with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, he held Brooks's five-year-old sister on his lap
until she fell asleep. Brooks's mother started to move the child,
but Bowden said, "Don't you move this gal; you let her stay here
until I leave."
The endings aren't always happy. In the winter of 1995 Bowden
begged Florida State president Sandy D'Alemberte to allow him to
give a scholarship to a West Virginia kid named Randy Moss, who
had been sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to
two counts of battery during his senior year of high school.
Though the university is reluctant to admit students with
criminal records, D'Alemberte agreed to a compromise suggested by
athletic director Dave Hart: Moss would be admitted but would be
redshirted for his freshman year. "[Moss] sat right where you're
sitting," said Bowden, pointing across his office desk. "I told
him, 'Son, I like to give boys second chances, but you've already
got two strikes. You can't make a mistake.'" Moss spent the fall
of '95 playing on the Seminoles' scout team, torching the
first-team defense for touchdowns. In the summer of '96, however,
he tested positive for marijuana, and Florida State dropped him.
"He begged me to take him back, offered to pay his own way," says
Bowden. "I was crazy about that young man, but I had to tell him
The Moss incident cuts close to the heart of Bowden's greatest
frustration. He is old-fashioned in his insistence that he can
quietly save the most incorrigible youth. Instead, the public
mistrust of college football demands noisy suspensions and
floggings in the square. Bowden's program was put on five years'
probation (with no loss of scholarships) in the wake of the
infamous Foot Locker shopping spree, funded by a recruiter for a
sports agent, which took place in the fall of 1993. The seven
players involved had already used up their eligibility, but
Bowden insisted that they make restitution before they received
their national championship rings. "I just hate to punish a kid
to satisfy the public," Bowden says. "Time was when I could just
take his scholarship away or what we call 'break his plate'--take
him off training table. We could handle things inside. I try to
look at it like I'm their daddy, or their grandfather."
This is the role he fills when he addresses his team, especially
on the Friday nights before games. He keeps the outline of every
one of his Friday talks in a drawer on the left-hand side of his
desk, and on this afternoon, he pulls out a copy of his notes
from the night before this year's Florida game. He runs his
finger across and slowly down the page. The words are written in
a mix of printing and script, tidy and legible.
This game is for men, NOT boys....
'97 Fla. O.L. whipped our front 7....
SRS. won't let us lose!
"When the man speaks, it is pure inspiration," says Outzen.
Bowden's voice is that of a man who preaches 30 Sundays a year in
churches all across Florida, rising and falling to fit the
moment, connecting with people young enough to be his
grandchildren. "When I can't talk to kids, I'll get out," says
Bowden. It is the voice of a man getting older, but refusing to
"my conscience tells me, Nah, you can still kick 'em all on
save the most incorrigible youth.